|11 September 2001>News Stories>Naming of Hijackers as Saudis May Further Erode Ties to U.S.
Naming of Hijackers as Saudis May Further Erode Ties to U.S.
Elaine Sciolino with Neil MacFarquhar . NYTimes . 24 October
Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, with President Bush in the Oval Office. The Saudis value such personal contacts highly.
Fifteen of the 19 men who hijacked four airplanes on Sept. 11 were from Saudi Arabia, Federal authorities have said, a disclosure that is likely to complicate an already tangled and difficult relationship between Washington and Riyadh.
The identities and nationalities of the hijackers had been uncertain since the planes crashed. But after weeks of investigation here and in Saudi Arabia, federal authorities say they are now sure.
Even before the discovery that most of the hijackers were Saudis, the attacks had exposed the hidden flaws in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
In the best of times, relations with Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil supplier, are fraught with misunderstanding, insecurity and ignorance. The Saudis have long frustrated American policymakers with their ambivalence on military matters, regional diplomacy and intelligence- sharing. Real progress is made only when the most senior officials sit down behind closed doors, and the fruits of those discussions are often not seen until years later.
During the past six weeks both governments have struggled to paper over their differences and return to the basic compact: the Saudis deliver oil, the Americans deliver the weaponry that protects the oil.
"There have been and still are two pillars of the relationship: oil and security," said one senior American official who deals with Saudi Arabia. "Oil runs the world and the Saudis are the linchpin of oil production."
The Saudis have their complaints about American behavior. The Bush administration did not include them among the allies who were informed in advance of the organizations linked to terrorism whose assets were frozen by the Treasury Department, for example, and the Saudis were deeply offended, administration officials said.
Riyadh has not yet fully joined the international effort to block bank accounts thought to be financing terrorist operations, American officials say. But the Bush administration, fearful of offending the Saudis, has not yet raised a public complaint.
Asked at a news conference on Saturday whether Saudi Arabia had found and frozen the bank accounts of organizations linked to terrorism, Prince Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud, the interior minister, said Saudi authorities and banks "have not established any accounts linked to Al Qaeda, bin Laden or any quarter associated with terrorism."
He added that the United States had yet to prove illegal financial activity, saying: "We are not acquitting anyone. But we hope that the competent U.S. authorities will provide us with any conclusive facts that they may have."
And the Saudis have refused to admit that the terrorists could have operated from Saudi territory, even though the hijackers' nationalities exposed the extent to which a terrorist network exists in the kingdom, and its own vulnerabilty.
Saudi authorities assisted the United States in confirming the identities of the hijackers, helping American investigators reach the conclusion that 15 of the 19 were Saudis. American investigators also say some recruiting, financing and planning for the attacks occurred on Saudi soil.
After weeks of avoiding the issue of who was responsible for the attacks, Prince Nayif acknowledged the kingdom's vulnerability to home- grown terrorism.
"We will not forget that those who now are in their caves and burrows, they are the ones who do harm to the kingdom," he said in a recent speech to security officers, "and unfortunately Muslims are being held accountable for them although Islam is innocent."
No one, not even their relatives, should show terrorists sympathy, the prince said, adding: "The body has diseases and some organ could be diseased. So the diseased organ must be removed." Osama bin Laden was born a Saudi but the ruling family stripped him of his passport in 1994.
After his remarks were interpreted as an admission that the attacks could have been planned in the kingdom, Prince Nayif said at the news conference that perhaps he had been misunderstood. He announced that no one linked to Al Qaeda or other terrorism suspects had been found in Saudi Arabia saying, "We, the official authorities in this country, have not received any material evidence convicting any Saudi."
That sort of statement has fueled criticism in the United States, particularly in Congress, that Saudi Arabia is an unreliable partner.
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., for example, Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Monday that Saudi Arabia "is funding hatred." He also said the United States had "gone overboard" in its "love affair" with Saudi Arabia.
"I know they've got a lot of oil, but they need us more than we need them," he told editors at The New York Times.
That is certainly not the Bush administration's stated position toward moderate Arab states, a position that might be described as "ask little, expect little."
That minimalist approach was evident during Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, in which he purposely raised nothing sensitive.
Aides said Mr. Rumsfeld did not inquire about the Saudi citizens on the administration's list of suspected terrorists or the Saudis' unwillingness to allow American warplanes to fly missions from bases in Saudi Arabia. Nor did he complain about the lack of transparency about what Riyadh was doing to stop aid to the Taliban, senior administration officials said.
Instead, Mr. Rumsfeld kept things politely vague, reassuring his hosts of America's friendship and reminding King Fahd of their first meeting in the early 1980's, when Mr. Rumsfeld was President Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East.
The administration feels that in the current crisis, it is even more difficult to ask the Saudis for help than it was in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. "Even though the Saudis may feel threatened by Sept. 11, it's not the whole Iraqi army crouched on their border," said one top American official. "So we have been very careful in and measured in what we are asking from them."
The Saudis are treading lightly as well. During Mr. Rumsfeld's visit, American officials said, no Saudi official raised the issue that has intruded into every serious bilateral conversation since the beginning of the Bush administration: Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The Saudis feel Washington has given the Israeli government tacit support for its crackdown on Palestinian violence.
The issue was so important to Saudi Arabia that it prompted Crown Prince Abdullah to abandon plans to visit President Bush in Washington earlier this year, according to senior administration officials.
Even the most pro-Saudi current and former administration officials admit that the closed nature of Saudi society, the restrictions the royal family has placed on the relationship and a shortage of American government experts on the kingdom have made Saudi Arabia one of the least understood of America's allies. A senior intelligence official confessed that decision-making by the royal family, the mood of the merchant families and the sentiment in the mosques are "black holes."
The United States has long allowed itself to depend largely on the secretive royal family for information. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador, has enjoyed direct access to presidents since he arrived in Washington in 1983. President Clinton and Prince Bandar sometimes met in private, without even the knowledge of White House or State Department officials.
The Saudis have long demanded that the United States send a political appointee with close ties to the sitting president as ambassador to Riyadh, rather than a career Foreign Service officer with knowledge of the region and language skills. The latest ambassador, Robert Jordan, a friend of President Bush from Texas, arrived last week; his predecessor, Wyche Fowler, a former Democratic Senator and Congressman from Georgia, left last February.
Finally, there is also an official American reluctance to delve too deeply. When a number of senior United States intelligence officials tried to undertake a full-scale study known as a National Intelligence Estimate to assess the stability of Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990's, White House officials blocked the effort, arguing that the inevitably negative conclusions would leak.
"The attitude was: `Don't touch this kind of stuff. It's too delicate to handle. We don't want to anger the people we need,' " said one former senior administration official. The study has yet to be done.