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U.S. Faults Saudi Efforts on Terrorism

The kingdom has gotten tough within its borders, but militants are pouring into Iraq, and money is still flowing to Al Qaeda, officials say.

January 15, 2006|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Although Saudi Arabia has cracked down on militants within its borders, the kingdom has not met its promises to help prevent the spread of terrorism or curb the flow of money from Saudis to terrorist cells around the world, U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and other officials say.

As a result, these critics say, countless young terrorism suspects are believed to have escaped the kingdom's tightening noose by fleeing across what critics call a porous border into Iraq.

U.S. military officials confirm an aggressive role by Saudi fighters in the insurgency in Iraq, where over the last year they reportedly accounted for more than half of all Arab militants killed.

And millions of dollars continue to flow from wealthy Saudis through Saudi-based Islamic charitable and relief organizations to Al Qaeda and other suspected terrorist groups abroad, aided by what the U.S. officials call Riyadh's failure to set up a government commission to police such groups as promised, senior U.S. officials from several counter-terrorism agencies said in interviews.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Saudi actions -- An article in Sunday's Section A about Saudi Arabia's record on combating terrorism implied that the U.S. Treasury Department had frozen the assets of three Saudi-based charitable and relief organizations because of their suspected ties to terrorism: the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization. Although Treasury officials cited those groups in interviews and congressional testimony as cause for concern, they are not among the organizations whose assets have been frozen.

Those officials said Saudi Arabia had taken some positive steps within its borders. But they criticized the Saudis for not taking a more active role in the global fight.

Daniel L. Glaser, the deputy assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, recalled attending a counter-terrorism conference in Riyadh last February at which the Saudis declared they would be an international leader in fighting Al Qaeda and in eradicating terrorism worldwide.

Nearly a year later, Glaser and other U.S. officials said, those promises are unfulfilled.

"They promised to do it, and they need to live up to their promises," Glaser said. "They need to crack down operationally on donors in Saudi Arabia. And they need to exert their influence over their international charities abroad.... They have to care not just what Al Qaeda is doing just within their own borders but wherever it is operating."

In response, a senior Saudi official vehemently insisted that the kingdom had taken strong steps to fight the terrorist network -- not only at home but worldwide.

In a series of interviews last week, the official said the government was working closely with regional partners and the United States on operational and intelligence-gathering fronts.

The Saudi official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to disturb the ongoing and "extremely sensitive" discussions with Washington on various counter-terrorism issues.

The official objected to U.S. criticism that Saudi fighters played an important role in the Iraq insurgency, and said Riyadh had done a good job of sealing off the border between the two countries. Saudis seeking to enter Iraq have to do so through other countries, he said.

By contrast, the Saudi official said, U.S. forces in Iraq have done little to patrol that country's borders with Saudi Arabia, and foreign fighters are entering Iraq through Syria and Iran.

"We have captured thousands of people coming into Saudi Arabia from Iraq, including drug dealers and people trying to smuggle explosives," the official said. "And for somebody to have the audacity to say the Saudis are not doing enough is unreasonable.... Which side is not doing enough? The side that has beefed up its border or the side that has not?"

The official acknowledged that Saudi Arabia had yet to fulfill its 2004 pledge of establishing a charity oversight commission but said the government controlled all Saudi money going to charities and relief organizations overseas.

Saudi Arabia has been under intense pressure from its longtime allies in Washington since the Sept. 11 attacks, when it became clear that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. But critics say that the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdom, long considered a nexus of Al Qaeda activities, did not begin seriously cracking down on terrorists until its own capital was rattled by a series of deadly suicide bombings in 2003.

Since then, the kingdom has killed or captured dozens of senior terrorism operatives.

The senior U.S. counter-terrorism and intelligence officials from several agencies praised Saudi Arabia for working closely with the FBI and CIA on operations within the kingdom.

But they said the Saudi effort had focused almost entirely on crackdowns on small operational cells of Al Qaeda militants at home. In interviews and recent congressional testimony, they said they had urged Saudi Arabia repeatedly, without success, to take a much more active role in the broader effort.

Some of the Saudis now in Iraq have been trained in explosives and guerrilla warfare by Al Qaeda cells in their homeland, while others are gaining the experience in Iraq and using it in attacks on U.S. troops and other Westerners, the officials said.

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