Report Decries Saudi Laxity
U.S. Must Act to Dry Up Al Qaeda Funds, Policy Group Says
By Douglas Farah
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 17, 2002; Page A18
The Bush administration's efforts to cut off funds for international terrorism are destined to fail until it confronts Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have tolerated some of its wealthy citizens raising millions of dollars a year for al Qaeda, according to a new report from an influential foreign policy organization.
The report from the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, scheduled for release today, contends that the administration must pressure the Saudis -- as well as other governments -- to crack down on terror financing, even at the risk of sparking a public backlash that could jeopardize the Saudi government.
"It is worth stating clearly and unambiguously what official U.S. government spokespersons have not," the report notes. "For years, individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al Qaeda, and for years the Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem."
Administration criticism of Saudi Arabia, among the top crude oil suppliers to the United States and a crucial ally if the Bush administration takes military action against Iraq, has been largely muted since the Sept. 11 attacks, despite the belief of many law enforcement and intelligence officials here and abroad that al Qaeda relies on wealthy Saudis for most of its funding.
Earlier this year, however, relations became strained when a defense consultant told a Pentagon advisory committee that Saudis were active at all levels of the terror chain.
The Saudi government had no immediate response to the report. Its embassy here issued a statement praising U.S.-Saudi cooperation in freezing terrorist assets and cracking down on charities, saying the support and financing of terrorism "cannot be tolerated."
But the report drew a sharp rebuttal from the Bush administration. Robert Nichols, the Treasury Department's deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said the report was "seriously flawed" and that his department considered it a "Clinton-era snapshot of what al Qaeda looked like in 1999 or 2000" without taking into account the new resources and strategies to combat terror financing.
"We are not claiming victory, we are not spiking the football, but we are off to a good start," Nichols said.
Administration officials said they were angry that Treasury and other agencies had not been invited to brief the panel. But Maurice R. Greenberg, the panel's chairman, said that in late August the council extended a written invitation to the National Security Council to address the group and an oral invitation to Treasury. Both were declined, he said.
The report, prepared by a bipartisan panel of financial and terrorism experts, reveals no new details about U.S. or Saudi efforts to stanch terror funding. But it plainly asserts what many officials have said privately for some time.
"I know a lot of people in the administration are really upset with this, but it essentially lays out what many of us have been saying," said one senior administration official. "That is, we need to come up with strategies that are as creative as those of the enemy, and that, like it or not, many of the financial roads to al Qaeda go through Saudi Arabia."
While the United Nations and others have recently warned that the financial war on terror was sputtering, analysts inside and outside government said the conclusions of the panel carry particular weight because it is bipartisan. Greenberg is an influential Republican fundraiser and corporate executive. The two co-directors, William F. Wechsler and Lee S. Wolosky, tracked terrorist financing while serving in the Clinton administration's NSC.
The report concludes that al Qaeda retains access to millions of dollars and that as long as its financial network is viable, the terrorist organization "remains a lethal threat to the United States." Financing for Osama bin Laden's terror network is often routed through charities, front companies and shell banks in offshore havens.
In recent testimony to Congress, senior administration officials have acknowledged that al Qaeda retains the financial capability to carry out attacks on the United States and elsewhere. Administration officials have said that since Sept. 11, the United States has designated 240 people and organizations as terrorist supporters and blocked $112 million in suspected terrorist assets.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company