$100-Trillion Lawsuit Over 9/11 Targets Saudis
More than 600 relatives of Sept. 11 terrorism victims filed a lawsuit Thursday that accuses seven foreign banks, eight Islamic foundations and three members of the Saudi royal family of financing Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.
The relatives said their lawsuit, which seeks more than $100 trillion, aims to crush the financial pipeline that supports terrorism. The suit also names as defendants the Sudanese government and the Saudi construction conglomerate run by Bin Laden’s family.
“We will leave them high and dry, their bankrollers broke and bereft,” said William Doyle, whose son worked at the World Trade Center.
“We will expose for the world the shady underbelly behind the atrocities of 9/11,” said Thomas E. Burnett Sr., whose son died aboard the hijacked jetliner that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
The U.S. government is conducting its own effort to freeze the assets of businesses and charities that support terrorism. But the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, could complicate the Bush administration’s broader war on terrorism.
It comes while U.S. officials are working to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia as they consider an attack on its neighbor Iraq. Saudi officials object to any notion that their nation fosters terrorism.
To probe Bin Laden’s financial supports, lawyers for the plaintiffs said they hired their own investigators, including Jean-Charles Brisard, co-author of a controversial French bestseller that claims Saudi Arabia played as big a role in the spread of Islamic terrorism as did the Taliban, which offered Bin Laden protection in Afghanistan.
“I had nothing against the Saudis, but that’s where the evidence pointed,” said Allan Gerson, a lead lawyer for the families.
They found what they described as a series of financial ties between the Saudis and Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network in which the money flowed in one direction--to Bin Laden. “This is an insidious group of people,” plaintiff’s lawyer Ron Motley told a news conference, referring to the Saudis.
Gerson, of Washington, counseled many of the families who sued Libya after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. This year, lawyers announced a deal in which each of the families would get $10 million.
Motley, of South Carolina, successfully sued the asbestos industry and represented states in their legal triumph over the tobacco industry.
The money from the terrorism suit, if successful, is expected to come from assets held in the U.S. by the defendants.
Although some of the allegations in the terrorism lawsuit have appeared previously in news reports, the suit does not disclose the documents or other specific evidence that may underlie many of its allegations.
The lawsuit, aiming directly at the Saudi royal family, says that the former chief of the Saudi Secret Services, Prince Turki al Faisal al Saud, helped broker a 1998 deal in which Saudi Arabia agreed not to seek the extradition of Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members from Afghanistan, or the closing of terrorist camps there, in return for Bin Laden’s agreement not to use the infrastructure in Afghanistan to undermine the Saudi government.
“Prince Turki also promised to provide oil and generous financial assistance to both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the lawsuit continues. “After the  meeting, 400 new pickup trucks arrived in Kandahar for the Taliban, still bearing Saudi Arabia license plates.” Kandahar, a city in Afghanistan, was a Taliban stronghold.
In accusations against a second member of the Saudi royal family, the lawsuit says that since 1994, Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a brother of King Fahd, donated at least $6 million to charities that provided financing to Al Qaeda--a charge that has not been widely chronicled in the media.
The lawsuit says Prince Sultan should have known the character of the charities because he headed the Saudi council that reviews aid requests from Islamic groups. Prince Sultan is also Saudi Arabia’s second deputy prime minister and minister of defense and aviation.
A third member of the royal family, Mohammed al Faisal al Saud, is cited as chairman of firms that owned shares of a Sudanese bank that allegedly supported Bin Laden’s activities. The lawsuit claims that Prince Mohammed is also the former chairman of a Swiss charity that is “involved in Al Qaeda financing through several subsidiaries.”
A Saudi press official in Washington declined to comment on the lawsuit. But Saudi officials have strenuously denied accusations that they have supported terrorism or been slow to combat it.
“We are fighting communism, we are fighting terrorism, we are working assiduously with the United States in this regard,” the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said in an Aug. 11 interview with ABC television. “We have a committee on which we share information. We have a committee that also deals with the freezing of the assets of anybody who finances this terror. And in spite of all these things, we’re still accused of aiding the terrorism that is against Saudi Arabia.”
Under U.S. law, foreign governments have a broad, though not unlimited, immunity from lawsuits, including those alleging cooperation in wrongful deaths. Several lawyers said that immunity likely did not apply in this case, however, because the actions occurred on U.S. soil.
Moreover, Congress set more liberal terms for suing nations designated by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism, a list that includes Sudan. It is unclear whether members of the Saudi royal family could successfully argue that their government roles confer some type of immunity.
State Department officials would not comment on the lawsuit Thursday. But spokesman Philip Reeker said the department was “fully and very satisfied with the support we’ve gotten from Saudi Arabia in the many aspects of this war against terrorism--the financial aspects, the intelligence and information sharing, the law enforcement actions--in doing that.”
Still, relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained in recent months. The Bush administration is planning for a possible effort to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but Saudi officials say they would not join a war.
Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, a fact that has prompted criticism from some Americans but that the Saudis say was a deliberate attempt by Bin Laden’s group to drive a wedge between the two countries.
The lawsuit accuses the government of Sudan of fostering Al Qaeda during the 1990s.
“It is obvious that Sudan has not been involved in any way in the tragic incidents or attacks on Sept. 11,” said Abdelbagi Kabeir, deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese embassy in Washington. “We have not got any citizens involved. We were not linked in any way.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.