Skip to comments.Saudi Cooperation on bin Laden Lags, U.S. Aides Say
Posted on 10/11/2001 10:48:48 AM PDT by vrwc54
Saudi Arabia has so far refused to freeze the assets of Osama bin Laden and his associates, and has proved unwilling to cooperate fully on the investigation of the hijacking suspects in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Bush administration officials said today.
The failure of a critical ally in the Muslim world to address the major concerns of Washington has put the relationship under increasing pressure.
To some extent, Bush administration officials say they understand the strains in Saudi Arabia as the royal dynasty tries to reconcile the two contradictory pillars of its support: a military alliance with the United States and the conservative strain of Islam that dominates its society.
But the White House is putting more emphasis on breaking up Mr. bin Laden's financial support and getting a handle on the investigation of the attacks, so what amounts to Saudi stonewalling rankles the administration on key fronts.
Of particular worry to the administration is the reluctance of the Saudi rulers to clamp down on the Islamic charities and other financial institutions that have provided money to Mr. bin Laden and his network.
Some of the princes in the extended royal family are believed to have connections to those charities.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said in an interview for a television documentary for "Frontline," produced in part by The New York Times, that Islam requires the giving of money to charity and that Riyadh had no evidence that money from any Saudi-based charity went to Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
He also said Saudi efforts to trace suspect contributions had followed the money from the kingdom to Europe, and in many cases to the United States, where the trail ended.
Even though the royal family expelled Mr. bin Laden from Saudi Arabia years ago, there are so only many steps it will take against him, American officials say.
"Even in times of peace there is an uneasy relationship between the secularist and religious right," said an administration official who specializes in the kingdom. "They don't want to do anything to upset the balance they've created."
That leaves the United States strongly allied with a powerful Islamic country that refuses to cut Mr. bin Laden's lifeline: money.
During the visit of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to Riyadh last week, the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, sidestepped a reporter's question about freezing the assets of organizations linked to Mr. bin Laden.
Just days before that visit, the administration released a list of 19 countries that had agreed to freeze such assets and congratulated those 19 for taking action. Saudi Arabia was noticeable absent, as were Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan.
At the State Department today, spokesman Richard Boucher said 111 countries had modified their banking laws to help crack down on assets held by terrorist groups. Pressed by reporters, Mr. Boucher declined to identify those countries.
"There are no such requests presented by the United States at present," Prince Sultan said. Today an administration official said that the Saudis were beginning to show some first signs of willingness to freeze assets but that there was still a long way to go.
In blocking an effective financial squeeze on Mr. bin Laden, the Saudis were acting in old ways, a former official said. "The Saudis say they have this under control," said William F. Wechsler, who worked on counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. "But they have not had either the legal regime or the political will to take the kind of actions the United States wants."
The Saudis do not have a bank supervisory system or auditing systems that would provide a base of information, Mr. Wechsler said.
The Bush administration is discussing providing technical assistance to Saudi Arabia to accomplish a financial freeze, an official said, adding that how to make that acceptable to the Saudi government was a big hurdle.
Another concern raised by the administration is the Saudi disinclination to help in the investigation of the suspected hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At least six of the men obtained United States visas in Saudi Arabia and then headed to this country via various routes.
The Saudi authorities are providing little help on requests by the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. for background checks on the suspects, administration officials said. Such reluctance to cooperate is familiar to Americans who investigated the truck-bomb attack in 1996 on the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American servicemen were killed.
Now, as then, there is more miscommunication than productive liaison between the two country's law enforcement agencies, an official said.
The Saudis have always been secretive about Mr. bin Laden.
Last year, for example, the Saudi government appeared to have closed down a bin Laden operation but never informed the United States that it had done so, officials familiar with the Saudi move said. Bin Laden operatives were put in jail, but Washington has not had access to what they have told the Saudi authorities about the inner workings of the network, the officials said.
Administration officials say they are satisfied with Saudi support on military matters and add that they were not surprised that they did not get Saudi permission to use bases in the kingdom for making offensive attacks against Afghanistan.
American troops have been present on Saudi soil since the Persian Gulf war of 1991, and they are playing a vital backup role with AWACS planes, radar and other nonoffensive operations.
But the tone of Saudi statements against Mr. bin Laden have been noticeably measured, and since the American bombing started against Afghanistan, there has been virtual silence.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, went the furthest today at the Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting in Doha, Qatar, when he said Muslim states wanted to help "eradicate terrorism which harms the Islamic world and Islamic causes and had never served the Palestinian cause."
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Saudis mounted a relentless diplomatic campaign with the White House and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, telling the Americans that they must demonstrate more understanding of the Palestinian cause and halt the perception that the United States was wholly behind Israel and its military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In putting forward that argument, the Saudis long a major supplier of oil to the United States were sending a direct signal: the dynasty fears for its own future.
The current Palestinian uprising, displayed nightly on television, evidently has caught the imagination and sympathy of ordinary Saudis, who like the Palestinians may feel dispossessed and alienated.
On that front, the White House and Saudi Arabia have started to repair relations. On Tuesday, at a session of the Saudi cabinet, King Fahd noted approvingly President Bush's groundbreaking announcement that the United States considered a Palestinian state an inevitable ingredient in a solution to the Middle East conflict.
If they are conservative, who the the radicals?
That, in part, is what this is all about, friends.
Or "how would you like to become a 'protectorate'of the civilized world?" New World Oil.