- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Bush administration officials yesterday praised the efforts of the Saudi Arabian government in combating terrorism, rejecting criticisms that the desert kingdom was not doing enough to fight Islamist extremists.

“It is clear that the Saudi government ‘gets it’ when it comes to terrorism,” said J. Cofer Black, coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.

Mr. Black, as well as officials from the Treasury Department and the FBI, said at a House committee hearing that the Saudis had made immense strides in the past year and half in intelligence sharing as well as regulation of networks suspected of financing terrorists.

Thomas J. Harrington, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, said terrorist attacks in May and November on Saudi soil have led to more cooperation from the kingdom’s government.

The U.S. and Saudi governments created a joint task force on terrorist financing in August. In addition, Saudi officials instituted training programs to block terrorist financing and money laundering.

Because much of the money used in the September 11, 2001, attacks had come from Saudi Arabia, a top priority has been to enhance the transparency and accountability of its financial systems, said Juan Zarte, lead Treasury counterterrorism official.

He cited the kingdom’s crackdown on cash donations made to previously unregulated charitable organizations that could serve as a front for terrorists.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s official status as an ally in the war on terror, the conservative Arab state has come in for strong criticism for lack of effort in the global war on terrorism and its role in spreading a fundamentalist form of Islam. Skepticism soared after the September 11 attacks, in which 15 out of 19 of the hijackers were Saudi nationals.

“I’m not overly impressed with our Saudi partners,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley, Nevada Democrat. “They’ve been exporting terrorism all over the world in the mistaken belief that they wouldn’t be victims.”

“If we want to get serious about fighting terrorism, we need to stop pretending they’re allies and friends of ours,” Mrs. Berkley said.

Private analysts at the hearing emphasized that although the institutional framework to fight terrorism in Saudi Arabia has been set up, there is very little follow-through.

Steven Simon, a senior analyst with the Rand Corp., said implementation of the changes is a challenge because of widespread belief among Saudis that the Muslim world is under attack in the U.S.-led war on terror.

Many people’s response is to come the defense of Muslims by donating money to the cause, Mr. Simon said.

“This obligation is deeply rooted in the culture,” he said.

“We have a hard time penetrating these groups because they are believers,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who served in the Middle East.

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