More Cooperation in Tracking Saudi Terror

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Two or three al-Qaeda terrorist cells are still operating in Saudi Arabia despite a frenetic investigation and at least 11 arrests since the May 12 Riyadh bombing, a senior official close to the dragnet tells TIME. But a new spirit of cooperation between the two countries has developed since the attack, and the bitter U.S./Saudi recriminations that followed the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and continued after 9/11 appear to be over.

TIME has learned that FBI director Robert Mueller will make an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia this week to thank the Saudis for their cooperation and keep up the momentum. A U.S./Saudi task force has already conducted more than 400 joint interviews, end-running laws that forbid foreign investigators from questioning Saudi citizens, and FBI evidence recovery technicians are working closely with their Saudi counterparts to collect explosive residue and other forensic clues in the Riyadh wreckage.

That's in stark contrast to what happened after the Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 American military personnel and wounded 372 others. An agent who worked on that case recalls, "The Saudis went out and grabbed everything in sight before we got there. They just let us amuse ourselves by sifting sand."

Relations improved after FBI director Louis Freeh made a number of trips to Saudi Arabia, and on June 21, 2001, the Justice Department obtained an indictment charging 13 Saudi members of Hezbollah and one unidentified Lebanese man with complicity in the bombing. (An important note as the Bush administration tries to make the case the Iran is currently harboring al-Qaeda members: The indictment charged that an Iranian military officer had directed two of the defendants to conduct surveillance on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast for likely places to attack Americans and that Iranian officials financed the Saudi Hezbollah party and the bombing plot.)

FBI officials say the Saudis were also less than helpful when the U.S. was looking at possible roles played by Saudi nationals in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi and the suicide attack on the USS Cole. And after the 9/11 attacks, the FBI quickly established that 15 of the hijackers were almost certainly Saudi citizens, but the Saudi government denied that fact for months and moved slowly to respond to U.S. requests for their passport photos, fingerprints, associates and other data.

Now cooperation is improving. A senior Arab official tells TIME that the U.S. is sharing sensitive intelligence with the Kingdom in "real time" — without going through the lengthy process usually required for the release of classified information to a foreign power. Acting on such intercepts, the Saudis last week captured two Moroccan al-Qaeda suspects who had just arrived in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, say sources familiar with the investigation.

The first wave of 60 FBI agents sent to investigate the Riyadh attack has returned to Washington. A second, smaller team will soon be deployed to run down leads and search for possible links between the Riyadh bombers and simultaneous attacks that occurred in Casablanca.