Letter from Washington — From the October 2017 issue

Crime and Punishment

Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

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Over the years, successive administrations have made strenuous efforts to suppress discussion of Saudi involvement in the September 11 attacks, deploying everything from abusive security classification to the judiciary to a presidential veto. Now, at last, we stand a chance of discovering what really happened, largely because of a court case.

In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, which grew out of a suit filed in 2002 on behalf of bereaved family members and other victims of the attacks, includes a charge of direct Saudi government involvement in 9/11. It also claims that Riyadh directly funded the creation, growth, and operations of Al Qaeda worldwide. The Saudis, though scorning the accusation, have been striving ever more desperately to prevent the case from advancing through the legal system. To that end, they have employed to date no fewer than fifteen high-powered Washington lobbying firms.

The task is growing more urgent because the kingdom, long confident of essentially unlimited wealth, is facing money problems. Oil prices are in a slump and likely to stay there. The war in Yemen, launched in 2015 by Salman’s appointed heir, Mohammed bin Salman, drags on, costing an estimated $200 million a day, with no end in sight. To alleviate his cash-flow problems, the young prince is set on raising as much as $2 trillion by floating the state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, on international stock markets. That is part of the reason the 9/11 lawsuit poses such a threat — it raises the possibility that much-needed cash from the stock sale might never find its way to Riyadh. “They’re afraid they’re going to get a default judgment against them, and some of their domestic assets will be seized,” the former senior official explained to me.

To Sharon Premoli, one of the more than 6,500 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, that is precisely the goal. On September 11, she had been at her desk at a financial services software company, on the eightieth floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the building thirteen floors above her. Fleeing the area, she had almost reached safety when the South Tower came crashing down, propelling her into a plateglass window. Coming to, she found herself lying on top of a dead body. Like many other survivors, she has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the legal issues around the case, not to mention the world of terrorism and Saudi connections thereto. A multibillion-dollar award “would certainly stop the Saudis from financing terrorism,” she told me. “That’s the whole point of this. It is all about money. If you can cut that off, that would make a serious impact on the dissemination of this rabid ideology around the world.”

Source photographs: Anwar al-Awlaki © Tracy Woodward/The Washington Post/Getty Images; Abdussattar Shaikh’s San Diego home © Dave Gatley/The New York Times; hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the South Tower of the World Trade Center © Spencer Platt/Getty Images; the San Diego skyline © Ian Dagnall/Alamy; hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi; Colony Hotel, Delray Beach, Florida © Ian Dagnall/Alamy

Premoli was more fortunate than Peter Owens, a forty-two-year-old bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, twenty-four floors above her, who had no chance of escape. He left behind a wife and three children. “It’s kind of sad to look forward to the anniversary,” Kathy Owens told me recently. Each September gives her hope that the recurring news peg will inspire journalists to explore the case. “We started a war because of 9/11 — more than one war — and the wars are still going on,” she said. “Every war we start now, we say it’s because of 9/11. It manages so much of our lives. They keep fighting the war on terror, but we are giving the Saudis a pass, despite all of this evidence.”

There has always been evidence — in abundance. The Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 began work in February 2002. Congressional investigators soon uncovered numerous failures by the FBI and CIA. The degree of cumulative incompetence was breathtaking. Most egregiously, the CIA had been well aware that two known Al Qaeda operatives, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, were en route to the United States, but the agency had refused to tell the FBI. The FBI, meanwhile, had multiple reports in its San Diego office on locally based Saudis suspected of terrorist associations, but failed to take action.

San Diego looms large in the recorded history of 9/11, though not because it was the focal point of the plot. While preparing for the operation, the future hijackers had been dispersed around the country, in such places as New Jersey and Florida. The reason we know so much about the West Coast activities of the hijackers is largely because of Michael Jacobson, a burly former FBI lawyer and counterterrorism analyst who worked as an investigator for the Joint Inquiry. Reviewing files at FBI headquarters, he came across a stray reference to a bureau informant in San Diego who had known one of the hijackers. Intrigued, he decided to follow up in the San Diego field office. Bob Graham, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me recently that Robert Mueller, then the FBI director (and now the special counsel investigating connections between Russia and the Trump campaign) made “the strongest objections” to Jacobson and his colleagues visiting San Diego.

Graham and his team defied Mueller’s efforts, and Jacobson flew west. There he discovered that his hunch was correct. The FBI files in California were replete with extraordinary and damning details, notably the hijackers’ close relationship with Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi living in San Diego with a no-show job at a local company with connections to the Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation. The FBI had investigated his possible connections to Saudi intelligence. A couple of weeks after the two hijackers flew into Los Angeles from Malaysia, in February 2000, he had driven up to the city and met with Fahad al-Thumairy, a cleric employed by his country’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs who worked out of the Saudi Consulate. Thumairy, reported to be an adherent of extreme Wahhabi ideology — he was later denied a U.S. visa on grounds of jihadi connections — was also an imam of the King Fahad mosque in Los Angeles County, which the hijackers had visited soon after their arrival.

