The 27 classified pages of a congressional report about Sept. 11 depict a Saudi government that not only provided significant money and aid to the suicide hijackers but also allowed potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups through suspect charities and other fronts, according to sources familiar with the document.
One U.S. official who has read the classified section said it describes “very direct, very specific links” between Saudi officials, two of the San Diego-based hijackers and other potential co-conspirators “that cannot be passed off as rogue, isolated or coincidental.”
Said another official: “It’s really damning. What it says is that not only Saudi entities or nationals are implicated in 9/11, but the [Saudi] government” as well.
Despite such a harsh assessment of the alleged role of the Riyadh government, those U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say congressional investigators found no specific evidence proving that top Saudi officials -- notably members of the royal family -- conspired in any purposeful way to fund the Sept. 11 plot or other acts of terrorism.
And they concede that senior leaders of the CIA, FBI, Treasury Department and other agencies involved in the U.S. counter-terrorism effort have begun to raise strenuous behind-the-scenes objections to some of the assertions made in the classified section of the report.
Some U.S. officials disagree sharply over whether key members of the Saudi royal family knowingly took action to support terrorist activity or simply showed a pattern of what one official called “willful ignorance.”
The nearly 900-page report, released last week, concluded that a series of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence failures preceded the Sept. 11 attacks and that there was evidence of financial support for the hijackers by an unnamed foreign government. U.S. officials have confirmed that that government is Saudi Arabia, but nearly all the details supporting that claim are contained in the lengthy redacted section of the document.
On Friday, several dozen U.S. lawmakers joined in calling on the Bush administration to declassify the section several days after the Saudi Arabian government also called for its release.
Saudi officials have vehemently denied any wrongdoing, saying any allegations of links to the Sept. 11 attacks contained in the report are unsupported by the facts and are politically motivated. They also denied allegations in the report that they allowed Saudi charities and other groups to raise money for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations within their borders.
Adel al-Jubeir, a chief Saudi spokesman, said in an interview that there were thousands of members of the royal family, and that while an internal government investigation had uncovered “wrongdoing by some,” such lapses were certainly not part of any government conspiracy.
The report itself cautions that its findings are inconclusive and require further investigation.
“On the one hand, it is possible that these kinds of connections could suggest, as indicated in a CIA memorandum, ‘incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists,’ ” one passage from the unclassified section states. “On the other hand, it is also possible that further investigation of these allegations could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanations for these associations.”
Several U.S. officials confirmed that the classified report detailed what the FBI has long since concluded: that there were far more financial links than have previously been disclosed between Riyadh and American-based Saudis who associated with the hijackers, and to a larger network of terrorists worldwide.
Those officials refused to discuss the classified sections of the report but confirmed that they detailed additional allegations about Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, two Saudi men, and their suspicious activities in the United States.
Al Bayoumi was an employee of the Saudi civil aviation authority who FBI agents said received “seemingly unlimited funding” from Saudi Arabia. Bassnan and his family received significant charitable support from Princess Haifa al-Faisal, wife of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Al Bayoumi and Bassnan are believed to be in Saudi Arabia.
Federal law enforcement officials said they viewed both men with deep suspicion, particularly Al Bayoumi, and that the ties between the purported San Diego-based student and Saudi officials were more extensive than has been disclosed to date. The classified section cites federal authorities as saying they believed both men, each of whom has been linked to Al Qaeda operatives, could have been Saudi intelligence agents who reported back to government officials in Riyadh and acted as conduits for financial aid for the hijackers and other Saudi militants. Sources say the classified section concludes that Al Bayoumi received at least $3,000 a month from Saudi officials.
U.S. officials also said their investigators have become suspicious over the years about the activities of Saudi Arabia’s top law enforcement officer, Interior Minister Prince Nayef ibn Abdulaziz, who has been a vocal supporter of radical Islamist causes and has stated publicly that Jews were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
There is significant evidence, they say, that Prince Nayef is one of several top Saudi officials who, through individual efforts and in their roles as government overseers, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to suspect charities and other front organizations that ultimately may have helped finance the September 2001 attacks and other terrorist strikes.
