- Kingdom says it has frozen bank accounts, established hotline
- Dispute comes amid rising tensions in U.S.-Saudi relationship
Officials from Saudi Arabia stepped up a defense of their efforts to fight terrorist financing ahead of a hearing on Capitol Hill, as pressure increases on the U.S. to declassify documents related to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The Saudi government has frozen 117 bank accounts suspected of being used to transfer money to terrorist groups and is making all efforts to stop individuals from misusing charitable foundations to fund terrorism, Major General Mansour Al-Turki, a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Washington Wednesday via a conference call from Riyadh. The government has prosecuted 240 suspects on charges related to funding terrorism, he added.
"The kingdom has always been serious in its effort in confronting terror financing,” Al-Turki said. "We are monitoring all transactions to banks" and investigating the frozen accounts, he added.
While the U.S. and Saudis are longtime allies, relations have been roiled by the Obama administration’s participation in the nuclear deal with Iran and by Senate legislation passed in May that would let American victims and their families sue other countries over alleged involvement in the 2001 attacks. In an interview with the Atlantic magazine published in April, President Barack Obama called the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia “complicated” and said the Sunni-led kingdom should “share” the Middle East with Shiite Iran, its chief rival.
Long-standing suspicions by some Americans that Saudi Arabia has financed groups linked to terrorism, or failed to crack down on them, have re-emerged in recent months. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were identified as Saudi nationals.
All this is prelude to Thursday’s joint hearing by House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs subcommittees on "Stopping the Money Flow: The War on Terror Finance." Officials from the U.S. departments of Treasury, State and Defense are scheduled to testify. The session starts at 2 p.m. EST.
Ahead of that session, the Saudis underscored that they are also targeted by terrorists. Islamic State militants have targeted the kingdom in 26 attacks within the country in the past two years, Al-Turki said. More than 100 police and civilians have been killed or injured in the attacks.
Among the steps Al-Turki said the government has taken to stop terrorist financing are:
- Banning any individuals or organizations from raising money for charities or sending money for humanitarian causes abroad. Now all overseas donations, whether from the government or private entities, must go through the state-run King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre.
- Tracking social media, television and the internet for anyone calling on Sunni Muslims to donate to causes.
- Establishing a hotline for people to report suspected activity. Al-Turki said 70 percent of the information received about cases have come through tips from the hotline.
Al-Turki said people are drawn to contribute by false narratives of groups calling for humanitarian aid, without realizing the money is going to terrorists. "People are misled by individuals all over the region" through social media, the internet and on television, he said. He cited current calls for donations to help children in Fallujah, Iraq, where forces are trying to recapture the city from Islamic State.
"You can’t control the sympathy of people," he said.
The Saudis have said the Senate-passed legislation allowing lawsuits could lead them to shed their investments in the U.S. The New York Times reported in April that Saudi officials said they would sell $750 billion of Treasuries and other assets in the U.S. if Congress passed the bill. The White House has said Obama would veto the legislation.
In May, the Treasury Department released a breakdown of Saudi Arabia’s holdings of U.S. debt. The stockpile stood at $116.8 billion as of March, up from $82.7 billion two years earlier, according to data disclosed in response to a Freedom-of-Information Act request filed by Bloomberg News.
A U.S. commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks said in its report that it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al-Qaeda."
But some members of Congress have called for the release of 28 classified pages from an earlier report by the House and Senate intelligence committees which discussed possible involvement by foreign governments. A CBS “60 Minutes” report in April suggested a Saudi diplomat “known to hold extremist views” may have helped the hijackers after they traveled to the U.S. to prepare for the attacks.