Terrorism Link Weighs on U.S.-Saudi relationship.(PAGE ONE)

Article excerpt

Byline: David R. Sands and Kevin Chaffee, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Saudi Arabia has been dogged for years by charges that portions of its vast oil wealth have been diverted to Islamic terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.

Revelations that money from the wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to Washington, may have found its way to two of the September 11 hijackers have revived an often bitter debate about whether the Saudis are doing enough in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

A study released by the Council on Foreign Relations last month slammed the Saudi record in unusually blunt language.

"It is worth stating clearly and unambiguously what official U.S. government spokespersons have not," the report said. "For years, individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al Qaeda; and for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem."

Saudi citizens and Saudi-based charities helped fund Islamic fighters in Afghanistan and militant Islamic schools in Pakistan, according to the council's study, written by two former National Security Council members.

Saudi nationals, including Osama bin Laden, "constitute a disproportionate percentage of al Qaeda's membership," the study said. Fifteen of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.

Among the instances critics cite:

*Saudi-backed humanitarian organizations, such as the Mercy International Relief Organization, have been named as front groups for terrorist operations, including the operatives who carried out the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

*The al-Wafa Humanitarian Organization, another major Saudi charity, has been linked to bin Laden's organization, carrying out legitimate charity work as well as financing more suspect groups.

*The Saudi government has made payments of about $5,000 each to the families of more than 100 Palestinian suicide bombers. The payments were detailed in records recovered by the Israeli army during raids in the spring.

*The Saudi High Commission for Aid to Bosnia, established by a Saudi prince, was found to have photos of the World Trade Center and other terrorist targets when NATO officials raided its headquarters in September last year.

*The CIA is circulating to banks worldwide a secret list of 12 prominent Saudi businessmen accused of continuing to funnel millions of dollars to bin Laden, ABC News reported yesterday. All have business or personal connections to the royal family.

Saudi defenders, who maintain an aggressive and well-funded public relations team in Washington, angrily deny any suggestion that the kingdom supports terrorist groups. They say the Saudi kingdom's record of generosity and support of charities throughout the Muslim world has been used against it by enemies of better U. …