But some U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials criticized such assessments. “There is a lot of information in there that’s inflammatory but not accurate, or inferential or open to interpretation,” one official familiar with the classified section said. “Some of it is based on information that is partial, fragmentary and wrong. It is certainly not conclusive.”
Other officials said they believed the evidence cited in the classified section was inconclusive about whether top Saudi officials intentionally helped finance terrorism or simply demonstrated what an official described in an interview as a “stunning” ability to look the other way as money flowed to terrorist activities around the globe.
“If you look at the links, you can’t prosecute them for that. There’s nothing direct,” said one senior law enforcement official overseeing the U.S. effort to investigate Saudi terrorist financing. “If I were their defense attorney, I’d say that they had no direct knowledge. Whether they did have [such direct] knowledge, no one knows.”
However one interprets the 27 pages, all who have read them agreed on one thing: If they are made public, they will prove extremely embarrassing not only to the Saudi government but also to the U.S. government, particularly to the FBI for missing so many clues pointing to Riyadh and for not aggressively investigating them, sources said.
“If this comes out, it will blow the top off the relations with [the Saudi] government because the American people will just be outraged,” said one source familiar with the report.
“People don’t know how much is in there and how specific it is,” the source said. “The public hasn’t gotten anywhere near the meat of it.”
Many U.S. officials involved in the war on terrorism stressed that they were still actively investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, and that they had recently redoubled their efforts to trace terrorist financing in and out of Saudi Arabia, in part because of the cooperation of Saudi officials themselves. A delegation of senior authorities from the FBI, Treasury Department and National Security Council is set to travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday. U.S. officials said the group will pursue new leads, even if they go to the top tiers of the royal family.
“We’re going to track money in both directions, back to the operators and to the source of the donors and those who support terrorism, wherever that takes us,” said one senior law enforcement official. “But completing the linkage between the Saudi [officials] and where the money ends up, that’s what we’re doing but it’s going to be really difficult.”
The officials will be bringing with them a list of suspected Saudi financiers of terrorism and will ask the Saudis to interrogate them and shut down certain businesses that they believe are being used as conduits.
They will also pressure Saudi leaders on why they haven’t cracked down on many of the charities whose ties to terrorism -- and to top Saudi officials -- are detailed in the classified pages, according to several U.S. officials familiar with the trip.
Of particular concern, the U.S. officials said, were recent indications that the largest Saudi-based charity, the Al Haramain Charitable Foundation, continued to operate even though they had repeatedly pressed Saudi leaders to shut it down.
Saudi officials, who have extensive ties to Al Haramain, did order the closure of the massive charity’s many overseas operations late last year as part of a series of promised reforms aimed at cracking down on terrorist financing. One senior U.S. official said the Saudis only did so after a U.S. delegation to Riyadh presented them with reams of “jaw-dropping” information about how Al Haramain’s offices worldwide had been corrupted by Al Qaeda operatives.
Since that visit, the official said, Saudi leaders have reneged on virtually all of the promised reforms. Al-Jubeir, the Saudi spokesman, said such reforms were underway but that “they take time to implement fully.”
Meanwhile, U.S. authorities said they would continue to investigate the other main charities cited in the congressional report as being conduits for terrorism, including the Muslim World League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization.
U.S. officials say top members of the Saudi royal family are involved in the oversight or operation of nearly all of those charities, and that they have refused to audit their books or question their activities despite repeated protests from Washington.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an interview that ample evidence remained “that high-ranking Saudi officials and members of the Saudi royal family are involved in supporting Saudi organizations that have a dual purpose -- legitimate charitable work, but which also appear to be conduits to terrorist organizations.”
“There has been no indication to me that they have seriously cracked down on or audited these charities that are under suspicion,” said Collins, whose committee is investigating Saudi financing of terrorism. “I’m thinking of the phrase ‘deliberate ignorance,’ ” Collins said of the Saudi leaders. “They don’t want to know, they’re not probing, they’re not taking action that would uncover where the financing goes. I think they have knowledge at some level, that they intentionally are not seeking that information.”