None of the issues still lingering 20 years after the 9/11 attacks have been as persistent — or as emotionally wrenching for the families of the victims — as the question of whether Saudi Arabia provided funding and other assistance for the worst terrorist attack in American history.
Of the 19 Al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners on the morning of September 11, 2001, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia — and of course, Osama bin Laden was a member of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families.
Immediately after the attacks, the Bush administration downplayed the Saudi connection and suppressed evidence that might link powerful Saudis to the funding of Islamic extremism and terrorism. The Bush White House didn’t want to upset its relationship with one of the world’s largest oil-producing nations, which was also an American ally with enormous political influence in Washington, and much of what the FBI discovered about possible Saudi links to the attacks remains secret even today.
“What are they hiding? What is the big secret?” Terry Strada, whose husband was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, asked in an interview. “We’ve been operating on lies for 20 years. I’ve always just wanted to know the truth: Who was behind this, and how did it happen?”
Many U.S. officials have insisted over the last two decades that the American government is not really hiding any conclusive evidence of Saudi involvement, and it is quite possible that successive presidents, along with the intelligence community, have closed ranks simply to avoid revealing classified information. And it’s plausible that officials want to avoid exposing details that might be politically embarrassing for both Washington and the Saudis yet don’t prove that the Saudi royal family, the Saudi government, or other powerful Saudi individuals played any role in providing funding or assistance for the September 11 attacks. But the refusal to be open and transparent about such a fundamental issue has fed suspicions.
Two decades later, however, glimpses of material that have become public provide mounting evidence that senior Saudi officials, including one diplomat in the Saudi Embassy in Washington, may in fact have indirectly provided assistance for two of the Al Qaeda hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who were the first of the hijackers to arrive in the United States in 2000 and lived for about a year and a half in San Diego beforehand.
The CIA had identified both Mihdhar and Hazmi as Al Qaeda operatives by early 2000, based partly on Mihdhar’s participation in an Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia, and the agency was tracking the pair’s international movements. But the CIA did not pass on that information to officials at the FBI or other domestic agencies at the time, and the two plotters were not placed on any watch lists that might have prevented them from entering the United States weeks later. It was not until weeks before the September 11 attacks that the FBI learned that Mihdhar and Hazmi had entered the country and began a belated and unsuccessful search for them, even as both men were living openly in San Diego, according to multiple government reviews.
While no smoking gun has emerged, the evidence indicates that the two hijackers had received logistical and financial support from a handful of people inside the United States with connections to Saudi Arabia, including a man in California whose family received tens of thousands of dollars from the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
The ongoing scrutiny of the Saudis’ role has been driven by a massive lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan brought by families of the victims, who maintain that senior Saudi officials were complicit in the attacks. The families were blocked for 15 years from even bringing their claims because of the “sovereign immunity” protection for foreign governments in court. In 2016, Congress overrode a veto by President Barak Obama to clear the way for the lawsuit by approving the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
Lawyers for the families have now collected some 11,000 still-secret pages of internal documents from the U.S. government and have deposed numerous Saudi witnesses to determine what they knew of the hijackers’ plot, bolstering what they say is a trail of connections leading back to Riyadh.
“Our view has always been that there were agents of the Saudi government acting in coordination with one another … to provide a critical support network for the first hijackers,” Sean P. Carter, one of the lawyers representing the victims’ families, said in an interview. “There are a lot of contact points between the bad actors here.”
“Our view has always been that there were agents of the Saudi government acting in coordination with one another … to provide a critical support network for the first hijackers.”
Carter said that a verdict against the Saudis, finding them financially liable in the attacks, could result in “many billions of dollars” in damages. But he added that bringing out the truth would be just as important. “This is the only vehicle the families have to correct the historical record and achieve some sort of accountability on behalf of their loved ones,” he said. “That’s a huge piece of it.”
