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Published: Tuesday, 7/1/2003

The Saudi connection

A rising number of arrests of al-Qaeda operatives overseas has made it increasingly obvious that American military action would have been more effective against terrorism had it been aimed not at Iraq but Saudi Arabia.

This impression was bolstered during a congressional hearing last week that explored money links between Saudi officials and institutions and Islamic extremists.

David Aufhauser, general counsel for the Treasury Department, told the Senate Judiciary Committee's terrorism panel that Saudi Arabia is in many ways “the epicenter” of funding for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

In particular, Mr. Aufhauser cited official support of Wahhabism, which he described as a “severe and uncompromising” Islamic movement.

While taking care to note that the U.S. is “not at war with a faith, nor with any particular sect,” Mr. Aufhauser said continued Saudi funding of Wahhabism “is a combustible compound when mixed with religious teachings in thousands of [Islamic schools] that condemn pluralism and mark nonbelievers as enemies.”

Such blunt talk from Bush Administration officials has been remarkably absent since the 9/11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers turned out to be Saudis.

And not until the May 12 suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed 25 people, including nine Americans, did the Saudi government really make a serious move against al-Qaeda on its own soil.

No westerner knows how much support flows to terrorists from the oil-rich Saudi kingdom, although it is reputed to be in the billions of dollars, disguised in some cases as charitable aid. But there is little doubt that the money comes from official or quasi-official sources.

As the chairman of the Senate panel, Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, put it, “The problem we are looking at today is the state-sponsored doctrine and funding of an extremist ideology that provides the recruiting grounds, support infrastructure, and monetary lifeblood to today's international terrorists.”

Americans may well wonder why the United States did not attack Saudi Arabia but sent its forces into Iraq, which it now appears had no significant connection with Osama bin Laden's group.

The answer lies not just in the barbarity of Saddam Hussein and his elusive weapons of mass destruction, but in the extraordinary hold Saudi Arabia's oil and other business connections seem to have over the Bush Administration.

While the depth of that mystery may never be adequately plumbed, it is encouraging that some in Congress are looking for answers in the right places.

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