- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

A Saudi foreign policy adviser said yesterday that 16 al Qaeda terror suspects extradited from Iran will be tried inside Saudi Arabia, and he would not guarantee that U.S. interrogators will have access to them.

In an interview on CNN's "Late Edition," Adel al-Jubeir also avoided comment on extraditing them to the United States. But he insisted any information Saudis learn about the suspects through interrogations now under way will be provided to the United States.

"Let me put it this way: If they are Saudis, and they committed a crime, and they're guilty of that crime, they will be put on trial inside Saudi Arabia and they will be punished severely," he said. "I can assure you that our justice system is very swift, and it's very harsh with evildoers."

In appearances on several talk shows yesterday, both Mr. al-Jubeir and Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said Iran had handed over to Riyadh 16 Saudis suspected of involvement in the al Qaeda terrorist network. They had reportedly fled Afghanistan and were seeking refuge in neighboring Iran.

"We have been handed the 16 members, and they are being interrogated," Prince Saud said on ABC's "This Week." He said the men will remain in custody until the interrogation is complete.

Asked what Saudis will then do with the suspects, the prince said, "The innocent ones will be let go, and the guilty ones would be incarcerated and brought to trial."

Mr. al-Jubeir was asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether the suspects will be turned over to the United States and "brought to the Guantanamo base," so they can be questioned directly by U.S. military officials.

"We are interrogating them in Saudi Arabia. We're sharing all of that with the United States," he said. "Those that deserve punishment will be punished, and I assure you that punishment will be severe in Saudi Arabia."

On CNN, interviewer Paula Zahn kept pressing the Saudi foreign policy adviser on whether his government would give U.S. interrogators access to the suspected terrorists so they can "ask their own questions."

Mr. al-Jubeir did not respond directly.

"There are ways where the objectives can be accomplished without violating issues of national sovereignty. I can assure you that the United States intelligence community, that the U.S. law-enforcement agencies will be fully satisfied with the cooperation they will get from Saudi Arabia. And let me leave it at that," he said.

American law enforcement has complained in the past about Saudi noncooperation in terrorism investigations.

The Saudis did not cooperate with U.S. investigators attempting to identify and capture the perpetrators of the 1996 attacks on the Khobar Towers barracks near Dhahran, which killed 19 service members. Hezbollah, backed by Iran, is believed behind the attack.

Another four Saudis confessed to the 1995 car bombing of a U.S.-run military training center in Riyadh that killed five Americans and two others.

But Saudi legal officials had them beheaded before U.S. investigators could interrogate them. U.S. investigators believe the attackers were Hezbollah members.

Despite repeated requests, the White House yesterday did not make a statement about the al Qaeda exchange between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. lawmakers yesterday expressed skepticism about the Saudis and their cooperation in the war on terrorism and the latest development on the al Qaeda extradition, which was first reported yesterday in an interview in The Washington Post with Prince Saud.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he hoped the Saudis would cooperate and "allow us to participate in that interrogation, at a minimum, of al Qaeda."

Mr. Levin said on "Meet the Press" that "participation by our FBI and our CIA people" has sometimes been permitted by the Saudis and at other times denied.

He said Saudi support for the war on terrorism thus far has been uneven.

"We've had sort of hot-and-cold support from the Saudis, when it comes to this war on terrorism," he said. "They've not been a consistent ally of ours."

Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican and a member of the Senate intelligence panel, went further yesterday, saying the extraditions do not mark a change in either Tehran's or Riyadh's attitude toward America's war on terrorism.

"This is one instance that serves the purposes of the Saudis and also the Iranians. But over a longer period of time, the track record has not been very good. As far as Iran is concerned, of course, there is indication that they have cooperated and assisted al Qaeda in times past," he said.

Mr. Thompson labeled the U.S.-Saudi relationship "complex," calling it a "marriage of convenience right now."

But he added that the extraditions, however welcome, do not redeem Saudi Arabia's support for terrorist groups.

"But they are the hotbed and the center of the religious extremism that's caused us so much trouble," the Tennessee Republican said. "Most of the hijackers were from there. They give aid and comfort to the clerics there who are preaching anti-Americanism. They're using the U.S. as whipping boys there in their own country to keep those folks off of them, to maintain their own power."

For its part, Iran said yesterday that it handed over the individuals with no preconditions and without determining whether they were tied to terrorism.

"Iran, in the framework of U.N. Security Council resolutions, has handed over the Arab-origin Afghans who entered Iran to their respective countries," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told Reuters.

"Verifying that they belong to al Qaeda, or any other information related to them, is the responsibility of those countries," he said.

In the ABC interview, Prince Saud said it was not up to him to say whether Iran's action would soften the Tehran-Washington relationship, saying that would "completely" be up to Iran and the United States.

"But it seems to be [Irans] cooperation with us has been very important and very significant in fighting this terrorism," the Saudi prince said.

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