One of the most explosive pieces of evidence against the Saudis emerged only by accident. It came in a court filing by the Trump administration last year that was intended, ironically, to support the government’s arguments for keeping the FBI’s Saudi records sealed as state secrets. The Justice Department’s public filing, first reported by Yahoo News, redacted numerous sections on national security grounds but inadvertently disclosed the name of a former official in the Saudi Embassy in Washington — “Jarrah” — or Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, who worked as a senior diplomat until about 2000 under Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was then the long-serving Saudi ambassador to the United States. The document, citing a 2012 internal FBI summary, indicated that Jarrah was believed to have “tasked” two other Saudi men living in southern California “with assisting the hijackers” in San Diego, Mihdhar and Hazmi, who spoke little English.
The accidental disclosure, reaching inside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, could prove critical for the victims’ families in establishing that Saudi Arabia bears some responsibility for the attacks.
There has long been scrutiny on the two Saudi men who helped the hijackers in southern California — Omar al-Bayoumi and Fahad al-Thumairy, both of whom have left the United States. Bayoumi, a Saudi expatriate who was on the payroll of a Saudi defense contractor, befriended the two hijackers in San Diego soon after their arrival in 2000 and worked with them step by step to settle into their new lives. He helped them open bank accounts, apply for Social Security cards and driver’s licenses, find a place to live in San Diego, and even receive flying lessons.
Bayoumi later told the FBI that he had met the two men by chance at a restaurant in Los Angeles and agreed to help them as simple hospitality toward fellow Saudis. But the FBI was skeptical of his account, according to documents that have since become public.
The second man, Thumairy, was a diplomat in the Saudi consulate’s office in Los Angeles at the time. The FBI found extensive phone contacts between Thumairy and Bayoumi, and agents suspected that Thumairy also worked to help Mihdhar and Hazmi after their arrival.
Osama Basnan, a Saudi living in San Diego, may have also played a role with Bayoumi. Basnan’s wife received tens of thousands of dollars in checks from the wife of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The Saudis insisted that Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa al-Faisal, sent the money as part of a charitable effort to help with medical bills for Basnan’s wife, who was ill at the time. But FBI investigators believed that a chunk of the money ended up with Bayoumi.
Other possible connections also led back to Prince Bandar, according to a 28-page section of a joint congressional inquiry in 2002, which was kept secret until its partial release in 2016. One intriguing piece of evidence came when an Al Qaeda operative was captured with the unlisted number for a Colorado company that managed Prince Bandar’s estate in Aspen.
The 28 pages, kept secret through the Bush administration and most of Obama’s, laid out a panoply of other connections between the hijackers and people inside or connected to the Saudi government, raising as many questions as they answered. Former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who was co-chair of the joint congressional review that produced the report, had pushed for years for it to be declassified. He said at the time that the release of the partially redacted document “suggests a strong linkage between those terrorists and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Saudi charities, and other Saudi stakeholders” and represented “the removal of the cork at the end of the bottle.”
But many thousands of pages of government files on the possible Saudi connections remain bottled up, even as families of the victims have pushed in court for greater access to them as part of their lawsuit against the Saudis. And Prince Bandar himself reportedly refused to answer questions from lawyers for the victims’ families as part of the recent depositions of Saudi officials in their lawsuit. For years, Saudi Arabia has strenuously rejected charges that its officials had any knowledge of or involvement with the 9/11 terror plot.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not return messages seeking comment on the lawsuit or the ongoing questions about the royal kingdom’s possible involvement in the attacks.
Because of Saudi Arabia’s status as a critical Middle East ally, successive presidents have walked a diplomatic tightrope with Riyadh for two decades, selling billions in arms to the kingdom even in the face of human rights abuses and the ongoing questions about connections to the September 11 attacks. The alliance was tested again three years ago by another brutal act of violence — the killing and dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist. While the Trump administration drew wide criticism for failing to take any action over the assassination, the Biden administration publicly released an intelligence report earlier this year laying responsibility for the murder directly at the feet of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and issued financial sanctions against some of those Saudi operatives thought to have been involved. But Biden stopped short of taking action against the royal prince himself because of concerns about the damage it might cause to the partnership.
The final report of the 9/11 Commission in 2004, after a 20-month investigation, acknowledged that “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of Al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” Some of the more intriguing financial connections between Saudis and the hijackers were consigned to unexplained footnotes.
