November 25, 2002
1715 IST

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Saudi envoy may have unwittingly helped terrorists

Confronted with charges of funding terrorists involved in the September 11 terror attacks, the Saudi embassy in the United States has initiated a major inquiry to find out if money from the account of the ambassador's wife had indeed found its way into the hands of people who supported the attackers.

The embassy has dispatched Princess Haifa's accountant to a branch of the Riggs National Bank in Washington where she holds two accounts -- a savings account and a checking account -- to make an exhaustive search of her records, media reports said, adding that the search lasted until dawn on Sunday.

The search is not complete as only a portion of the records have been scrutinised so far, Time said. The link has still not been established, the magazine said, but quoted sources as saying that Haifa did not keep a close eye on her accounts.

"Starting January 1999, payments of $2000 a month were made from Princess Haifa's checking account to a woman named Majida Ibrahim Ahmad Dwaikat, a Jordanian national with a green card, who is the wife of Osama Bassnan," Time said quoting unidentified sources.

Giving credence to a charity angle to the plot, it said Bassnan first came to the attention of the Saudi embassy in April 1998, when he wrote a pleading letter to Princess Haifa introducing himself as a Saudi living in Washington with four children and a pregnant wife who had a severe thyroid condition.

After vetting by the embassy, the ambassador, Prince Bandar, responded by making a payment of US$15,000 to Bassnan himself.

Such applications for financial help, the magazine noted, are not uncommon in Saudi Arabia, nor is such reciprocal generosity.

Around eight months later, Bassnan's wife Majida wrote to Princess Haifa to make a similar plea -- and, in January 1999, the first series of payments to Majida were sent to an address in northern Virginia, in the care of another party.

Majida then shifted residence, and later cheques went to an apartment in Baltimore.

"When the embassy's bank search began, the princess initially had no idea who Majida was -- because the cheques did not include her last name. It was only mid-afternoon Saturday that her last name was determined and the princess recalled the story," sources close to her said.

Except that the funds were being sent, Princess Haifa was oblivious of its intricacies as the cheques were not signed by her, but by her cashier, they said. The sources said all payments stopped in May 2002, after Majida was deported following charges of visa fraud against Bassnan.

Sources in the Federal Bureau of Investigation said some of the cheques from Haifa to Majida were endorsed over to a woman named Manal Bajadir who is the wife of Omar al-Bayoumi, who first befriended the hijackers and extended assistance to them. The investigation has concluded that Bayoumi, now in England, had no idea the pair were Al Qaeda terrorists and aided them only out of hospitality.

Senior officials in the Bush administration, who rely on the Saudis for everything from intelligence and military logistical help to reliable sources of petroleum, are monitoring the case with concern.

Meanwhile, US lawmakers, cutting across party lines, are demanding "aggressive" investigations into the allegations that Saudi money funded the hijackers of the September 11 attacks on America, unmindful of offending the al-Saud royal family.

Asking Saudi Arabia to stop coddling terrorists, the legislators in various television interviews on Sunday also demanded a probe into whether the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency failed to pursue leads about the funnelling of funds.

US President George W Bush's post-September 11 warning should apply to "our friends like Saudi Arabia" and not just to Iraq or Iran, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat, said.

A link between the Saudi government and the hijackers, if true, "raises the stakes substantially of what the threat is in the US", Senator Bob Graham, Florida Democrat and outgoing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. Such a network could "facilitate the next wave of terror", he warned.

"If it's the royal family, [that] needs to be brought out," said Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, a senior Republican on the intelligence panel.


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