WASHINGTON – The news that two Sept. 11 hijackers may have gotten royal help from a Saudi princess could mean that a well-financed terrorist structure is in place in America, planning the next attack, lawmakers said Sunday.
This "raises the stakes substantially of what the threat is in the United States," and is possible evidence of a terrorist network that could "facilitate the next wave of terror," said Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, outgoing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The FBI is investigating financial records indicating that Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of the Saudi ambassador, wrote monthly checks that ultimately went into the accounts of Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan. Two hijackers of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon may have gotten money from those men while the terrorists were living in the United States.
Saudi officials have denied doing anything intentionally to help the 19 hijackers, of whom 15 were from their country.
"We will be merciless against people in the war on terrorism," foreign policy adviser Adel al-Jubeir said Sunday.
Al-Jubeir, on ABC's This Week, said Saudi investigators have determined that the princess intended to support Basnan's wife, who asked her for help to pay for her medical treatment while living in the United States. Any notion that the princess backed terrorists is "crazy," he said.
Lawmakers said the FBI must pursue the investigation aggressively despite the risk of offending the Saudis, important allies with whom relations have already been strained.
"If it's the royal family, (that) needs to be brought out," said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, top Republican on the intelligence panel.
Saudi officials, despite their alignment with the United States, have promoted shady charities and fundamentalist strains of Islam that are hostile to America, he said.
"They've got a lot of answering to do," Shelby, who appeared with Graham on NBC's Meet the Press, said.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who helped create an independent commission that will investigate the causes of the Sept. 11 attacks, said he doubted the princess meant to help terrorists, if she helped them.
"But facts are facts," he said. "The Saudi royal family been engaged in a Faustian bargain for years to keep themselves in power."
He noted what he sees as Saudi complicity in the rise of anti-American radicalism
Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, McCain's partner in setting up the commission, said the Bush administration should provide a full and public accounting of any Saudi ties to the terrorists.
Graham said the potential involvement of a foreign government in terrorist financing raises serious questions.
Is there, inside the United States, an infrastructure that provides support, financing and logistics for the next generation of hijackers?" Graham said.
A senior White House official said President Bush's advisers are not sure what to make of the allegations. It is possible the transactions from the princess had a legitimate explanation, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official credited the Saudis with repeatedly, and often privately, helping the United States in the anti-terror war.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.