Saudi-bashing has become Washington's most popular sport. More than six decades of partnership, strong trade relations and wide-ranging strategic cooperation are being trampled in an ugly blame game. Yes, the Saudis can improve their terror-fighting strategies. Yes, the kingdom has a long way to go to plug the cracks in the global terrorist financing network. But the same can be said of every nation -- none was prepared for 9/11, and all are stumbling forward, hampered by limited resources, bureaucratic inertia and difficulty understanding this new scourge. To single out the kingdom for criticism is unfair and counterproductive.
Any doubt that we're on the same side in this war should be laid to rest by the fact that in the past few months alone, al Qaeda has launched several major terrorist plots against Saudi government facilities and infrastructure. In early 2002, a massive ammunition depot was uncovered in Riyadh, along with a plot to bomb the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. A month later, another attack on the same scale was headed off -- aimed at the Ministry of Interior. Finally, a plan to cripple the refinery and loading dock of Ras Tanura -- the largest oil terminal complex in the world -- was discovered this summer. More than 1,000 Saudis have been detained on suspicion of being affiliated with al Qaeda in the past year; more than 150 remain in Saudi jails.
In addition, the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and the General Security Service (GSS) have worked closely with their U.S. counterparts, sharing background information on Saudi nationals at Guantanamo Bay and intelligence on captured al Qaeda suspects. This cooperation has paid off in some major operational successes. The capture in Pakistan of Abu Zubaydah, head of al Qaeda global operations, was accomplished only after a detainee interrogated by the GSS revealed his location. The GSS provided a photo of him to U.S. and allied searchers, who had no idea what he looked like. The GID has also shared its unique expertise on Yemen with U.S. intelligence operatives, aiding successful American efforts to track down al Qaeda operatives in that country.
But these successes have been overshadowed by accusations of Saudi financial support for terrorist groups. It is true that funds were inadvertently diverted to al Qaeda associates by certain Saudi charities. Osama bin Laden and his followers have proven adept at manipulating the global financial system to hide money transfers to their operations. There is no evidence, however, that Saudi financial institutions or official charitable organizations explicitly intended to aid al Qaeda. Any that have will face punishment.
As part of their effort to strangle terrorist financing, the Saudis have frozen millions in accounts with presumed links to al Qaeda and its associates. The Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency (SAMA) and the Enforcement Team at the U.S. Treasury Department have been in close cooperation for more than a year and have established a joint task force. SAMA has also set up special coordinating units at all Saudi Arabia's commercial banks to track funds to suspect countries. The kingdom's intelligence agencies are closely monitoring Saudis with links to charitable organizations on a watch list, much of which was compiled with the help of the U.S. Treasury Department.
At the urging of Crown Prince Abdullah and Minister of Defense Prince Sultan, a steering committee has been established to oversee all charitable activities, at home and abroad. This committee, which will ultimately be replaced by a formal regulatory body, has so far ordered the freezing of more than $100 million in wire transfers to organizations in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Morocco. Saudi authorities now demand comprehensive project documentation, full accounting, audits and background information on managers before clearing transfers to charitable groups abroad. These restrictions have led to a precipitous drop in foreign giving: from $346 million in 2001 to only $66 million by the third quarter of this year.
A key subcommittee of this group monitors the content of Saudi religious materials distributed abroad, ensuring an end to the propagation of extremist views that have emanated from the kingdom in the past. Much of this inflammatory material was prepared by mid-level religious scholars and exported without government oversight. The new group, which reports directly to the minister of religious affairs, will make certain that religious materials heed official calls for moderation. The subcommittee will also oversee the appointment of clerics working at Saudi-funded mosques abroad, ensuring that they too abide by these rules.
Thus, despite accusations to the contrary, the evidence shows the senior Saudi leadership is working to destroy al Qaeda's operational, financial and philosophical foundations. Ignoring this fact undermines a vital partner in the war against terrorism, and hands a victory to a common enemy.
The writer is a Saudi oil and security analyst.