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World & Nation

Congress releases previously secret allegations about Saudi connections to Sept. 11 attacks

Sept. 11
The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
(Associated Press)

In the months following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, FBI agents chased down tantalizing leads that a Saudi official and a princess in the Saudi royal family may have helped two hijackers settle in San Diego before the strike.

But when a 2002 congressional inquiry into the hijackings was released, 28 pages of details about those leads were blanked out, leading to conspiracy theories that the U.S. government was trying to protect Saudi Arabia, its ally, from scrutiny.

The Obama administration on Friday finally declassified those pages, and Congress released the documents to the public. Many of the allegations already have appeared in news reports, government reviews and court documents over the past several years.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest stressed Friday that the pages, which were originally part of the 858-page “Joint Inquiry into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001,” reveal no evidence that the Saudi government funded Al Qaeda’s plot.

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CIA director John Brennan said in May that the leads were based on unsubstantiated reports. The FBI investigated, he said, and did not find evidence that Saudi officials knew about the 9/11 plot or that Saudi government funds reached the hijackers.

According to the declassified portion of the report, “While in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi Government. There is information, primarily from FBI sources, that at least two of those individuals were alleged by some to be Saudi intelligence officers.”

The report stated that the FBI and CIA had told congressional investigators in 2002 that “they are treating the Saudi issue seriously, but both still have only a limited understanding of the Saudi Government’s ties to terrorist elements.”

The FBI later determined that the Saudi officials who had connections to two hijackers living in San Diego, Nawaf Al-Hazmi and Khalid Al-Mihdhar, were not aware of a terrorist plot or their connection to Al Qaeda.

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Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Abdullah Al-Saud welcomed the publication of the previously secret pages, saying that the kingdom has long called for their release.

“We hope the release of these pages will clear up, once and for all, any lingering questions or suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s actions, intentions, or long-term friendship with the United States,” Saud said in a statement.

Family members who lost loved ones in the attacks have sued Saudi Arabia over its alleged role in the attacks and called for the passage of a law that would revoke sovereign immunity for diplomats from countries that support terrorism. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Lawyers for the families said the release is a “first step” toward more transparency around Saudi Arabia’s role in aiding terrorist groups in the years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.

“The public has a right to know. The families have a right to know,” Jim Kreindler, one of the lawyers representing families of those who were killed or injured in the Sept. 11 attacks, said in an interview from New York.

“It is really mind-boggling to say there were breadcrumbs to follow that will show Saudi Arabia participated in the worst terror attack in the United States ever,” Kreindler said. “Are we going to let them get away with 3,000 murders because they have been behaving themselves better in recent years?”

Seth Jones, a former U.S. counterterrorism official who helped research a 2015 FBI review of the bureau’s counterterrorism investigations, said he’s never seen persuasive evidence that senior officials in the Saudi government had any awareness or complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The question becomes if there were individuals that one could trace money to in the consulate in Los Angeles, to what degree were they aware of the plot? To what degree were they funding it?”

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Much of the focus of the early leads centered on Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, two men who spent time with the hijackers, according to the declassified pages. Investigators initially suspected the men were Saudi intelligence officers, though the FBI never was able to confirm that.

Both had many contacts with Saudi officials, the report states. Investigators suspected that Bayoumi was introduced to the two hijackers by a Saudi consular official named Fahad al-Thumairy. Thumairy was an imam at King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, where Hazmi and Mihdhar visited after arriving in Southern California in early 2000.  

Bayoumi visited the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and saw Thumairy on the same day he met the two would-be hijackers at a restaurant, FBI investigators found. Hazmi and Mihdhar stayed in Bayoumi’s apartment in San Diego for a few days before Bayoumi co-signed a lease on an apartment for them and possibly paid the first month’s rent, the report states. Bayoumi was taking a salary from a Saudi company associated with the Saudi Ministry of Defense but rarely showed up for work, FBI investigators found.

Bassnan was a friend of Bayoumi’s and lived across the street from the San Diego apartment rented by the two hijackers. From 1999 to 2002, Bassnan and his wife received $73,000 in financial support for medical treatments from Princess Haifa bint Faisal, the wife of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. at the time, according to the report. The FBI told 9/11 commission researchers that agents had found no evidence that Bassnan gave that money to the two hijackers.

The FBI and the CIA looked deeper into the nature and extent of Saudi support for terrorism in 2005 and found “no evidence” the Saudi government or members of the Saudi royal family “knowingly” provided support for the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the executive summary of the joint FBI-CIA intelligence report that also was declassified and made public Friday. 

The 2005 assessment did find that “many” Saudi government agencies have been infiltrated by people associated with Al Qaeda, and that official Saudi entities had given financial and logistical support to individuals in the United States “associated with terrorism-related activity.” 

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

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UPDATES:

2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background.

This article was originally published at 11:45 a.m.


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