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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
Terror funding brings Saudi mixed messages
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News Online business reporter

A 'wanted' poster of alleged al-Qaeda members
Saudi Arabia is now on the hunt for al-Qaeda
Mention Saudi Arabia and terrorism in the same sentence, and the chances are the response is either going to be highly defensive - or thoroughly offensive.

On the one hand, much of the public discourse in both Europe and the US seems to accuse the oil-rich kingdom of being at the root of every bit of Islamic-related extremism there is.

The accusations often sink to the level of invective, shrouded in barely-disguised - or indeed entirely outright - Islamophobia.

On the other hand, Saudis themselves, or those in officialdom at any rate, loudly protest against this kind of characterisation.

The kingdom is at the forefront of the "War on Terror", they insist, pointing to the TV pictures of its security forces battling insurgents daily on Saudi streets, while its resources are at the service of its allies.

Cracking down

The best example of this, they say, is the work done to harden up the kingdom's financial systems against terrorist finance.

There's still the rich guy in Riyadh
David Aufhauser, former Treasury general counsel
They cite new regulations governing charities, banks, informal systems such as hawala and other possible channels for funding attacks and extremist groups.

The rules on financial institutions have now been blessed by FATF, the international anti-money laundering body.

And in the charitable field, the Saudis have shut down seven overseas branches of a charity - al-Haramain - which are accused of involvement in terrorist finance.

At home, the cash collections usual in mosques have been banned, while the operations abroad of the hundreds of charities which collect zakat - the the alms-giving demanded by Islam of all Muslims - are to be rolled into one new organisation, the National Commission for Charitable Work Abroad.

These actions, Saudi officials told BBC News Online, demonstrated the kingdom's sincerity.

"We were tracking these things long before 9/11," one Washington-based Saudi diplomat told BBC News Online. "Ever since then, the finger's been pointed at us but we've toiled on."

Under the surface

It all looks impressive, yet anti-terrorism investigators and other experts have their doubts about what it means in practice.

An al-Haramain centre in Somalia
Somalia was one of seven places where al-Haramain was shuttered
Accusations of Saudi involvement in funding attacks and extremist groups have a long history and a wide circulation.

Many of them were made plain in an October 2002 report from the US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), written by a non-partisan group of experts.

Its writers were in little doubt that much of the financial support for al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups had historically been sourced from Saudi Arabia.

Charities, they said, certainly played a major role - while rich Saudis had underwritten groups directly, or used corporate fronts to cover up the money trail.

"For years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem," it said.

And in July 2003 David Aufhauser, then general counsel to the US Treasury, called Saudi Arabia "in many cases the epicentre" of terrorist financing.

Blame abroad

In a fresh report in June this year, the CFR said the new regulations the Saudis have introduced would "if fully implemented... significantly reduce the flow of funds from within Saudi Arabia to terrorists".

And it said Saudi efforts had upped their tempo following the car-bomb attack on the capital, Riyadh, in May 2003 which killed 35 and the spate of attacks on Saudi soil since.

When the money leaves Saudi Arabia it's not something we can do anything about
Saudi official
But according to Lee Wolosky, co-chair of the task force and former National Security Council director of transnational threats in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the devil is in the detail.

"I haven't seen evidence of implementation (of the new rules)," he told BBC News Online.

"You can distinguish a contrast between actions internal to Saudi Arabia, which threaten the role of the house of Saud, and those which do not."

In other words, domestic risks are prioritised; ones directed elsewhere, such as at the US or Europe, are not, Mr Wolosky suggested.

This view was resisted by Saudi officials, although they pointed out that what goes on outside their borders is beyond their control.

"When it leaves Saudi Arabia it's not something we can do anything about," the Saudi diplomat told BBC News Online. "It's all relationships at the end of a long chain."

If a branch of al-Haramain in the Netherlands was suspected, he complained, why was the suspicion directed solely at Saudi Arabia? "Does this mean," he asked, "that the Dutch are guilty of terrorist finance too?"

Left out

This argument cuts little ice with experts.

For one thing, wealthy Saudis are still acting as backers, Mr Aufhauser said.

"There's still the rich guy in Riyadh," he told BBC News Online, "although he admittedly plays less of a role than he once did."

According to Mr Wolosky, not a single person has been prosecuted for funding terrorist groups since September 2001.

And the proclamation which set up the National Commission for charities, Arabic language experts say, excludes those charities funded largely by the royal family.

Troops outside the Khobar compound where dozens of hostages were taken and several killed in May 2004
Multiple attacks since May 2003 mean stepped-up security
Among these are the World Association of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the Muslim World League.

WAMY branches have been implicated in FBI terrorist finance investigations, while several of the court cases which have been brought by the families of 9/11 victims name Muslim World League officials as implicated in terrorist financing.

Both charities, it should be said, have often denied the charges.

"If this is true, it's a case of the exception eating up the rule," Mr Wolosky said, referring to the accusations against charities not covered by the rules.

Attempts by BBC News Online to get confirmation from Saudi authorities went unanswered.

The war at home

One bloody shift in the pattern of extremist violence, however, may play a part in shifting Saudi attitudes.

In the past two months the kingdom has seen a spate of attacks by militants connected to al-Qaeda - a sharp upsurge in the trend which started in Riyadh last May.

In April, four people were killed in a gun attack on a Riyadh police station. On 1 May, the offices of foreign oil firms in Yanbu on the Red Sea were hit, leaving one Saudi national and six foreigners dead.

At the end of May, a foreigners' housing compound in the eastern oil city of Khobar was taken, with 22 civilian casualties and three of the four attackers escaping.

And in June, a BBC crew was caught in what appears to be a deliberate assassination attempt, leaving cameraman Simon Cumbers dead and security correspondent Frank Gardner critically ill.

The war, it seems, has come home - and someone must be underwriting it.

Far more than US pressure or critical reports, that could concentrate the minds of those in Saudi Arabia responsible for seeking the funders of terrorism.

Saudi urged to fight terror funds
02 Jul 04 |  Business
Charities in terror fund spotlight
15 Oct 03 |  Business
Dirty money spotlight widens
02 Oct 03 |  Business

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