Although Saudi Arabia has cracked down on militants within its borders, the kingdom has not met its promises to help prevent the spread of terrorism or curb the flow of money from Saudis to terrorist cells around the world, U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and other officials say.
As a result, these critics say, countless young terrorism suspects are believed to have escaped the kingdom’s tightening noose by fleeing across what critics call a porous border into Iraq.
U.S. military officials confirm an aggressive role by Saudi fighters in the insurgency in Iraq, where over the last year they reportedly accounted for more than half of all Arab militants killed.
And millions of dollars continue to flow from wealthy Saudis through Saudi-based Islamic charitable and relief organizations to Al Qaeda and other suspected terrorist groups abroad, aided by what the U.S. officials call Riyadh’s failure to set up a government commission to police such groups as promised, senior U.S. officials from several counter-terrorism agencies said in interviews.
Those officials said Saudi Arabia had taken some positive steps within its borders. But they criticized the Saudis for not taking a more active role in the global fight.
Daniel L. Glaser, the deputy assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, recalled attending a counter-terrorism conference in Riyadh last February at which the Saudis declared they would be an international leader in fighting Al Qaeda and in eradicating terrorism worldwide.
Nearly a year later, Glaser and other U.S. officials said, those promises are unfulfilled.
“They promised to do it, and they need to live up to their promises,” Glaser said. “They need to crack down operationally on donors in Saudi Arabia. And they need to exert their influence over their international charities abroad.... They have to care not just what Al Qaeda is doing just within their own borders but wherever it is operating.”
In response, a senior Saudi official vehemently insisted that the kingdom had taken strong steps to fight the terrorist network -- not only at home but worldwide.
In a series of interviews last week, the official said the government was working closely with regional partners and the United States on operational and intelligence-gathering fronts.
The Saudi official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he did not want to disturb the ongoing and “extremely sensitive” discussions with Washington on various counter-terrorism issues.
The official objected to U.S. criticism that Saudi fighters played an important role in the Iraq insurgency, and said Riyadh had done a good job of sealing off the border between the two countries. Saudis seeking to enter Iraq have to do so through other countries, he said.
By contrast, the Saudi official said, U.S. forces in Iraq have done little to patrol that country’s borders with Saudi Arabia, and foreign fighters are entering Iraq through Syria and Iran.
“We have captured thousands of people coming into Saudi Arabia from Iraq, including drug dealers and people trying to smuggle explosives,” the official said. “And for somebody to have the audacity to say the Saudis are not doing enough is unreasonable.... Which side is not doing enough? The side that has beefed up its border or the side that has not?”
The official acknowledged that Saudi Arabia had yet to fulfill its 2004 pledge of establishing a charity oversight commission but said the government controlled all Saudi money going to charities and relief organizations overseas.
Saudi Arabia has been under intense pressure from its longtime allies in Washington since the Sept. 11 attacks, when it became clear that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. But critics say that the oil-rich Persian Gulf kingdom, long considered a nexus of Al Qaeda activities, did not begin seriously cracking down on terrorists until its own capital was rattled by a series of deadly suicide bombings in 2003.
Since then, the kingdom has killed or captured dozens of senior terrorism operatives.
The senior U.S. counter-terrorism and intelligence officials from several agencies praised Saudi Arabia for working closely with the FBI and CIA on operations within the kingdom.
But they said the Saudi effort had focused almost entirely on crackdowns on small operational cells of Al Qaeda militants at home. In interviews and recent congressional testimony, they said they had urged Saudi Arabia repeatedly, without success, to take a much more active role in the broader effort.
Some of the Saudis now in Iraq have been trained in explosives and guerrilla warfare by Al Qaeda cells in their homeland, while others are gaining the experience in Iraq and using it in attacks on U.S. troops and other Westerners, the officials said.
U.S. intelligence and military officials estimate that foreign fighters make up only 5% to 10% of the insurgency, but they say that foreign fighters are responsible for most of the deadliest, most sophisticated terrorist strikes.
“We can confirm that there have been Saudi Arabian fighters in Iraq but can’t go into numbers,” coalition forces spokeswoman Stacy Simon said.
But Saudis play a disproportionately large role, the evidence suggests. The few nongovernmental experts who track the insurgency estimate that 12% to 25% of the foreign fighters are Saudis.
