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U.S.: Bush To Call On Arab Leaders To Crack Down On Financing for Militants

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. President George W. Bush is due to meet several Arab heads of state in Egypt tomorrow to talk, in part, about cracking down on financing for militant groups. The meeting picks up an initiative to cut off international funds for terrorism that began after 11 September 2001 but, until now, has had mixed success.

Prague, 2 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When U.S. President George W. Bush meets Arab leaders in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh tomorrow, a key topic for discussion is expected to be how to cut off financing for Arab-based militant groups.

The groups that concern Washington have a wide variety of ideologies and purposes. One is America's archenemy, Al-Qaeda, which carried out the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Others are Israel's archenemies, the Palestinian Islamic organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Lebanese Shi'ite Hizballah.

Washington believes all of the groups have grown strong partly due to generous contributions from sympathetic individuals and charitable organizations in a number of Arab countries.

Bush will hold talks with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Bahrain, plus Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and is expected to ask them to fully cut off terrorism funding within their countries. He also is expected to ask the leaders for help in encouraging other Arab heads of state to do the same.

Analysts say that Bush's message is designed to give new impetus to U.S. initiatives to cut off international funds for terrorism which began after 11 September 2001 but so far are reported to have had mixed success.

Paul Wilkinson of the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland told RFE/RL that Washington is particularly concerned over terrorism funding in Saudi Arabia and several other Persian Gulf states.

"Unfortunately the financial efforts [since 11 September] have not really managed to stop the hemorrhage of money in the Middle Eastern states. It is not just Saudi Arabia, it is also other Gulf states, for example, where wealthy sympathizers of [Al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden, of course keeping their support hidden from the authorities, have been able to use the 'hiwala' system. So that's one area where the [U.S.] president and his advisers, I am sure, want to tighten up," Wilkinson said.

The hiwala system is an informal money-transfer method common in the Muslim world. It allows an individual to deposit a sum with a money changer in one city so that an individual in another city can withdraw a similar amount from the money changer's associates there. The transactions are hard to track because the money changers usually do not register them with state banking authorities.

Wilkinson said Bush also will call on the Arab leaders to tighten their supervision of Islamic charities that may be used to funnel money to militant groups. "Another area is the use or the abuse of charities," he said. "In the Middle Eastern countries there are many, many charities which have been used, very often without the knowledge of the people who founded them and who may be on the board of governors. Money being siphoned off in particular offices of the charity for essentially the purposes of assisting Al-Qaeda's activities."

In contrast to the situation in the Middle East, Wilkinson said that authorities have made good progress in cracking down on terrorism financing in Western countries. The U.S. government says that Western banks and police investigating terrorist financing have been able to block some $121 million which otherwise might have gone to militant groups to buy materials and maintain support networks. The analysts called that a significant blow to terrorist groups, whose budgets are in the tens of millions of dollars.

Bush's efforts to now encourage new Arab measures against terrorism financing are likely to be helped by the suicide bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia last month which killed 35 people, including nine Americans. The attacks, which U.S. and Saudi officials have blamed on Al-Qaeda, demonstrated that the group is as hostile to the Saudi government as to Washington.

Following the attack, the Saudi government acknowledged that the bombings were evidence of "shortcomings" in their security operations. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that combating terrorism "does not just include [dealing with] those who commit it, but also standing up to whoever feeds it and sympathizes with it."

Observers say that tone is far more aggressive than previous Saudi statements on terrorism. After the 11 September attacks -- in which 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi citizens -- Riyadh was initially reluctant to admit that Saudis could be involved in terrorism and that there could be financing sources within the kingdom.

Only after sharp U.S. criticism did Riyadh begin to take some measures to counter extremists and share intelligence. In December, the Saudi government announced it had frozen bank accounts containing some $5 million, required Saudi charities to undergo audits, and created a unit to investigate money laundering.

Those measure have won praise from Washington, with State Department spokesman Philip Reeker saying recently that the United States had had "good cooperation" from the Saudis on counterterrorism initiatives. But Bush's meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh makes it clear that Washington wants to see far more and is ready to exert the pressure of presidential-level talks to force the pace.

How much the Arab leaders respond to the pressure will depend on their willingness to confront their own domestic public opinion, which often supports the militant groups' goals though it may disapprove of their means.

Public opinion in Saudi Arabia runs strongly against U.S. policies in the Middle East and Al-Qaeda has previously benefited from those sentiments. The group condemns Washington's support for Israel, U.S. support for the Saudi monarchy, and the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. recently announced it is withdrawing its military personnel in the kingdom, a step that many observers see as an effort to now end the tension over their presence.

Throughout the Middle East, public opinion is also strongly against Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, and against Washington as Israel's closest ally. Palestinian Islamic groups have tried to capitalize on this anger by representing their suicide bombers as front-line forces battling Israeli occupation of Arab land. As a result, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are widely viewed among Arabs not as terrorist groups but as liberation movements.

Still, Bush appeared determined to get new action from Arab leaders as he prepared last week to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.

The U.S. president told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite television network that at Sharm el-Sheikh he intends to ascertain "the extent of [the Arab leaders'] desire to join the United States and other countries to stop assistance and funding of terrorist organizations."

He also called cutting off funding for militant groups necessary, he said, "to realize peace and security."