The Saudi government may have "turned a blind eye" to charities that funded al Qaeda but was not directly involved in financing the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to findings released yesterday by the Sept. 11 commission.
"Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al Qaeda," the report concluded.
Al Qaeda nevertheless found "fertile fundraising ground in the Kingdom," where religious extremism flourishes and charitable giving is considered an obligation.
The panel's conclusions about the Saudi government reflect views shared among law enforcement, intelligence agencies and many independent terrorism experts.
"The fact is we don't support terrorism, and eventually the truth will come out," said Adel Jubeir, foreign affairs adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah.
Dennis Lormel, who until the end of last year led the FBI's terrorist finance investigations, said that "clearly they could have done a lot more a lot sooner to stem the flow of financing, but we never were able to link the government to anything." Government officials, he said, "are one step removed."
The Saudi minister of Islamic affairs has been the titular head of global charities accused of financing al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, and there have been various claims that members of the royal family had funded such groups.
"Most of the major charities are sponsored and overseen by [interior minister Prince] Nayef," said David Aufhauser, who until recently oversaw probes of terrorism financing at the U.S. Treasury.
The Saudi government has clamped down on violent extremists since al Qaeda began launching attacks there in May 2003. This month, the government announced that it would dismantle all global charitable organizations and place their operations under a commission named by the government.
The Sept. 11 commission said it found no credible evidence to support claims that hijackers based in San Diego received funds from two Saudi citizens there, Omar al Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, who befriended two of the hijackers, or that Princess Haifa Faisal, wife of Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan, "provided any funds to the conspiracy either directly or indirectly."
"It destroys the myth about Princess Haifa giving money to the hijackers and Bassnan and Bayoumi giving money to the hijackers," Jubeir said.
One passage in the new report did generate skepticism. The staff said "no persuasive evidence exists" that al Qaeda "funded itself through trafficking in diamonds from African states engaged in civil wars," a view promoted by the CIA but discounted by others.
In March, U.S. Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of the European Central Command, talked about "blood diamonds," saying al Qaeda "has been interested in that as a funding source -- no doubt about it; so has Hezbollah, in a huge way."
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has pressed the FBI to do more to investigate al Qaeda and diamonds in Africa. Yesterday, Wolf said, he directed his staff to ask the commission to "call the FBI team that went over to the region to make sure they had all information that was available."