Letter from Washington — From the October 2017 issue

Crime and Punishment

Will the 9/11 case finally go to trial?

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So far as the U.S. government and most of the media were concerned, there was no need for further investigation. But the Bush Administration didn’t reject the notion that a nation-state had been behind the attacks. They merely offered up a different nominee for the role: Iraq. In the absence of any evidence to back this up, interrogators at Guantánamo were tasked, according to a 2008 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee, to torture detainees into admitting to such a link.

The 9/11 families, however, had no interest in letting the kingdom off the hook. Nor did their lawyers. These included Ron Motley, of the South Carolina firm Motley Rice. He had recently scored the largest civil settlement in history — some $246 billion from America’s tobacco companies — and was eager for a fresh challenge. Also enlisted in the multiple suits were Jim Kreindler, the New York aviation lawyer who had won more than $2 billion from Muammar Qaddafi in the Pan Am Flight 103 case, and Stephen Cozen of Cozen O’Connor, specialists in recovering money for insurance companies.

The 9/11 suit as it now stands is a compilation of many such suits. It cites evidence of direct support for the attacks by Saudi officials such as Thumairy, Bayoumi, and Bassnan. It also lays out the case for the intimate involvement of the Saudi government in the creation and expansion of Al Qaeda. Whereas the 9/11 Commission Report began its narrative with Osama bin Laden, In re Terrorist Attacks goes back to the foundation of the Al Saud family’s rule and its alliance with the puritanical and intolerant Wahhabi sect. In the 1970s, and then again in the early 1990s, violent challenges to the family’s legitimacy, fostered by its corruption and backsliding from the fundamentalist creed, persuaded the ruling princes to appease the clerics by giving them further leeway, and massive amounts of money, to export their extremist agenda.

For example, according to internal Al Qaeda documents seized by U.S. forces in 2002, a man named Abdullah Omar Naseef was simultaneously the head of one such Saudi “charity,” the Muslim World League, and a member of the Majlis al-Shura, the kingdom’s consultative assembly, which is entirely appointed by the government. Naseef not only met with bin Laden and leaders of Al Qaeda at the time of its founding but reportedly agreed that the league’s offices would be used as a platform for the new organization. He then proceeded to appoint senior Al Qaeda figures to run league offices in such key outposts as Pakistan and the Philippines, the latter position being entrusted to bin Laden’s brother-in-law. Another group, the International Islamic Relief Organization, is meanwhile said to have funded terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, from which the 9/11 hijackers graduated, and in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, for the evident use of terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Should there have been any doubt about the connection between these Wahhabi missionary groups and the Saudi government, they were dispelled by the groups themselves. In documents filed between 2002 and 2005, some formally declared themselves to be organs of the state. They could thus shelter behind the principal Saudi defensive fortification in the case: the immunity enjoyed by foreign countries against being sued in U.S. courts, granted by the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.

For years, this appeared to be a sound strategy, in large part because of the 9/11 Commission’s concluding blanket absolution of the Saudi government. In 2005, U.S. District Judge Richard Casey dismissed the case against the kingdom itself and many of the individual defendants, on the grounds that they were covered by sovereign immunity.

Casey’s judgment was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2008, prompting an appeal to the Supreme Court in 2009, just as Barack Obama entered the White House. Candidate Obama had talked derisively about Bush’s “buddying up to the Saudi royal family and then begging them for oil.” President Obama’s Justice Department almost immediately informed the Supreme Court that the Saudis were in no way liable. Shortly thereafter, Obama flew to Riyadh, where he was royally entertained and duly bedecked with the gold chain and medal of the Order of King Abdulaziz, an honor also conferred on Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Trump. “Goodness gracious,” he exclaimed when presented with the costly bauble, “that’s something there!”

“The mystery to me is Obama,” remarked Graham. He could, he said, understand Bush’s rationale for covering up the Saudi connection in order to bolster the case for war with Iraq. But Obama’s refusal to address the issue, which included a multi-year reluctance to release the twenty-eight pages, mystified him. Meeting with officials on Obama’s National Security Council, he found them “very non-forthcoming. ‘You’ve got all the files,’ ” he told them. “ ‘Go back and verify what I’ve just said and see if you hold the same opinion about the Saudis that you have just stated.’ Either they didn’t want to find out the facts, or if they found them out, they ignored them.”

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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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