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Saudi Arabia to Impose Stricter Controls on Charities - 2002-12-04

The Bush administration is welcoming Saudi Arabia's announcement of new steps to crack down on charitable contributions that may be winding up in the hands of terrorists. A working group of experts of the two governments will meet in Washington next month to explore further steps.

The Bush administration had been pressing Saudi Arabia behind-the-scenes for stronger controls on its charitable organizations. And its announcement in Washington Tuesday of new steps to protect against the diversion of contributions drew an immediate welcome from the State Department.

Spokesman Philip Reeker said improved oversight of financial transfers is "essential" to "reduce and impede" financial support of terrorism originating in Saudi Arabia.

"We strongly support comprehensive monitoring of charitable organizations based in the kingdom to insure that well-intentioned donations are used for their intended purpose and not to finance or abet terrorists," he explained. "We also believe that such monitoring, especially of donations leaving the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, can prevent those who would assist terrorists from using the charitable generosity of Saudi citizens as cover for their activities."

Mr. Reeker made the comments after Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign policy adviser to Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, held an unusually-high profile Washington news conference to announce new steps to assure that Saudi gifts do not go astray.

He spoke a week after reports surfaced in Washington that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into whether charitable payments from Princess Faisal al-Haifa, the wife of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, might have reached two of the perpetrators of last September's New York and Washington terror attacks.

Mr. Al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia has no evidence to suggest that the princesses charitable donations or any others found their way to the hijackers, and he lamented what he said was a "feeding frenzy" of news reports in Washington impugning Saudi Arabia's commitment against terrorism.

"We believe that our country has been unfairly maligned," he said. "We believe that we have been subjected to criticisms that we did not deserve. We believe that people have been misinformed about Saudi Arabia, and what Saudi Arabia has done. Or, frankly that people have lied about what we have done or what we allegedly have not done."

The Saudi efforts to combat terrorist funding, described by Mr. Al-Jubeir and in a written report, include the creation of a "high commission" for oversight of all charities and the drafting of new procedures to ensure that terrorist organizations do not get access to Saudi donations in the future. The Saudi government has also frozen more than $5 million in the assets of three suspect individuals.

State Department spokesman Reeker said the United States is encouraged by Saudi efforts and expects "continued and comprehensive" exchanges on the funding issue with Saudi officials. He said such cooperation would be the main topic of conversation at a meeting of "the U.S.-Saudi Joint Working Group of Terrorism" to be held in Washington in early January.