After meeting with Thumairy, Bayoumi had driven across town to a Middle Eastern restaurant where he “accidentally” encountered and introduced himself to Hazmi and Mihdhar. He invited them to move to San Diego, found them an apartment, paid their first month’s rent, helped them open a bank account, and introduced them to members of the local Saudi community, including his close friend Osama Bassnan.

During the time Bayoumi was catering to the hijackers’ needs, his salary as a ghost employee of the aviation company got a 700 percent boost; it was cut when they left town. That was not his only source of extra funds: After Hazmi and Mihdhar arrived in San Diego, Bassnan’s wife began signing over to Bayoumi’s wife the checks she received from the wife of the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The total value reportedly came to nearly $150,000.

Jacobson also found evidence, noted but seemingly ignored by the bureau, that Hazmi had worked for a San Diego businessman who had himself been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation. Even more amazingly, the two hijackers had been close with an FBI informant, Abdussattar Shaikh. Hazmi had actually lived in his house after Mihdhar left town. Shaikh failed to mention his young Saudi friends’ last names in regular reports to his FBI case officer, or that they were taking flying lessons. Understandably, the investigators had a lot of questions for this man. Nevertheless, Mueller adamantly refused their demands to interview him, even when backed by a congressional subpoena, and removed Shaikh to an undisclosed location “for his own safety.” Today, Graham believes that Mueller was acting under orders from the White House.

Another intriguing document unearthed by the investigators in San Diego was a memo from July 2, 2002, discussing alleged financial connections between the September 11 hijackers, Saudi government officials, and members of the Saudi royal family. It stated that there was “incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists within the Saudi Government.”

Back in 2002, Graham himself was already coming to the conclusion that the 9/11 attacks could not have been the work of a stand-alone terrorist cell. As he later wrote, “I believed almost intuitively that the terrorists who pulled off this attack must have had an elaborate support network, abroad and in the U.S.A.,” with expenses far exceeding the official estimate of $250,000. “For that reason,” he continued, “as well as because of the benefits that come with the confidentiality of diplomatic cover, this infrastructure of support was probably maintained, at least in part, by a nation-state.”

I asked Graham whether he believed that a careful search of the FBI files in Florida and elsewhere would yield similarly explosive disclosures. He told me that the inquiry would have doubtless discovered whom the hijackers were associating with in those places, and where that money came from. Fifteen years on, Graham still regretted not having pursued the possibility of revelatory FBI files in those other locations “aggressively.” Instead, he lamented, the inquiry ended up “with San Diego being the microscope through which we’ve been looking at this whole plot.”

1 Several years later, Awlaki would become notorious as a recruiter of terrorists; he was deemed so dangerous that President Obama ordered his execution by drone in Yemen, in 2011.

Even the comparatively comprehensive accounts of the San Diego phase of the plot may be missing some telling leads. FBI records detailed the close connections between Bayoumi, the hijackers, and a local imam, Anwar al-Awlaki.1 Awlaki apparently served as the hijackers’ spiritual mentor. He soon moved to Northern Virginia, and when Hazmi and another hijacker arrived in the neighborhood in April 2001 to begin their final preparations, he served in that capacity again, and also found them an apartment. Many investigators, including Graham, concluded that Awlaki was not only aware of the developing plot but very much a part of it.

But before that, Awlaki reportedly served as a senior official of a “charity” — viewed by the FBI as a terrorist fund-raising operation — founded by Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a Saudi-backed cleric in Yemen. Zindani had been the spiritual mentor of Osama bin Laden himself. He also founded a powerful Yemeni political party and headed Iman University in Sanaa, often described as a jihadi recruiting hub. Both of these enterprises were supported by Saudi money.

In 2004, the U.S. government listed Zindani as a “specially designated global terrorist” and a supporter of Al Qaeda. This in no way interfered with his travels to Saudi Arabia, however. As recently as this February, Zindani was observed in the company of prominent clerics in Mecca. Among those who have drawn attention to this in published reports is Michael Jacobson, who after service with the 9/11 inquiries returned to counterterrorism analysis with the U.S. Treasury. Currently, he is at the State Department. When I called him to discuss Zindani’s relationship with the Saudis, he quickly replied, “I can’t talk about that,” and ended the conversation with the words, “Good luck.”

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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