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U.S. Hails Saudis for Effort to Stem Al Qaeda Funds

Treasury Secretary Snow, on a visit, cites an overhaul of kingdom's donations system.

September 18, 2003|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — In a series of marathon meetings Wednesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow told top Saudi officials that they had proved to the United States their commitment to begin staunching the flow of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable donations to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Crown Prince Abdullah was particularly forceful in delineating how his country had expended "all the appropriate resources, commitment and intensity" needed to combat Al Qaeda, Snow told reporters.

Abdullah, the de facto Saudi leader, also called on Snow and President Bush to work with him in a campaign to link terrorism and drug trafficking, and to get the United Nations to preside over a worldwide crackdown on what he called the "twin scourges of humanity," said sources familiar with the 90-minute meeting at the prince's palace here.

Just 18 months ago, Snow's predecessor, Paul H. O'Neill, publicly rebuked Saudi leaders during a visit to Riyadh, describing their country as an observer rather than a participant in the U.S.-led global counter-terrorism effort.

Since then, Saudi Arabia has drawn even more criticism because of a U.S. congressional report that accused it of being indifferent or even supportive of Al Qaeda.

The terrorist organization, founded by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, has long used the vast, oil-rich kingdom as a prime fund-raising, recruiting and training center.

Snow, however, said Saudi officials had done much in recent months to combat terrorism both domestically and internationally, particularly by launching an overhaul of a previously unregulated charitable donations system, which authorities believe has provided Al Qaeda with much of its operational money.

"It's clear that real progress, significant progress, has been made and that the Saudis have been a strong partner in the war on terrorism," Snow said. "And nowhere was that more clear than in the comments of the crown prince himself, who said that we have to be firm and merciless in dealing with the global problem of terror."

According to a senior Treasury Department official who attended several meetings between Snow and top Saudi officials, Abdullah said Saudi Arabia's newfound aggressiveness stemmed in large part from a trio of Al Qaeda suicide bombings in May that killed more than two dozen people at residential compounds in Riyadh, the capital. The attacks plunged the Persian Gulf kingdom into an economic and public relations tailspin.

"The crown prince said today that those who have not been affected by terrorism don't feel the urgency to fight it. And certainly they felt the sting of Al Qaeda and have acted accordingly," the Treasury official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We have seen them take very concrete steps, arresting people, killing people, freezing [financial] assets, working with us in a systematic way to deal with this issue on a long-term basis."

Abdullah, Finance Minister Ibrahim Assaf and other senior Saudi participants were unavailable to comment on the talks.

But Adel Jubeir, a senior advisor to the crown prince, said Saudi leaders welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate to Snow how much progress had been made, and they left the meetings with a renewed sense of purpose in fighting Al Qaeda.

"No country in the world has done more in this area than Saudi Arabia," Jubeir said in an interview.

During the meetings, Abdullah and his aides ticked off a long list of recent accomplishments, including the outlawing of public collection boxes for charities. Saudi authorities in recent weeks have confiscated tens of thousands of the boxes, which had provided a steady stream of untraceable cash to terrorist organizations, U.S. and Saudi officials said.

Saudi authorities also have instituted banking regulations to prevent charities and other groups from sending money raised in the country overseas without oversight. And they have established rules to tightly monitor 245 domestic charitable organizations and have shut down or cleaned up the handful of Saudi-based international groups accused of funneling vast sums of money to Al Qaeda each year, Jubeir said.

Saudi authorities have audited the books of all domestic charities and found "no evidence at all" of money going to Al Qaeda, he said.

Investigations of four much larger international charities have found evidence of such illicit payments and have resulted in shutdowns of the charities, disciplinary actions and arrests, Jubeir said.

In addition, at least two alleged Al Qaeda financiers have had their bank accounts frozen and remain under investigation by U.S. and Saudi authorities, who said Wednesday that they were trying to gather enough evidence to arrest the men.

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