Chechen rebels phoned Gulf During Moscow Theater Siege
Moscow says theatre hostage takers were funded from Saudi Arabia
Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow December 5, 2002 The Guardian
Russian security officials suspect that the Chechens who seized a Moscow theatre in October had wealthy Arab sponsors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and have sought Washington's support in finding the financiers. Senior officials say they have traced a series of telephone calls from the gunmen to their "sponsors" in the Gulf. During one call made to an unspecified Gulf state a financier asked for a video of scenes inside the theatre, and was told it could be made for a $1m fee. "Several long telephone conversations were intercepted to Saudi Arabia, to the Emirates, and to Qatar.
"We can say for sure that the hostage-taking was financed from abroad, and the terrorists maintained permanent contact with their sponsors." He added that the leader of the hostage-takers, Mosvar Barayev, and several of his fellow Chechens had planned to flee to the Gulf once the crisis was over. The Chechen rebels seized the theatre on October 23.
After a long siege by Russian troops, 129 hostages and 50 gunmen were killed. The source declined to name the sponsors and the country from which the video was requested, because the general prosecutor's office is still investigating the event. The revelation helps to explain the pointed comments President Vladimir Putin made after his recent meeting with George Bush in St Petersburg.
He pointed out that 16 of the 19 hijackers on September 11th were Saudi citizens, saying: "We will remember this," and adding:"We should not forget those who provide financing to terrorists." Russian security officials have been issuing warnings about the threat posed by Islamist extremists funded by wealthy Gulf state benefactors since the mid-90s. The security source said: "According to [security service] estimates, each month from the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, from £1.3m to £2.5m comes to support terrorism on the territory of the Russian Federation." The Russian security services were constantly exchanging information on the funding organisations with their American and British counterparts, he said.
Sources in Washington and Moscow confirmed that there was cooperation. A senior US state department official said that all Russia's concerns about links between the theatre siege and financiers in Gulf, and its fears about the "Saudi connection to international terrorism" would be "evaluated" by the commission on September 11 led by the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
The official said Washington had offered Russia help in its investigation of the theatre incident, but would not give details. He added: "The Saudis have said they will look more closely at some charity organisations and we cannot help but believe that this is a direct response to [our] concerns. "But we are not singling anyone out and are looking at all avenues."
The official would not confirm a report that the state department was considering adding groups linked to Chechen separatists to the treasury blacklist of terrorism financiers, but said they were "constantly evaluating groups". Russian security officials say there are long-standing links between organisations in Saudi Arabia and "terrorist activity" in Russia.
The official added: "In Saudi Arabia there is a group of NGOs linked to al-Qaida that form an integral system feeding terrorism. "We count about 20 such organisations there who have accounts and branches in other countries." He added that the NGOs' purported purpose, international support for Muslims, was a front for funding terrorism.
"We are cooperating with the Saudi Arabian special services, and several Saudi delegations have come to Moscow to discuss this." But Saudi officials are currently busy denying that their country has become a haven for financiers of terrorism. On Monday the Saudi embassy in Washington released a report describing a series of measures the kingdom had taken since September 11 against terrorist financiers. Adel al-Jubeir, a key aide to Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, conceded that some of the hundreds of millions of dollars sent abroad by Saudi charities each year might have gone to al-Qaida. He added: "We cannot allow our money to be used to murder people." He insisted that Saudi investigations had led to charity accounts being audited, 2,000 people being questioned and 100 jailed, and 33 accounts, worth £3.5m, being frozen. He said accusations of terrorism sponsorship had generated unprecedented "anti-Saudi sentiment" in America.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
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