RIYADH, Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia yesterday acknowledged for the first time that 15 of the September 11 hijackers were Saudi citizens but said that the oil-rich kingdom bears no responsibility for their actions.
Previously, Saudi Arabia had said the citizenship of 15 of the 19 hijackers was in doubt despite U.S. insistence they were Saudis. But Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz told the Associated Press that Saudi leaders were shocked to learn 15 of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.
“The names that we got confirmed that,” Prince Nayef said in an interview. “Their families have been notified.”
Osama bin Laden the chief suspect in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks that killed more than 3,000 people was Saudi-born but stripped of his citizenship in 1994.
Asked if he had information on whether bin Laden was dead or alive, Prince Nayef said, “We have no information, and we have no interest in this subject.”
Prince Nayef also said the kingdom has detained about 30 people since the attacks, based on lists provided by the United States. Some have been released.
He said the men still in detention “have been influenced by bin Laden’s thinking.”
“It’s possible that we will find among them members of [bin Ladens al Qaeda] organization,” he added. “But so far we haven’t found anything.”
Prince Nayef said the measures were not in response to any pressure from the United States, “but we welcome any information that’s provided to us, and we want to be cooperative.”
He said he believed the Saudis “were taken advantage of in the name of religion and regarding certain issues pertaining to the Arab nation, especially the issue of Palestine.”
He said Saudi Arabia is not responsible for the actions of the hijackers. “This is the truth and I defy anyone to prove it,” he added.
Prince Nayef said that Saudi banks have not frozen any bank accounts. He also said that Saudi charities “won’t be allowed by the state or those who work in them to be used for other purposes. But you cannot guarantee that a person or more could misuse” their responsibilities.
The United States has accused some Islamic charities of funding terrorist operations. The Saudi-based Wafa Humanitarian Organization, whose operations include food distribution and construction of a clinic in the Afghan capital, Kabul, is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained in the wake of September 11, with criticism from the United States that the Saudis are doing too little to hunt down terrorist links in the kingdom. The Saudis counter that they are being unfairly accused because of the actions of a few, and claim criticism in the U.S. media is Israel-inspired.
Prince Nayef said yesterday that Zionism was behind an “unjustified” anti-Saudi campaign in the United States.
He said the Islam preached and taught in Saudi Arabia rejects extremism. “We are not Taliban,” he said, referring to the extremist militia that once ruled Afghanistan and harbored bin Laden. “We believe and live by the right Islam.”
Prince Nayef dismissed reports of widespread popularity for bin Laden in the kingdom. He said bin Laden was a “tool” of others rather than the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. He did not say who he thought was the mastermind.
The minister said there was no evidence so far of al Qaeda cells operating in Saudi Arabia, but added, “There may be a limited number of people that we don’t know about.”