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U.S. Strongly Defends Saudis in Fight on Terrorism

Administration points to help in tracking Al Qaeda's money trail as the royal family admits to an indirect link to two Sept. 11 hijackers.

November 26, 2002|James Gerstenzang and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration Monday strongly defended Saudi Arabia's role in the war on terrorism after Saudi officials acknowledged that the wife of the kingdom's U.S. ambassador may have unwittingly supported two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The disclosure of an indirect financial trail from the Saudi royal family to two Saudis who lived in San Diego before boarding the plane that crashed into the Pentagon triggered sharp congressional criticism of Saudi behavior.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush "does believe the Saudis have been a good partner in the war against terrorism."

In particular, he singled out Saudi Arabia's assistance in tracking Al Qaeda's money trail, and taking steps to cut off the terrorist organization's financing.

Both U.S. and Saudi officials sought to repair any lasting damage to the long relationship between the two countries at a time when the kingdom is deciding whether to allow the Pentagon to use its military bases, and fly through its airspace, if the United States attacks Iraq.

The financial connection surfaced over the weekend with the disclosure that money from an account of Princess Haifa al Faisal, the wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom's ambassador to the United States, had gone to two Saudi families, one of whom then provided help to two of the hijackers.

Justice Department officials in Washington and in Southern California say they have found no evidence suggesting the princess or any Saudi officials knowingly helped the hijackers. The chief Saudi spokesman here, Nail al Jubeir, has insisted that the princess never meant to assist the terrorist conspiracy.

The issue is drawing attention to the reach of the Saudi royal family, and to the anxieties that are rampant as the Bush administration and the Saudi leaders view each other warily.

In the nearly 15 months since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, the kingdom has come under increasingly negative scrutiny in the United States.

But a Saudi spokesman voiced optimism that the result of the new scrutiny may be to "show how much we have been cooperating in the war on terrorism."

"It's unfortunate that some people jump to conclusions based on half-truths and rumors. There is nothing there and people are trying to make connections that don't exist. But then, some people don't think the moon landing happened," Al Jubeir said.

Among experts in U.S.-Saudi relations, the idea that a member of the royal family would seek to further the Al Qaeda goals drew derision. That is because Osama bin Laden, the terrorist group's leader, is deeply opposed to the Saudi leadership and seeks to bring about a sharp break between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

"If Osama's alive, he must be ecstatic. This is his plan at work. This is what he wanted to produce and now he's got it," said Chas Freeman, who was the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992 and is now president of the private Middle East Policy Council.

Al Jubeir said that neither Prince Bandar nor Princess Haifa had met either of the Saudi men -- Osama Basnan and Omar al Bayoumi -- who had helped the hijackers.

The Saudi government has said that the princess thought she was making charity payments to Basnan's wife, who needed treatment for a thyroid problem. Later, Al Bayoumi provided financial help to two hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, as the terrorists arrived in California.

Even before the case came to light, U.S. investigators were trying to determine whether Al Bayoumi had a financial relationship with the embassy, was working as an informant monitoring San Diego's large Saudi community, or had been helping the terrorists.

He met the two hijackers at Los Angeles International Airport when they first arrived in California, brought them to San Diego, helped them resettle there, and briefly lent them rent money.

On Monday, Al Jubeir said Al Bayoumi had no financial relationship with the embassy and was not working as an informant. FBI sources said they had found no evidence suggesting he was tracking the local Saudi community, and that the meeting at LAX was a chance encounter.

Al Bayoumi left the United States six months before Sept. 11, and is believed to be living in Saudi Arabia. Basnan was deported on Nov. 17, officials said.

Jeremy Warren, a San Diego lawyer for Basnan and his wife, insisted Monday they were not trying to help the terrorists.

"My clients were not spies or terrorists or anything like them. They were just good parents trying to raise their kids," he said. He said Basnan knew the hijackers only casually at a local mosque, and that his clients were indigent and unemployed.

Court records show that the wives of Basnan and Al Bayoumi were arrested for shoplifting in April 2001, pleaded guilty and paid their fines.

Justice Department sources Monday offered further explanation of why the future hijackers needed help paying their first two months' rent: The landlord would not accept their offer of cash, and also wanted references.

"So [Al] Bayoumi sponsored them and [gave them] a cashier's check drawn on his bank account," the source said. Later that day, the Justice official said, the hijackers repaid Al Bayoumi with cash, a transaction documented by activity on his checking account.

Another FBI official said that while Al Bayoumi clearly knew the eventual hijackers, there is no evidence that he received any money from the Saudi government.

To the contrary, the FBI investigation found, the money from the Saudi princess only made its way to al Bayoumi's wife when one check to Basnan was endorsed over to her.

*

Times staff writers Doyle McManus in Washington and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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