'Saudi connection' puts new strain on alliance

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The Independent Online

Investigators are concentrating on a "Saudi connection" to the 11 September terrorist attacks on America, suggesting that part of the conspiracy was hatched there – to the intense disquiet of Saudi Arabia's ruling monarchy.

Relations were already queasy between America and the world's largest oil exporter – which happens to be both Washington's most important ally in the Gulf and the birthplace of Osama bin Laden.

American investigators soon discovered that up to 12 of the 19 hijackers of the four aircraft used that day entered America with Saudi passports or with visas issued by US consulates in that country. Since then more than 700 people have been questioned or detained by the authorities in America in connection with the attacks –among them an unspecified number of Saudi citizens.

Neither the Saudi embassy nor the Justice Department will say how many of the suspects are Saudi: indeed, so little has been divulged, and so minor are some of the charges on which the detainees are being held that American civil rights groups are asking whether their constitutional rights have been violated.

According to lawyers, two members of Saudi Arabia's ruling family were detained for more than 20 days after being picked up at Denver airport. They were released last week, but will still have to answer for minor infringements of immigration laws.

The Saudi embassy has retained lawyers for all the suspects, The Wall Street Journal reported this week, after personal instructions to counsel from Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the veteran Saudi ambassador in Washington, that "each and every one of them is to be helped as if you have no other cases and nothing else to do". This vigorous stance may be an admirable example of a country helping its citizens who find themselves in difficulty on foreign soil. But it is bound to raise fears in America that, as with the investigation into the deadly 1996 attack on US barracks at Khobar, Saudi Arabia, the kingdom might prove less than fully co-operative with US investigators into a terrorist incident with which it is linked.

In the case of the 11 September attacks, pointers to such connections continue to grow.

American investigators believe that several of the hijackers were recruited by al-Qa'ida cells operating in Saudi Arabia itself. The inquiry is focusing on the town of Abha in the south west of the country, where four hijackers are believed to have originated. People from this region have also been linked with the attack on the USS Cole in Aden last October, in which 17 American sailors died.

These allegations, and others that Saudi-based charities and companies have channelled finance to Mr bin Laden and his network, have placed the kingdom on the defensive, and increased resentment of America in Saudi Arabia –the very outcome that the Bush administration is seeking to avoid.

In a television interview last month, Prince Bin Sultan, who has been ambassador since 1983 and is very well connected to the White House, acknowledged that some people in Saudi Arabia supported Mr bin Laden, but said their numbers were few. "When you say 'so many' you have to put it relatively," he told his questioner. "Relative to what? Are there sixteen, twenty, one hundred?

"Bin Laden – what he represents, and people who preach like him or support him – yes, they don't like my government. Yes, they don't like my political system. But they don't like it for the wrong reasons, not for the right reasons you think of. They want us to go back 1,000 years. We want to move forward."

But these arguments have not stilled public criticism. A recent editorial in The New York Times declared that the "deeply cynical and cold-blooded bargain" at the heart of the Saudi-US relationship – Saudi oil in exchange for American military protection –was in urgent need of updating. "Decades of equivocation and Hobbesian calculations have left US-Saudi relations in an untenable and unreliable state," the paper said. "These deformities must be addressed before they do further damage to both nations."

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