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Analysts: Al Qaeda May Have Exploited Saudis' Charitable Giving to Fund Sept. 11

Saudi Arabia's tradition of charitable giving to Muslim causes may have been exploited by Al Qaeda (search) to raise money for the Sept. 11 attacks, analysts said Saturday as the Saudi government refuted allegations of links to terrorists.

A Congressional report on the Sept. 11 terror attacks examines interactions between Saudi businessmen and the royal family that may have intentionally or unwittingly aided Al Qaeda or the suicide hijackers, according to people who have seen the unreleased sections.

The editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper suggested that Al Qaeda, headed by Saudi-born and educated Usama bin Laden (search), had knowledge of Saudi society and laws and took advantage of both to collect funds.

"The reality that the [Congressional] committee sought not to admit is that Al Qaeda is a highly developed organization, extremely secretive, and took advantage of the benevolence and naivete of Saudis," Abdul-Rahman al-Rashid wrote in Saturday's Arab News newspaper.

Suleiman al-Hattlan, research associate at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (search), said he received help when he first went to the United States to study in 1992, and later wrote checks himself to help fellow Saudi students.

"If I lend money to someone, I don't track it down. I don't know if it's used to buy books or to hijack a plane. Before 9-11, there was no concept that this money could be used for terrorism," al-Hattlan said.

FBI officials are seeking to re-question Saudi businessman Omar al-Bayoumi (search), who knew hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi in San Diego and put down money for an apartment deposit and first month's rent.

Unreleased sections of Congress' report suggest that one or two Saudi men who encountered the hijackers or their acquaintances were tied to Saudi intelligence.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan (search), on Saturday denied al-Bayoumi and Usama Basnan, who received checks from the ambassador's wife and was in San Diego around the time of the hijackers, were Saudi agents.

"It is unfortunate that reports keep circulating in the media describing them as agents of the Saudi government with attribution only to anonymous officials. This is blatantly false," Bandar said in a statement.

U.S. investigators are trying to determine if the connections are just coincidences or a pattern of terrorism support flowing from the wealthy U.S. ally, according to government officials familiar with those efforts.

Saudi analysts said there could be a simple explanation for the connections and the financial links that does not mean the kingdom sponsors terrorism.

"I think it's a pure misunderstanding of Saudi culture," said al-Hattlan of Harvard University. "Saudis abroad feel a social and religious obligation to help one another, even those they don't know."

Some families of Sept. 11 victims have accused Saudis of supporting terrorism, naming Saudi businessmen in lawsuits and citing evidence that Al Qaeda operatives had accounts at their banks.

Economist Bishr Bakheet said that though it was possible that Saudi-owned banks were used by terrorists, that was not a proof of guilt on Saudi Arabia's part.

"To accuse Saudi-owned banks of complicity because they were possibly used as vehicles to transfer terrorist funds is as sinister as accusing the United States Federal Reserve Board because U.S. dollars were used in the transaction," he said.

Bakheet said it was difficult to prevent the transfer of funds for illegal uses. "The system is not able to predict that this money will be used to blow up towers," he said.

Ihsan Buhaleega, a member of the government-appointed Shura Council (search), an advisory body to King Fahd, said the Saudi monetary system took additional measures after Sept. 11 as part of global efforts to combat money laundering for terrorism.

"Laws have been passed that will criminalize the financing of charity organizations that are not proven to be clean," Buhaleega said. "All money going to charities abroad will be monitored through a national institution to make sure they have no terrorist links and make sure these are genuine charity organizations of well-established groups."