Saudi Arabia is hub of world terror
The desert kingdom supplies the cash and the killers
Nick Fielding and Sarah Baxter, Washington
It was an occasion for tears and celebration as the Knights of Martyrdom proclaimed on video: "Our brother Turki fell during the rays of dawn, covered in blood after he was hit by the bullets of the infidels, following in the path of his brother." The flowery language could not disguise the brutal truth that a Saudi family had lost two sons fighting for Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The elder brother, Khaled, had been a deputy commander of a crack jihadist "special forces" unit. After his "glorious" death, Turki took his place.
"He was deeply affected by the martyrdom of his brother," the Knights said. "He became more ambitious and more passionate about defending the land of Islam and dying as a martyr, like his brother."
Turki's fervent wish was granted earlier this year, but another Saudi national who travelled to Iraq had second thoughts. He was a graduate from a respectable family of teachers and professors who was recruited in a Saudi Arabian mosque and sent to Iraq with $1,000 in travel expenses and the telephone number of a smuggler who could get him across the Syrian border.
In Iraq he was ordered to blow himself up in a tanker on a bridge in Ramadi, but he panicked before he could press the detonator. He was arrested by Iraqi police. In a second lorry, another foreign fighter followed orders and died.
King Abdullah was surprised during his two-day state visit to Britain last week by the barrage of criticism directed at the Saudi kingdom. Officials were in "considerable shock", one former British diplomat said.
Back home the king is regarded as a modest reformer who has cracked down on home-grown terrorism and loosened a few relatively minor restrictions on his subjects' personal freedom.
With oil prices surging, Saudi Arabia is growing in prosperity and embracing some modern trappings. Bibles and crucifixes are still banned, but internet access is spreading and there are plans for "Mile High Tower", the world's tallest skyscraper, in Jeddah. As a key ally of the West, the king had every reason to expect a warm welcome.
Yet wealthy Saudis remain the chief financiers of worldwide terror networks. "If I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off the funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia," said Stuart Levey, the US Treasury official in charge of tracking terror financing.
Extremist clerics provide a stream of recruits to some of the world's nastiest trouble spots.
An analysis by NBC News suggested that the Saudis make up 55% of foreign fighters in Iraq. They are also among the most uncompromising and militant.
Half the foreign fighters held by the US at Camp Cropper near Baghdad are Saudis. They are kept in yellow jumpsuits in a separate, windowless compound after they attempted to impose sharia on the other detainees and preached an extreme form of Wahhabist Islam.
In recent months, Saudi religious scholars have caused consternation in Iraq and Iran by issuing fatwas calling for the destruction of the great Shi'ite shrines in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, some of which have already been bombed. And while prominent members of the ruling al-Saud dynasty regularly express their abhorrence of terrorism, leading figures within the kingdom who advocate extremism are tolerated.
Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, the chief justice, who oversees terrorist trials, was recorded on tape in a mosque in 2004, encouraging young men to fight in Iraq. "Entering Iraq has become risky now," he cautioned. "It requires avoiding those evil satellites and those drone aircraft, which own every corner of the skies over Iraq. If someone knows that he is capable of entering Iraq in order to join the fight, and if his intention is to raise up the word of God, then he is free to do so."
The Bush administration is split over how to deal with the Saudi threat, with the State Department warning against pressure that might lead the royal family to fall and be replaced by more dangerous extremists.
"The urban legend is that George Bush and Dick Cheney are close to the Saudis because of oil and their past ties with them, but they're pretty disillusioned with them," said Stephen Schwartz, of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism in Washington. "The problem is that the Saudis have been part of American policy for so long that it's not easy to work out a solution."
According to Levey, not one person identified by America or the United Nations as a terrorist financier has been prosecuted by Saudi authorities. A fortnight ago exasperated US Treasury officials named three Saudi citizens as terrorist financiers. "In order to deter other would-be donors, it is important to hold these terrorists publicly accountable," Levey said.
All three had worked in the Philippines, where they are alleged to have helped to finance the Abu Sayyaf group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. One, Muham-mad Sughayr, was said to be the main link between Abu Sayyaf and wealthy Gulf donors.
Sughayr was arrested in the Philippines in 2005 and swiftly deported to Saudi Arabia after pressure from the Saudi embassy in Manila. There is no evidence that he was prosecuted on his return home.
