Jewish groups and terrorism analysts want to know if a pledge by Saudi Arabia to cut funding for terrorist groups includes those that target Israel. Adel Al-Jubeir, a foreign affairs adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, announced Wednesday that the country would dissolve some of its largest charities and create a new organization with financial oversight to dole out money.
A spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said he wanted more details.
“This could be an important step, but there certainly remains much more for Saudi Arabia to do to end funding for terrorists and terrorist groups,” said Josh Block.
Left unclear, for instance, was whether the new system would target charitable giving to Hamas.
Al-Jubeir said Saudi money going to Palestinians is directed to the Palestinian Authority, the Red Crescent Society or the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. Al-Jubeir called Saudi support for Hamas “overblown.”
Prince Faisal al Turki, the Saudi ambassador to London and a former intelligence chief, sidestepped the question on CNN when he said that all Saudi money goes to the Palestinian Authority, and not to Hamas.
“We have never given direct money to Hamas or even indirect money,” al-Turki said.
The new entity targets private funding, not direct government support, and no one would say whether donations to Hamas would be restricted with the same vigor as funding for al-Qaida.
That’s key, according to AIPAC, which reports that $10 million a year in private Saudi funds go to Hamas.
Also in question was the Saudi government’s moral support for such groups.
A 2002 telethon fund-raiser on state-run Saudi television garnered $150 million for Palestinians, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the time that some of the money would end up in Hamas’ coffers.
Under the new system, the Saudis are closing the country’s largest charity, Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, and another one called the Palestinian Fund, and consolidating charitable giving into a new agency, the Saudi National Entity For Charitable Work Abroad.
Al-Jubeir said the new entity would have total transparency and strict oversight, stressing that the charity would be unable to work in countries unless it is approved by the host government.
“They will have a requirement to provide an accounting every three months of the funds that are spent, and they will have a requirement to provide audited statements every year in terms of how much money was collected and how much money was spent and where was it spent,” he said at a news conference in Washington.
“We do this in order to ensure that the charity of our citizens goes to those who actually need it and that we know where funds go when they leave Saudi Arabia,” Al-Jubeir said.
Whether or not “those who actually need it” include Hamas remained an open question. Saudi Arabia has often defended Palestinian groups on the United States’ Foreign Terrorist Organization list as charities that provide important humanitarian services.
“As far as Hamas is concerned, we believe there are people in Hamas who use terrorist methods,” al-Turki told CNN, “but Hamas also does some charitable work in Palestine.”
Still, terrorism experts said, any Saudi crackdown on terrorism has a salutary, if unintended, effect on curbing funding for Hamas.
Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI analyst, said many of the organizations and people Saudi Arabia has been targeting for their ties to Al-Qaida also are principle donors to Palestinian terrorist groups.
“It inadvertently struck a major blow at Hamas funding,” Levitt said. He noted that Hamas has been forced to reach out to Shiite-dominated Iran for funding, something anathema for a stridently Sunni Muslim group.
Steve Emerson, a terrorism expert with the Investigative Project, said he believed the announcement could signal a step forward. But he was still concerned about Saudi definitions of what is and what is not legitimate.
“Their definition of terrorism is totally at odds with what our definition is,” Emerson said.
The announcement comes at an opportune time for President Bush, who has been targeted by Democrats for his friendliness with a regime that has a history of looking the other way when it comes to support for terrorism.
Abdullah’s comments in April suggesting that terrorist attacks in his country were done by “Zionist hands,” have increased skepticism by some Jews about Saudi Arabia’s real intentions in curbing terrorist ties.
Jewish officials said they were encouraged, however, that Wednesday’s announcement was done in coordination with the U.S. State and Treasury departments, which see the Palestinian groups as terrorist organizations.
Democrats remained skeptical.
“It’s a first step, but my first question is how seriously can they address terrorism when they blame it on the Jews?” said David Harris, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “Only time will tell, but the rhetoric has to change at the same time, and this administration has to take the lead on this.”
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said in a statement, “It’s about time that Saudi Arabia decided to shut down one of the major charities involved with financing terrorism.”
“Now Saudi Arabia needs to exercise sufficient oversight over its donations to keep them from ever again
being used to support terrorism, including in Gaza and the West Bank, where Saudi funds have previously been used to support the families of Hamas suicide bombers.”
Republicans hailed the Saudi announcement as a sign of the Bush administration’s resolve in the war on terrorism.
“This is a major victory for the war on terror and underscores the president’s resolve to press nations, no matter who they are, ally or adversary, to do what it can to crack down on the funding of terror,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.