One study of foreign fighters in Iraq concluded that of 154 Arab fighters killed in Iraq in the six months ended March 2005, Saudis constituted by far the highest number -- 94, or 61% -- followed by Syria, with 16.
The study by the Israel-based Project for the Research of Islamist Movements also concluded that 23 of 33 suicide bombers killed during that period were Saudis.
Reuven Paz, the project’s director and a former senior Israeli counter-terrorism official, said more recent statistics showed virtually identical percentages of Saudi fighters. He said the study was based on a detailed analysis of militant websites, the only information available.
U.S. government officials had no comment on why they do not release a breakdown of foreign militants killed or captured.
The U.S. officials said the Riyadh government, consisting mostly of the ruling Saud family, had done little to rein in influential Saudi radical religious clerics who had openly encouraged their followers to attack U.S. interests in Iraq and elsewhere.
Riyadh also has failed to stanch the flow of millions of dollars in annual zakat, the charity tax mandatory for Muslims, to highly suspect Saudi-based charities and relief organizations that have ties to Al Qaeda, U.S. officials said.
And they said the Saudi government continued to spend lavishly to promote the spread of a fundamentalist form of Islam known as Wahhabism. U.S. officials said the government funding of Wahhabist clerics, mosques, study groups, textbooks and cultural centers in Asia, Africa, Europe and even the United States was undercutting the global counter-terrorism effort.
The Saudi official said Riyadh was retraining thousands of teachers and clerics so they could disseminate a more moderate form of Wahhabism. But he acknowledged problems in countering the influence of radical clerics.
“We have a problem with imams,” the Saudi official said. “We have a hundred thousand of them. Can we stop every one? No.”
On another front, despite repeated pleas from Washington, the Saudi government did not set up a financial intelligence unit to track terrorism financing until September, more than two years after it had pledged to do so, senior Treasury officials and other U.S. authorities said.
“Even today, we believe that private Saudi donors may be a significant source of terrorist funding, including for the insurgency in Iraq,” Stuart Levey, the Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, told Congress in little-noted testimony six months ago.
One federal law enforcement official involved in international counter-terrorism efforts said Washington believed Saudi money was, at least indirectly, aiding similar Islamic militant networks in Spain, France, Italy, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Syria and elsewhere.
“There are these petri dishes all over the world, in the slums of Spain and Italy and so forth, and then they put them in the test tube in Iraq and that is where they really get going,” the law enforcement official said.
Dissatisfaction with the Saudis’ effort has prompted the FBI, CIA, Treasury Department and other agencies to undertake a highly classified effort to track the flood of money from Saudi Arabia, in part to see whether it is fueling the insurgency in Iraq and other terrorism hot spots such as Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan and West Africa, said federal law enforcement and financial intelligence officials.
The State Department’s top counter-terrorism official, Henry A. Crumpton, recently told Congress that he traveled to Riyadh last fall to discuss Saudi Arabia’s lack of progress on several counter-terrorism fronts, particularly the export of extremist ideology and the funding of international charities.
Crumpton told the House subcommittee on international terrorism that Saudi officials had made “some progress ... certainly inside their borders.”
But he added, “I expressed my disappointment that they have not yet established a commission to overlook these charitable organizations and determine [where] this funding is going.”
Riyadh closely monitors Saudi charities, the Saudi official asserted. However, he acknowledged that the oversight did not extend to the groups’ offices overseas.
“They are not Saudi entities,” the official said of the foreign branches. “If a Pakistani guy wants to give money to [a Saudi] charity located in that country, how can I stop them?”
U.S. officials say such remarks illustrate that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to crack down on Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism appear to end at its borders.
At least five of the Muslim world’s largest charitable and relief organizations are headquartered in Saudi Arabia but continue to engage in highly suspect activity overseas, U.S. officials say. They cite such organizations as the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization.
The Treasury Department has declared some of these organizations as sponsors of terrorism and frozen their U.S. assets. The department has done the same with influential Saudi businessmen such as Wael Hamza Julaidan and Adel Abdul Jalil Batterjee.
All have denied wrongdoing. A senior U.S. counter-terrorism official said they continued to “operate and live comfortably in Saudi Arabia” despite U.S. objections.