This year the Saudis arrested 10 people thought to be terrorist financiers, but the excitement faded when their defence lawyers claimed that they were political dissidents and human rights groups took up their cause.
Matthew Levitt, a former intelligence analyst at the US Treasury and counter-terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes the Saudis could do more. He said: "It is important for the Saudis to hold people publicly accountable. Key financiers have built up considerable personal wealth and are loath to put that at risk. There is some evidence that individuals who have been outed have curtailed their financial activities."
In the past the Saudis openly supported Islamic militants. Osama Bin Laden was originally treated as a favourite son of the regime and feted as a hero for fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Huge charitable organisations such as the International Islamic Relief Organisation and the al-Haramain Foundation – accused in American court documents of having links to extremist groups – flourished, sometimes with patronage from senior Saudi royals.
The 1991 Gulf war was a wake-up call for the Saudis. Bin Laden began making vitriolic attacks on the Saudi royal family for cooperating with the US and demanded the expulsion of foreign troops from Arabia. His citizenship was revoked in 1994. The 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, which killed 19 US servicemen and one Saudi, was a warning that he could strike within the kingdom.
As long as foreigners were the principal targets, the Saudis turned a blind eye to terror. Even the September 11 attacks of 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, could not shake their complacency. Despite promises to crack down on radical imams, Saudi mosques continued to preach hatred of America.
The mood began to change in 2003 and 2004, when Al-Qaeda mounted a series of terrorist attacks within the kingdom that threatened to become an insurgency. "They finally acknowledged at the highest levels that they had a problem and it was coming for them," said Rachel Bronson, the author of Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia.
Assassination attempts against security officials caused some of the royals to fear for their own safety. In May 2004 Islamic terrorists struck two oil industry installations and a foreigners' housing compound in Khobar, taking 50 hostages and killing 22 of them.
The Saudi authorities began to cooperate more with the FBI, clamp down on extremist charities, monitor mosques and keep a watchful eye on fighters returning from Iraq.
Only last month Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, the kingdom's leading cleric, criticised gullible Saudis for becoming "convenient knights for whoever wants to exploit their zeal, even to the point of turning them into walking bombs".
And last week in London, King Abdullah warned young British Muslims not to become involved with extremists.
Yet the Saudis' ambivalence towards terrorism has not gone away. Money for foreign fighters and terror groups still pours out of the kingdom, but it now tends to be carried in cash by couriers rather than sent through the wires, where it can be stopped and identified more easily.
A National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad, a nongovernmental organisation that was intended to regulate private aid abroad to guard against terrorist financing, has still not been created three years after it was trumpeted by the Saudi embassy in Washington.
Hundreds of Islamic militants have been arrested but many have been released after undergoing reeducation programmes led by Muslim clerics.
According to the daily Alwa-tan, the interior ministry has given 115m riyals (£14.7m) to detainees and their families to help them to repay debts, to assist families with health care and housing, to pay for weddings and to buy a car on their release. The most needy prisoners' families receive 2,000-3,000 riyals (£286 to £384) a month.
Ali Sa'd Al-Mussa, a lecturer at King Khaled University in Abha, protested: "I'm afraid that holding [extremist] views leads to earning a prize or, worse, a steady income."
Former detainees from the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are also benefiting. To celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid, 55 prisoners were temporarily released last month and given the equivalent of £1,300 each to spend with their families.
School textbooks still teach the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antiSemitic forgery, and preach hatred towards Christians, Jews and other religions, including Shi'ite Muslims, who are considered heretics.
Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, said: "The Saudi education system has over 5m children using these books. If only one in 1,000 take these teachings to heart and seek to act on them violently, there will be 5,000 terrorists."
In frustration, Arlen Specter, the Republican senator for Pennsylvania, introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act 10 days ago, calling for strong encouragement of the Saudi government to "end its support for institutions that fund, train, incite, encourage or in any other way aid and abet terrorism".
The act, however, is expected to die when it reaches the Senate foreign relations committee: the Bush administration is counting on Saudi Arabia to help stabilise Iraq, curtail Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions and give a push to the Israeli and Palestinian peace process at a conference due to be held this month in Annapolis, Maryland.
"Do we really want to take on the Saudis at the moment?" asks Bronson. "We've got enough problems as it is."
Additional reporting: Marie Colvin and Ben Hardy, Jeddah
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