Why Saudis take firmer stance on terror

Pressure from US and May 12 attacks at home spur Riyadh to adopt tougher tactics.

When Saudi Arabia's Prince Saud al-Faisal flew to Washington this week for a hastily arranged meeting with President Bush, it suggested the new urgency with which the kingdom is treating both terrorism and faltering relations with the US.

Even though Prince Faisal didn't get his desired result - Mr. Bush said he would not declassify parts of the congressional report on Sept. 11 that reportedly discuss Saudi involvement - the prince's spirited request demonstrates how his country is taking a more aggressive stance in fighting terror.

Until recently, government officials and experts say, Saudi Arabia has quietly provided some assistance to the US war on terror. But at the same time, in an effort to quell its restive population, it has heavily criticized American foreign policy. And the regime has been reticent to allow Americans to participate in any investigations inside Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

That equation is changing - largely due to the May 12 suicide bomb attacks on three residential areas of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in which 35 people were killed, including eight Americans. It is also due to the growing chorus of criticism - from members of Congress to government officials - about Saudi Arabia's interaction with extremists.

"May 12 to Saudi Arabia was what 9/11 was to the US," says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terrorism and author of "Inside Al Qaeda." "No government will target a terrorist group unless and until it perceives that the group is posing a direct and immediate threat to it."

Some Saudi officials themselves have drawn similar conclusions. "May 12 maybe was not the same in terms of magnitude, but in shock value, certainly," says Nail al-Jubeir, director of the information office at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. "It brought terrorism home and helped change the mind-set of the people."

Since then, Mr. Jubeir adds, Saudi citizens are behind the government campaign to target terrorists and curb donations to any charities or groups that may help them.

Moves so far

Since May 12, the Saudi government says it has:

• Arrested some 140 terror suspects and killed several others, including Yousif Salih Fahad al-Ayeeri, a major Al Qaeda operational planner and fundraiser, and Turki Nasser Mishaal Aldandany, another top Al Qaeda operative and mastermind of the May 12 bombings.

• Confiscated hundreds of bags of explosives for use in bombs, hand grenades, and other equipment.

• Arrested hundreds of imams, including three clerics who called for public support for the terrorists responsible for the Riyadh bombings, fired 300, and sent some 1,000 back to be re-educated.

• Instituted stricter measures on banks for transferring money out of the country.

• Cracked down on charities that have been known to transfer money to terrorist groups.

These moves have actually been part of a longer campaign begun shortly after Sept. 11, when the Saudi government realized the depth of its problem by the numbers of hijackers who came from that country. Even before May 12, Saudi officials had questioned more than 1,000 individuals, arresting some 300.

Moreover, intelligence and diplomatic sources say, Saudi Arabia has long cooperated in providing intelligence and financial support to the US. "Generally, the Saudis have provided us with great intelligence for years," says a former US intelligence operative who worked in the region for nearly 30 years.

In fact, intelligence sources say Saudi Arabia's information was instrumental in the arrests of several alleged high-level Al Qaeda operatives: Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the masterminds behind the bombings of the US embassies in Africa and the USS Cole; Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who controlled bank accounts for the Sept. 11 hijackers; Omar al-Farouq, an Al Qaeda operations chief in Southeast Asia; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the hijackers' logistic person in Germany; and Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda's former No. 3.

These intelligence sources add that Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in the November 2002 Predator drone attack in Yemen that killed Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, the Al Qaeda leader for Yemen.

Where the problem lies, these officials and experts say, is with what Saudi Arabia has done - or not done - domestically. Because of cultural and self-preservation interests, the Saudi regime has not cracked down on charities that have provided assistance to terror groups; the education system, which is criticized for promoting radical Islam; and the religious establishment that promotes anti-American actions.

New approach

But that is changing. "They are doing as much as they can," says Jean-Francois Seznec, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Georgetown University in Washington. "The government has to look into people's activities, and they have never done that."

The changes the government has so far implemented - along with US plans to withdraw most troops by the end of this year - should make it easier for the government to implement reforms.

Although the vast majority of Saudis do not support Al Qaeda or any of the jihadi groups, there is a huge disconnect regarding US foreign policy. Mr. Seznec says that during a visit to the country in October, the scores of people he talked with were "against the US," he says, "because of the Palestinian issue."

Saudis, he says, do not, for example, see Hamas as a terrorist group, but as freedom fighters.

It will be difficult to curb charitable giving to organizations like that, he says. "They can limit it, but they can never cut it off."

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