Follow the money

IN AMERICA, Sept. 11 has become synonymous with one catastrophic event of mass murder. It has come to signify terrorism in its most sophisticated and lethal form. For the rulers of Saudi Arabia, a May 12 series of suicide bombings in Riyadh underscored the immediacy of the terrorist threat to the desert kingdom. These two events bracket the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the fight on terror, its past failures and the potential for future successes.

In the wake of the May car bombings, the two governments have decided to jointly track and target the financial backers of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and other terrorist organizations in the kingdom. It's a decision long overdue and one that we hope will end the parochial and political issues that have frustrated investigations of previous terrorist attacks. FBI and IRS officials are already in Saudi Arabia, lining up possible sites for the new task force's operations center.


There's no doubt the United States can marshal an array of talent and expertise to expose the financial networks and individuals supporting a terrorist organization such as al-Qaida. But the success of the venture will depend on the seriousness of the Saudis' commitment and the degree to which they share sensitive information that could expose the source of terrorist dollars and the culpability of Saudi charity groups and prominent Saudis who donate to them.

Ever since investigators determined the identity of the Sept. 11 hijackers - 15 of 19 were Saudi nationals - serious questions have been raised about the Saudi government's relationship to those who support terrorist organizations. Despite the Saudis' insistence that the government is and has been a willing and earnest partner in the war on terrorism, suspicions remained.


For their part, the Saudis say their commitment to the financial task force can be measured by the interest of the royal family - Crown Prince Abdullah approved the new cooperation in a telephone conversation with President Bush this summer. The Saudi government wants to take advantage of U.S. expertise in this area and readily admits it needs all help it can get.

The government, in the wake of the Sept. 11 controversy, revamped its oversight of charitable groups and changed its laws to make it tougher for terrorists to launder money through the Islamic associations and banks.

The decentralized nature of the al-Qaida organization and the mobility of its operatives make it a vast and moving target for law enforcement. But if financial investigators can disrupt the flow of money, they can head off potential attacks. Freezing a bank account may take less time than tracking down a would-be suicide bomber in a Third World country.

When 19 American service members died in a June 1996 attack on a military housing complex in Dharan, Saudi investigators frustrated U.S. efforts to bring in the culprits. The government shouldn't make the same mistake now.