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Saudi crackdown on charities seen as incomplete

The kingdom last week said it would close a charity accused of backing Al Qaeda, but others remain open.

Last week the Saudi Arabian government reversed years of policy when it promised to swiftly dissolve the operations of Al Haramain, a charity with close ties to the Saudi government the US alleges is one of the "principal" backers of Al Qaeda.

Though US officials have complained about the charity since at least 1998, the Saudi government's typical response had been that while some individuals within the sprawling charity might have ties to known terrorists, its operations were overwhelming peaceful and its problems not systemic.

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That all changed last week at a Saudi press conference held not in Riyadh but at its embassy in Washington, DC. It was evidence of how crucial the US relationship is to the Saudi monarchy as it grapples with a rising tide of militant activity at home - including the killing of an American worker Tuesday, the shooting of two BBC journalists Sunday, and attacks in Khobar that killed dozens late last month.

"Al Qaeda is trying to destabilize our economy and our government," Adel Al-Jubeir, a foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, told reporters in Washington last week, explaining why the charity is being shut down. Mr. Jubeir said the kingdom is "going after the mindset that foments and justifies acts of terror" and that Saudi Arabi wants to ensure "there is no room for incitement or intolerance."

US counterterrorism and Treasury officials described Riyahdh's decision to shutter Haramain and exercise more control over foreign aid as a major blow against Islamist terror groups. But other analysts greeted the Saudi announcement with some skepticism, noting that the problem is greater than one charity, and that past Saudi efforts to crack down have failed.

"I do think it's a positive step but it was only a first step,'' says Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons college in Boston and a specialist in Al Qaeda and militant Islamist movements. Mr. Abuza points out that there are a number of other Saudi charities tied to terror - among them the World Assembly of Moslem Youth, or WAMY, and the International Islamic Relief Organization. Neither group was mentioned at last week's press conference.

"They have to put all of these groups under special government control, and it doesn't seem they're doing it yet,'' says Abuza.

The Saudi government announced it would create a National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad that would take over the activities of Al Haramain and some other smaller Saudi charities. The commission would manage up to $100 million a year, according to Jubeir.

It isn't the first major announcement made by Jubeir on Al Haramain. In June 2003, he said in Washington that Haramain's international operations would be shut down immediately, but that was followed by a defiant statement in November from the charity's founder and chairman, Aqeel al-Aqeel, who said the group was still at work in 70-odd countries. Mr. Aqeel was later removed.

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One of the pillars of the Islamic faith is the paying of alms, or the zakat. Much of the giving by oil rich Saudis over the decades has been to government-linked charities with the dual mission of doing good works and propagating the country's strict Wahabbi Islam.

In the 1990s, many of the kingdom's most militant and committed preachers and young men were sent overseas to work and preach. They were given tacit approval for militant activities abroad so long as the same methods were not brought to bear against the monarchy, which men like Osama bin Laden consider to be corrupt and illegitimate.

The approach was seen as a release valve for the most extreme religious strains inside Saudi Arabia. Al Haramain was one of the main conduits to the "Services Bureau" run by Mr. bin Laden in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, and which later evolved into Al Qaeda.

With violence rising inside Saudi Arabia now, US officials say that Riyadh is convinced it needs to change tack.

US and Saudi officials presented the decision as a major blow for the financing to Islamist terror groups like Al Qaeda, which have benefited over the years from the millions of dollars that flow through Saudi Arabia's vast, and largely unsupervised, international charity network.

Al Haramain offices and officials have had links to terror attacks on at least four continents, from the Bali nightclub bombings that killed some 200 people in 2002, to the 1998 attacks against US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"I think the action ... was an important one. It was far-reaching. It indicates [Saudi] seriousness [in] dealing with the issue of terrorism finance," US Treasury Secretary John Snow told reporters last week.

However, Lee Wolosky, a former director for transnational threats on the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, says that while shuttering Al Haramain is a "very significant step" there have been promises of Saudi reform in the past that weren't carried out.

"These issues are always matters of implementation,'' says Mr. Wolosky. "There's been very spotty enforcement in the past, some but not all of it attributable to officials in Riyadh."

Wolosky also says the full scope of the Saudi reforms isn't clear, and that if they don't include organizations like WAMY, they will have less bite.

"Question No. 1 is 'will all of these charities be folded into this new government entity,''' says Wolosky. "A lot of the likely suspects weren't mentioned in the press conference."

Another problem is that while Saudi Arabia's words have been tough, the country has yet to take tough action against key Al Haramain figures, particularly Aqeel, the organization's founder and chairman until late last year.

"Under Aqeel's leadership ... numerous [Al Haramain] field offices and representatives operating throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America appeared to be providing financial and material support to the Al Qaeda network," the US Treasury Department said in a press release last week.

Still, while Aqeel was removed from Al Haramain in late 2003, he hasn't been arrested in Saudi Arabia for his alleged terrorist ties, nor have Wael Julaidan or Yassin al-Qadi, two other Al Haramain leaders the US has put on its terrorism watch list.

Aqeel told two Arab-language newspapers last week that he intends to go to court in the US to protest the US allegations.

"I have helped the poor, the orphans, and widowed,'' he told Al-Hayat, a London-based paper. "These accusations are wrong and we will prove it."

While direct ties to terrorism are one thing, the US has also long worried about the intolerant brand of Islam that Saudi charities seek to export. The World Assembly of Moslem Youth, for instance, distributes and publishes books worldwide - some describing a vast Jewish conspiracy to take over the world and destroy Muslims.

"It's not just direct links to terrorism,'' says Abuza. "It's the infrastructure of terror that these groups put in place, creating mosques and scholarships that get people into an intolerant system," says Abuza.