By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/26/2004 7:16:57 PM ET 2004-04-26T23:16:57

Afraid of more al-Qaida attacks like last week's bombings inside the kingdom, Saudi Arabia is hunting for suspects, including al-Qaida leader Abdulaziz al-Moqrin — their most wanted terrorist, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains northwest of the Saudi capital.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, acknowledges his country should have done more to prevent al-Qaida from becoming a global threat.

"We were too lax," says the prince. "A lot of money was going from this country to — to al-Qaida. We were all too lax.”

In fact, as recently as April 2002, Saudis raised almost $100 million in a national telethon for suicide bombers, particularly those sent into Israel by the radical group Hamas.

But after al-Qaida attacked the Saudi capital in 2003, things began to change. The regime shut down charities, tightened controls on bank accounts and started cooperating with the United States.

Hunt for al-Qaida"Now, not a penny is going from Saudi Arabia …. I don't think — because the controls are really very stringent.”

The prince also insists Saudis are not funding Hamas or suicide bombers.

“Absolutely not," he says. "Not funding Hamas or suicide bombers."

Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was not so certain.

"I can't make the same categorical statement that he did, but I accept his categorical statement,” Powell says.

Many experts believe Hamas has found a new benefactor.

“A great deal of the money that used to flow to Hamas out of Saudi Arabia has now been replaced by a river of money coming from Iran,” says David Aufhauser, a former Treasury Department official.

U.S. officials say the Saudi government is now going after al-Qaida, but money is still flowing to terrorists — largely by courier.

“You have literally thousands of wealthy individuals that will use non-governmental organizations or other donations to get money into the hands of terrorists," says Roger Cressey, a former U.S counterterrorism official who is now an NBC News analyst.

Indeed, NBC News has learned that last week, the Saudis asked the White House for more help fighting al-Qaida, after years of denying that they even had a problem.

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