The Saudi government kicked off an aggressive public relations offensive yesterday, denying it has dragged its feet in fighting terrorism and announcing a series of steps taken since Sept. 11 to ensure that al Qaeda does not receive funds from the kingdom's Muslim charities.
Adel al-Jubeir, a top foreign policy adviser to the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, said at a news conference at the Saudi Embassy in Washington that some of the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow overseas through Saudi charities every year may have gone to the al Qaeda terrorist network. But he said his nation is doing everything it can to choke off the movement of Saudi charitable money to terrorists.
"We cannot allow our money to be used to murder people," al-Jubeir told reporters.
Allegations that the Saudis are soft on terrorism are wrong and have created a frenzy of anti-Saudi publicity, al-Jubeir said. "We believe our country has been unfairly maligned. It's 'Let's bash the Saudis' time." Some of the charges "border on hate" against Muslims, he said. In his 20 years here, he said, "I've never seen this in America."
In a report released yesterday, the Saudis detailed numerous measures they have taken since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to keep better track of charities and prevent their funds from going to Osama bin Laden's organization. The steps include ordering financial audits of Saudi charities; creating a government agency to oversee their activities; setting up a new financial intelligence unit to monitor the movement of charitable funds; and establishing new rules for sending humanitarian donations outside the country.
The Saudi report said that since Sept. 11, Riyadh has frozen 33 suspicious accounts, together worth $5.6 million, belonging to three individuals. One of those individuals, al-Jubeir said, is Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi millionaire and philanthropist who has been listed by U.S. officials as a terrorist financier. He has denied the assertion.
Al-Jubeir, who acts as the embassy's main spokesman, said that since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Saudi regime has questioned more than 2,000 people about possible ties to al Qaeda and has more than 100 people in custody.
Praising President Bush for saying the war on terrorism is not an attack on Muslims, he called Bush "a God-fearing man, an honorable man."
Officials of the State and Treasury departments yesterday praised Saudi cooperation in the war on terror. "We very much applaud the Saudi efforts,'' Treasury spokeswoman Michele Davis said.
Of a total $3 billion to $4 billion in Saudi annual charitable donations, only about 10 percent is sent overseas, al-Jubeir said. Although the government has found no evidence that money is flowing directly from Saudi individuals or organizations to terrorists, al-Jubeir said, he acknowledged some of the contributions may have indirectly or "inadvertently" ended up in terrorist coffers.
U.S. government officials and terrorism experts say the Saudis must tread lightly in moving against Muslim charities because of anti-American and anti-Jewish currents in Saudi society and the high regard many Saudis have for Muslim extremists.
Just days ago, for example, Saudi Prince Nayef, minister of the interior, told a Kuwaiti newspaper that the Sept. 11 bombings were not instigated by a group of 19 hijackers that include 15 Saudis, but by Zionists.
"We put big question marks and ask, who committed the events of Sept. 11, and who benefited from them?" Prince Nayef told the newspaper al-Siyassa. "I think they [Zionists] are behind these events."
He said he "greatly suspected'' that terrorist organizations "have relations with foreign intelligence that worked against Arabs and Muslims, topped by Israeli intelligence,'' the newspaper said. "He noted that it is impossible that 19 youths including . . . Saudis carried out the operation of September 11, or that bin Laden or the al-Qaeda organization did that alone."
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a frequent Saudi critic, yesterday denounced Nayef for the comments. "Does this Saudi minister sound like a partner in the war against terrorism?'' he asked.