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Saudi Arabian Anti-Terror Efforts Get Mixed Review in US Congress - 2004-03-25

U.S. officials have told Congress Saudi Arabia continues to increase its cooperation with efforts to cut off financing of terrorist groups. However, many lawmakers remain dissatisfied with Saudi actions.

The latest congressional hearing on Saudi Arabian cooperation with the war on terror heard from the top State Department official for counterterrorism, Cofer Black.

Saying the "dialogue" with Saudi Arabia has grown "closer and closer", Mr. Black says Riyadh now fully understands the threat terrorism poses to Saudi stability. "The Saudis have been confronted with the horror of suicide attacks on their own soil, and seen how the virtuous intentions of charity can be corrupted for the support of terrorism and terrorists," he said. Mr. Black and other officials say Saudi cooperation increased markedly after last year's suicide attacks in Riyadh. However, his statement that there is clear evidence of Saudi royal family commitment to the anti-terror fight brought some skeptical reactions from lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle.

"I want to believe that the Saudi government is sincere when it says it is intent on stopping al-Qaida," said Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the Middle East subcommittee. "I also want to believe they are sincere in stopping the money flow to them. But I want to see the results of these actions."

Lawmakers praised Saudi cooperation with Washington on a joint task force on terrorist financing, and a new law making money-laundering and terrorist financing criminal offenses.

However, they fault the Saudi government on other issues.

"While the formation of both the high commission for charities and a financial intelligence unit have been announced, it isn't clear that either of these organizations has had an adequate staff or budget," said Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat. "Similarly, it is not yet clear that Saudi officials are willing to prosecute Saudis for involvement in terrorism financing."

State Department official Cofer Black says there has been what he calls an "impressive array" of institutional, legal and regulatory changes to combat terrorist financing.

"Saudi officials are beginning to make the kind of fundamental and necessary changes to their financial and charity systems which will choke off flow of funds that keep al-Qaida and other terrorists in business," he said.

However, in other testimony, Steve Simon of the Rand Corporation said that while the Saudi government now understands the importance of stopping terrorist financing, such funds continue to flow.

"We know that money is going to [the terrorist organization] Hamas, in significant sums from Saudi Arabia, at least viewed against the scale of Hamas requirements, maybe $12 million to $14 million a year," he said.

Mr. Simon calls U.S. Saudi initiatives very impressive, but in his words, "thus far there appears to be very little follow through."