WASHINGTON—Saudi Arabia--although long considered a crucial ally of the United States--has provided little if any assistance to investigators hunting the friends and finances of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terror network, according to intelligence and law enforcement specialists.
On Sept. 20, President Bush sought to put the world on notice that he saw no gray area in the fight against terrorism, warning that "from this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
"It's a problem," said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in the Middle East. "Saudi Arabia is completely unsupportive as of today. The rank-and-file Saudi policeman is sympathetic to Bin Laden. They're not telling us who these people were on the planes."
Vincent M. Cannistraro, the former chief of counter-terrorism operations for the CIA, also said that the U.S. is getting little if anything from its presumed ally.
"We're getting zero cooperation now," said Cannistraro, who earlier worked in Saudi Arabia for the agency. "There is a whole pile of Saudi businessmen who have been providing regular contributions to Al Qaeda."
Cannistraro, who left the CIA in 1990 after a 27-year career, said he has retained contacts within Saudi Arabia. Based on their information, Cannistraro said he believes the amount of money flowing from there to Al Qaeda is, "at a minimum, tens of millions a year. That's a bare minimum. . . . The amounts of money from Saudi businessmen going to the Al Qaeda organization accounts for much of the resources the Al Qaeda has."
Six or more of the 19 suspected hijackers who crashed U.S. jetliners on Sept. 11 are believed to have obtained their visas at the U.S. consulate in Jidda, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar, did not respond to repeated messages seeking his comment for this article. Bandar has recently denied that members of the royal family have sent money to Bin Laden. But Bandar also has said that Saudi citizens over the years have paid "religious" taxes to charitable organizations and that proceeds were, in turn, funneled to Afghanistan.
"I am not saying somebody will not use the goodwill of these charity organizations and recycle that money and send it for a bad cause," Bandar told PBS' "Frontline" this week. "I am not denying that. I am saying we have never been confronted with such a possibility without taking a look at it. And if it's true, we stopped it. . . . Anybody who sends money to those bad guys, we should be after them."
Bandar, however, is but one voice within the roiled Saudi monarchy.
"The Saudi royal family is divided, and that's what accounts for this paralysis," said Paul Michael Wihbe, a Middle East specialist and former consultant to the U.S. Defense Department who is now with the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in Washington.
Wihbe, who in 1997 wrote a report, "Succession in Saudi Arabia: The Not-So-Silent Struggle," said that support for Bin Laden's message and resentment of the U.S. run deep there. He said these realities are not lost on members of a royal family whose grip on power could be loosening.
"In Saudi Arabia he [Bin Laden] has, no doubt, tremendous support within the . . . clergy," Wihbe said. "There is tremendous support for him in the middle class, in the professional class--and in the armed forces."
Indeed, Wihbe noted that three clerics of the Wahhabi branch of Islam, the predominant, conservative faith of Saudi Arabia, recently issued decrees against the House of Saud monarchy. The clerics' fatwas repudiated the monarchy's relationship with the U.S.
"This is unprecedented--it's a challenge to the House of Saud," Wihbe said, adding that what has ensued is an "unprecedented distancing" in Saudi-U.S. relations.
Bush appeared to acknowledge the delicacy of the moment during his news conference on Thursday night, asking and answering his own question on the subject. "[Am] I pleased with the actions of Saudi Arabia? I am," Bush said.
Yet Cannistraro, the former CIA official who worked in Saudi Arabia, said the situation is far more problematic. He noted that Turki bin Faisal, the veteran head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service--a Georgetown University graduate who had been a reliable counterpart for U.S., British and French intelligence--was ousted in late August by the head of the country's military, Crown Prince Abdullah.
"He was sacked with no explanation," Cannistraro said, adding that the newly installed Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Nawaf ibn Abdulaziz, has "no background in intelligence whatsoever."