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Saudi takes rare turn on congressional hot seat

Riyadh's support for extremist clerics is under scrutiny as Congress debates whether to allow terror victims to sue the kingdom.
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 01: U.S. Rep.  Ted Poe (R-TX) (C), speaks about the sex slave industry while flanked by (L-R), U.S. Rep.  Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) (R) and U.S. Rep.  Kristi Noem (R-SD) during a news conference on Capitol Hill, August 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. The bi partisan members of Congress discussed a plan to end the sex trafficking trade in the United States.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Fifteen years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress finally addressed the Wahhabi elephant in the room.

At a fiery House Foreign Affairs panel hearing May 24, members of both parties took turns accusing one of America's closest Mideast allies of being a front of extremism. Lawmakers acknowledged that Saudi Arabia has made great strides in cracking down on terrorism finance since 2001, but argued that its support for the propagation of radical Islam has fueled religious violence around the world.

"While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has adopted strict laws prohibiting terrorism finance, there continues to be press reports about Saudi charities and individual donors funding [the Islamic State (IS)], al-Qaeda and foreign fighters," said terrorism subcommittee Chairman Ted Poe, R-Texas. "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia still spends billions of dollars every year exporting the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam through its networks of building mosques and schools throughout the world, including in the United States."

Others piled on.

“It is time for Saudi Arabia to come clean," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. "They can’t say they don’t support terrorism [when] all they do is fund hundreds of millions of dollars a year for those who plant the seeds of terrorism around the world.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said the hearing was "long overdue" and accused the US government of "intentionally ignoring who's financing [terrorist] acts."

"The Saudis, and the Saudi royal family, have been right up to their eyeballs in … supporting the terrorist activity of radical Islamist forces in the Middle East," Rohrabacher said. "It's up to us to say the truth."

Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., questioned whether US and Saudi interests are aligned in Yemen, notably with regard to the fight against that country's virulent al-Qaeda franchise. Riyadh has heard those concerns loud and clear, and its coalition boasted last month that it had killed 800 al-Qaeda militants even as it concentrates its fire on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

While the subcommittee hearing was relatively low profile and sparsely attended, it nevertheless represented a sea change in Capitol Hill's public attitude toward the kingdom. Congress still supports the Saudi campaign in Yemen, but calls on Riyadh to reduce tensions with the Houthis as well as with Iran have been growing.

The change in tone is directly linked to the confluence of two issues this month: the pending declassification of longtime allegations that Saudi officials were involved in the 9/11 attacks, and the Senate's passage of legislation to allow 9/11 victims' families to sue the Saudi government. Riyadh has launched an all-out lobbying blitz to kill that bill, which is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

"What concerns me," Sherman said, "is the Saudi government comes to us and says, ‘You’re our friend and you should protect us from this statute,’ while defending every day the Wahhabi mullahs who not only preach orthodox practices of Islam, but preach violence and murder against those whom they disagree with."

Witnesses testified that IS is using Saudi textbooks at its schools in its Syrian capital at Raqqa. A recent New York Times investigation that found that Saudi money and influence has transformed Kosovo from a once-tolerant Muslim society into a font of jihadi radicalism was also mentioned during the hearing.

Congress remains receptive to Riyadh's concerns, however. The hearing was initially titled "Terrorism and the Saudi Royal Family," but it was discreetly relabeled to the more innocuous "The U.S.-Saudi Arabia Counterterrorism Relationship."

Not all members were hostile.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., highlighted America's "critical relationship" with the Saudis over 70 years and highlighted the kingdom's "substantial progress" in counterterrorism cooperation.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., warned that passing the litigation bill would open the floodgates to plaintiffs around the world "poking around" into US intelligence records to see if there's any sign of support for terrorist groups.

The change of tone reaches all the way to the top of the White House, where President Barack Obama recently told The Atlantic that the Saudis were acting like "freeloaders" in the battle against IS. Riyadh has expressed dismay at the floundering relationship and has blanketed congressional offices with reports of their efforts to battle terrorism.

Witnesses at the May 24 hearing, including a panelist on the 2004 commission that investigated the attacks, largely agreed that an open re-evaluation of the bilateral relationship was long overdue.

"The 9/11 Commission recommended over 10 years ago [that] the problems in the US-Saudi relationship must be confronted openly [and] should include a shared interest in greater tolerance and cultural respect, translating into a commitment to fight the violent extremists who foment hatred," said Tim Roemer. "Today, we still struggle to talk directly about our relationship with the Kingdom. In light of this fact, I would like to thank this committee for holding a hearing on this subject and bringing greater transparency and clarity to American diplomacy."

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