TCS Daily

About That Commission Report...

By Daniel Drezner - June 28, 2004 12:00 AM

For the better part of a week, everyone who is anyone has been in a tizzy about the 9/11 Commission staff findings regarding the relationship -- or lack thereof -- between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in Iraq. Opponents of Operation Iraqi Freedom have seized on the opportunity to pillory the administration, while supporters like Stephen Hayes have taken the commission report and the media reportage of it to task. I have little to add to this debate, beyond the point even though there were some contacts, the working relationship between Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda seemed neither particularly close nor particularly fruitful.

More important is the fact that the Iraq/Al Qaeda furor has caused many to overlook a surprising fact from the same staff report. On page 10 of Staff Statement No. 15 is another finding about the relationship between Al Qaeda and another Middle Eastern state:

There is no convincing evidence that any government financially supported al Qaeda before 9/11 (other than limited support provided by the Taliban after Bin Ladin first arrived in Afghanistan). Some governments may have turned a blind eye to al Qaeda's fundraising activities. Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al Qaeda. (emphasis added)

If there was a strong belief among the mass public that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Al Qaeda, then there was an even stronger belief among the elite public that the House of Saud -- or at least a floor of that house -- was in cahoots with Al Qaeda. Furthermore, a big criticism of the administration's Iraq policy was that it neglected more culpable states in the region.

I'm not a fan of the Saudi government by any stretch of the imagination, and would certainly be thrilled to see greater democratization brought to that part of the world. But that does not mean one can continue to accuse them of directly aiding and abetting Al Qaeda. It certainly does not allow critics of the administration to imply that the Bush team focused on Saddam Hussein at the expense of taking aggressive action against the Saudi regime.

From the 9/11 Commission staff report, the Saudi regime's chief failing has been their lax supervision of charities and other forms of terrorist financing. However, Rachel Bronson -- a Middle East expert currently writing a book on the history of U.S.-Saudi relations -- presented a nice summary of the state of play in a recent online discussion at

"Since May 2003, Saudi Arabia turned a corner and began to aggressively go after some of the areas of concern. For instance, its rounded up about 2,000 of the most radical clerics and dismissed them, or put them through 're-education' programs. An international group that carefully moderns laws regarding money laundering and terrorist financing have come back with a recent report saying that Saudi Arabia is complying with most international laws regarding financing. In addition, Saudi Arabia itself has closed down some of its most visible charities (i.e., al Haramain) and made it illegal for charities to fund outside the Kingdom. In addition, they are cooperating with the FBI and CIA to a greater extent than ever before. These are the kind of things that the Bush Administration wants to see. They still have a ways to go, but this is why word out of the Administration has been generally positive."

Bronson was drawing her conclusions from a recent Council on Foreign Relations task force that concluded that while more needs to be done in this area, the Saudi government has taken aggressive action on this front over the past year -- at the prodding of the Bush administration. The report says:

"As a result of the foregoing activities, al-Qaeda's current and prospective ability to raise and move funds with impunity has been significantly diminished. These efforts have likely made a real impact on al-Qaeda's financial picture, and it is undoubtedly a weaker organization as a result. Much of the impact has been through deterrence -- i.e., past or prospective donors are now less willing to support organizations that might be complicit in terrorism."

A Watson Institute study comparing Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis nine other Islamic countries found that, "Of the ten countries surveyed, Saudi Arabia has one of the relatively stronger records of enforcing the measures it has taken to combat terrorist financing."

The Bush administration cannot claim sole responsibility for the change in Saudi attitudes. The regime decided in May 2003 -- after Al Qaeda launched attacks within the kingdom -- that action was necessary. However, the CFR task report summary does observe that:

"The Bush administration also acted quickly to take advantage of the newfound political will in Saudi Arabia to reinvigorate its own efforts to combat terrorist financing. The two countries announced the creation of a joint terrorist financing task force, and have moved to close branches of international charities known to finance terror."

If those who oppose the Bush administration want to excoriate the government for making it appear that the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda was stronger than it actually was, so be it. But it would be nice to see some of those critics acknowledge that their preferred target has been absolved as well -- and that the administration has not been lying down on the job in making life difficult for Al Qaeda.

Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He keeps a daily weblog at


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