But some commissioners now doubt the report’s conclusions about the lack of Saudi involvement. “I don’t think we know all the answers. We got what the FBI had,” Jamie Gorelick said in an interview. “There were a number of trails that went dead on us, and it has been my assumption that funds from people in Saudi Arabia — not necessarily the government — flowed into the United States to help the hijackers,” she added. “They must have had some help, a network of support.”
Indeed, the possible Saudi connections had generated intense scrutiny from investigators at the 9/11 Commission and debate over the final conclusions. Staffers believed that they had found a close Saudi connection to the hijackers in San Diego, but Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the commission, and Dieter Snell, a top aide, had doubts and rewrote that section of the final report before it went to the printers, removing the most damning material against the Saudis, according to “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Commission,” a 2008 book by Philip Shenon, who covered the commission for the New York Times.
For years after the commission report, a team of FBI agents continued pursuing possible connections between the Saudis and the hijackers and built more evidence, but the Justice Department closed down the investigation without charges. In 2015, a federal commission revisited the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations and findings, but on the question of complicity by the Saudis or anyone else, it arrived at the same place — even in light of potentially significant new material gathered by the FBI in its investigation. “This new information is not sufficient to change the 9/11 Commission’s original findings regarding the presence of witting assistance to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar,” the review concluded.
Most of the FBI files on the possible links still remain secret, even though the investigation has been closed. The Justice Department told the judges hearing the families’ lawsuit in August that the FBI would review the classified documents to determine what additional files could be disclosed publicly, and Biden signed an executive order last week formally authorizing that review process. But some victims’ family members say they are not optimistic that the review will produce much of value after fighting for 20 years — through four different presidential administrations — to find out what role Saudi officials might have played in the 9/11 plot. Some 1,700 survivors have been so upset by the ongoing blockage of the internal information in the case that they signed a letter to Biden last month asking him not to attend memorial events this week commemorating the anniversary.
“I want to know why the Department of Justice is protecting the Saudi kingdom.”
The possible Saudi connection overlaps with another lingering mystery from 9/11: How was it that even with the system “blinking red” at the CIA over intelligence indicating a possible attack, the CIA failed to communicate with the FBI about what it had learned about the Malaysia meeting and the fact that two of the would-be hijackers were in the United States?
The explanation that communication failures and turf issues between the CIA and the FBI were to blame has never satisfied former intelligence officials like Daniel J. Jones, who led the six-year Senate intelligence staff investigation in the aftermath of 9/11 into the CIA’s use of torture against Al Qaeda detainees.
“It has never made sense to me how the CIA requested surveillance of the meeting in Malaysia — this is after the embassy bombings and when there was a belief another attack was coming — yet nobody at the CIA officially relayed this information to the FBI, even after the CIA tracked two of the operatives to Los Angeles,” he told The Intercept.
Richard A. Clarke, counterterrorism director at the National Security Council in both the Clinton and Bush White Houses, has theorized that one explanation may come from Saudi Arabia: With the CIA prevented from conducting intelligence operations on U.S. soil, it might have turned to a friendly foreign intelligence service — the Saudis — to track the movements of the two San Diego hijackers using Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi spy.
“Nothing in the joint congressional investigation, the 9/11 Commission’s work or the CIA Inspector General’s investigation explains why the CIA hid its knowledge about these two al-Qaeda operatives,” Clarke wrote after the partial release of the 28 pages on the Saudis’ possible involvement in 2016.
But a “false flag operation that went wrong” just might explain it, Clarke said. By this theory, the CIA — rather than going to the FBI for help — might have gotten the Saudi intelligence to have Bayoumi ingratiate himself with the two would-be hijackers in Southern California in 2000 and track their movements to determine why they had come to America. And in the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA and the Saudis “would have good reason to hide it,” he said.
The lingering questions beg for answers, families of 9/11 victims say.
Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband was killed in the attacks, said in an interview that the families are fighting not just the Saudis, but their own government, which she said appears more intent on protecting an important foreign ally than aiding the victims’ families.
“We’re fed up. We want accountability and transparency,” Breitweiser said. “I want to know why the Department of Justice is protecting the Saudi kingdom. I’m being robbed of justice for the murder of my husband. It’s just a cover-up, I’m sorry to say.”