WASHINGTON, March 22 (UPI) -- U.S. officials are questioning a series of arrests by Saudi authorities last month, disputing official statements that the men were involved in terrorist financing.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, dismissed what he called "the Saudi government claims" about the arrests.
"Based on the evidence I have seen, it appears more likely that these men were actually democracy activists," he told United Press International. Wyden, who recently received a briefing on Saudi terror finance issues from intelligence officials, added that he intended to follow the issue closely "and I continue to be disappointed by the Saudi government's efforts."
Several U.S. intelligence officials interviewed by UPI on condition of anonymity, agreed, saying at least some U.S. agencies have concluded that the arrests are -- in the words of one -- "not a good bust."
Ten men were arrested Feb. 2, two in Medina and the rest in Jeddah. According to the Saudi Interior Ministry, the arrests were part of an ongoing effort against "terrorism and its funding."
The ten were involved illegally collecting donations and "sending them to suspected parties," Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman said, according to Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat.
The money was used to "drag ... the sons of the nation to disturbed places," al-Turki said, in what was widely interpreted as a reference to Iraq.
Although Saudi donors are widely believed to provide significant funding to Iraqi insurgents, al-Qaida, and other terror groups, and although the government there has for some years loudly proclaimed a "zero tolerance" policy on fundraising for extremist causes, these were the first public arrests ever in the kingdom on such charges.
But it was only days before a lawyer representing some of the men told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh, that that they were not terror financiers, but democracy activists. Amnesty International noted that two of the men, including lawyer Sulieman al-Rushudi, had been arrested in March 2004 after they signed a petition calling for reform of the Saudi government.
But the line between self-styled democracy activists and Islamic extremists is not always clear in Saudi Arabia, Nail al-Jubeir, the spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington told UPI.
"In the 1990's (al-Qaida leader Osama) bin Laden was called a 'dissident,'" he said.
Al-Jubeir pointed out that al-Rushudi was one of the founders of the London-based Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in 1993. Another of the group's founders, Saad Al-Faqih, according to federal prosecutors, supplied a satellite phone to bin Laden in the 1990's. In 2004, al-Faqih was designated by the U.S. Treasury as a terrorist financier.
At least one other of those arrested, Islamic cleric Musa al-Qarni, also has at least historic associations with bin Laden, to whom he was a friend and mentor during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
"Nobody knows these guys better than us," said al-Jubeir, defending the arrests.
But he was unable to provide any details of formal charges or any update on the men's situation or the progress of any investigation. "That is still being sorted out," he said.
Critics smelled a rat.
"The fact that the Saudis have provided no further information on the individuals, their activities, or the terrorist groups they are purported to have been affiliated with, suggests to many that such information may simply not exist," Matthew Levitt told UPI.
Levitt, who until earlier this year was deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department, said individuals designated as terror financiers by the United States remain at large in the kingdom.
He cited the case of Abd al-Hamid Sulaiman al-Mujil, executive director of the International Islamic Relief Organization's branch in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The Treasury Department designated him a terrorist financier in August 2006 for bankrolling al-Qaida activities in Southeast Asia.
At that time, the Saudi embassy said Al-Mujil was under investigation, and that his assets had been frozen pending any legal decisions.
Al-Jubeir said he was unable to provide any update on the case.
"The Saudi government has never imposed criminal punishment on any major terrorist fundraiser," said Wyden, "The Saudi government does not go after wealthy donors because in Saudi Arabia, the wealthy elites hold all the cards."
Al-Jubeir said that the Saudis had imposed "draconian" restrictions on charities and charitable giving in an effort to get their arms around the problem.
"Collecting cash donations is illegal ... for whatever cause," he said, "Even soliciting donations for individual hardship cases is not allowed. The only exceptions were government-run charitable appeals like the October 2006 drive to raise funds for the orphans of the Southeast Asian Tsunami.
"There is an absolute prohibition on transferring money from Saudi Arabia to charitable groups or non-profits (outside the kingdom)," he said. "I cannot even use my Saudi account to make donations to my alma mater ... The embassy sought an exemption for U.S. medical and educational charities and they turned us down."