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Saudis' Troubling 'Charity'

November 26, 2002

The daughter of an assassinated king of Saudi Arabia could hardly be expected to knowingly finance Sept. 11 hijackers. But Princess Haifa al Faisal, daughter of King Faisal and wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, did somehow provide money that ended up with two of the hijackers. This disclosure should prompt all-out scrutiny of the Saudi royal family's gifts to charities and needy individuals to ensure they do not foster terrorism.

The FBI is investigating the money provided to the families of Omar al Bayoumi and Osama Basnan and how the two men gave financial assistance to two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, while they all lived in San Diego. Some U.S. senators and House members complain that the FBI has gone easy on the Saudis during the investigation; FBI officials deny that and say Basnan and Bayoumi, who have left the United States, routinely helped Arab newcomers to this country.

Charity is a fundamental tenet of Islam, and the Saudi royal family long has contributed to religious and social organizations at home and abroad. However, opponents of the regime have charged that some of the charities were fronts for terrorist organizations and that the rulers in Riyadh did not care what happened to their money abroad so long as it did not finance opposition at home.

The fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis puts a spotlight on the relationship between the United States, which depends on Saudi oil, and the kingdom. Osama bin Laden, architect of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia for letting the U.S. keep troops at bases there; the Riyadh government stripped Bin Laden of his citizenship several years before the attacks on the United States.

Although Saudi officials emphasize that the kingdom has had 60 years of close relations with Washington, Riyadh has not always been helpful to U.S. interests. The government refused to share evidence about the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen.

Former Assistant Secretary of State Edward S. Walker Jr. says the Saudi government "has always been reluctant to air its dirty linen in public and that's not helping them at this point." Financial support from the royal family for relatives of Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel also angers the United States, despite Saudi claims that the money goes to survivors of "martyrs" resisting Israeli occupation.

Saudi officials are right to insist that Bin Laden wants to poison relations between Riyadh and Washington. But they must understand that the United States needs to know how past terror attacks were financed and planned so it can work to prevent new ones. That means Saudi Arabia must cooperate with U.S. investigators and stop bankrolling acts of terror.

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