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The Saudis, 9/11 and the 28 pages: America has gone to war for much less

The declassified sections of the report paint a far more damning picture of Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks than media reports would suggest

It was a great day to bury bad news. Last Friday, the US government finally released the long awaited classified 28 pages from the Joint Congressional report on 9/11, pointing to Saudi Arabia’s role in the attacks. That same day, Congress broke up for the summer, the Nice atrocity dominated the headlines. Then came a coup in Turkey.

The story almost vanished. No smoking gun, said the news reports.

But this interpretation of the pages is a little misleading. Did these writers actually read the documents or just the statements from the FBI and CIA? Yes, the 28 pages do not show that senior Saudi ministers directly told the hijackers to fly planes into buildings or provide them the means to do it. Yet the claim of a lack of definitive links to the Saudis can only hold if they mean the smoking gun was not found still hot in the hands of the crown prince or king himself. 

Only those who don’t want to see the links won’t find them here, although there are caveats.

First, there are still lots of blacked out names and lines in the report so we can’t see everything that the senators who have read the uncensored report have seen in full. If we could, the picture of Saudi involvement would almost certainly be even more damning.  

Second, the document says the FBI and CIA both did not investigate the Saudis in the United States before 9/11 because the Saudis are allies of the US. This only changed after 9/11, and even then fears of upsetting the special relationship with the Saudis meant that several strong leads were not followed up. The higher ups clearly didn’t want to push the investigation. FBI director Robert Mueller, cautioning against “jumping to conclusions”, even admitted to the Joint Committee on 9 October 2002 that the probing of the joint inquiry staff had brought to light facts that he and the FBI had not been aware of.

Third, according to the 28 pages, the Saudis did not cooperate in the investigation. They were “useless and obstructionist,” said one New York FBI agent. Others agreed.

Fourth, the 28 pages only deal with one small part of the 9/11 plot - the San Diego cell, and touch on the Florida connection.

Yet even with these limitations, a close reading of the newly released pages, combined with what is known about the people mentioned in them, paints a damning picture. The links between Saudi intelligence operatives who assisted the Flight 77 hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi and senior members of the Saudi government are clear.

The suspects

Larisa Alexandrovna Horton, managing editor of investigative news at The Raw Story, has helpfully summarised the report: “Four out of the five [named Saudi operatives] have Saudi government jobs as well as ties to 9/11 hijackers. Four of them also appear to be Saudi intelligence officers with Saudi government jobs as their cover. Two of them got direct funding from Prince Bandar and [his wife] Princess Haifa as well the Saudi Ministry of Defence and Aviation (run by Prince Bandar’s father Prince Sultan). … One of them reported directly to Bandar in his capacity as a Saudi Consulate employee. Three of them are tied through phone calls to the Saudi embassy and other Saudi government departments. All of them were protected by the Saudi government. Add to this the several unnamed individuals who are linked to both the Saudi Embassy and the hijackers. Moreover, connections to Bandar appear in several terrorist suspects’ phonebooks.”

Aside from the 15 Saudi hijackers who were named by the FBI after the attacks in 2001, we must add new names from the kingdom to the list of 9/11 suspects. The declassified pages show how several Saudis connected to the Saudi embassy and senior Saudi officials assisted the hijackers. These include:

* Omar al-Bayoumi, who FBI reports dating from 1999, cited in the 28 pages, suggest was a Saudi intelligence officer with a long history of connections to Saudi officialdom. He made 100 calls to Saudi establishments through early 2000, and had several contacts at the embassy, the Saudi cultural centre and the Saudi consulate in LA. He had received $20,000 from the Ministry of Finance. The report says he “provided substantial assistance to hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi after they arrived in San Diego in February 2000. Al-Bayoumi met the hijackers at a public place shortly after meeting with an individual from the Saudi consulate". It goes on: “When al-Hazmi and al-Midhar moved to San Diego…. They stayed at al-Bayoumi’s apartment for several days until [he] was able to find them an apartment. Al-Bayoumi then co-signed their lease and may have paid their first month’s rent and security deposit.” He threw a party for them and found someone from the Islamic Centre of San Diego to translate for them, help them get driver’s licenses and “ assisted them in locating flight schools.”

The hijackers were later moved to the house of a friend of Bayoumi, Abdussattar Shaikh, who unknown to Bayoumi, was an FBI informant. The FBI closed their initial investigation into Bayoumi in 1999. After the September 2001 attacks, Bayoumi moved to the UK, where he was arrested at the behest of the FBI but the investigation was then dropped. The agency has been much criticised in years since for failing to follow up evidence linking him to the hijackers. 

Bayoumi worked for a company affiliated to the Saudi Ministry of Defence, even though he only turned up once. The document states: “According to FBI files [redacted] at the company said that al-Bayoumi received a monthly salary even though he had been there only one occasion. The support increased substantially in April 2000, two months after the hijackers arrived in San Diego, decreased slightly in December of 2000, and stayed at the same level until August 2001. The company reportedly had ties to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.” 

* Osama Bassnan, Bayoumi’s close associate, was a Saudi intelligence operative, according to FBI informants in the Muslim community. He lived directly across the street from the hijackers in San Diego and told an informant that he did more for the two hijackers than Bayoumi. The FBI described him as “an extremist and supporter of Osama bin Laden”. The document states: “According to a CIA memo Bassnan reportedly received funding and possibly a fake passport from Saudi government officials. The report says Bassnan was bankrolled by “the Saudi ambassador to the United States [Bandar] and his wife” through the Saudis’ favourite finance house Riggs Bank. A search of Bassnan’s apartment turned up indications that he had cashed checks worth $74,000 and had one check dating from 1998 from Bandar himself for $15,000.

* Saudi interior ministry official Saleh al-Hussayen stayed at the same time hotel in Houston as hijacker al-Hazmi days before the attack. “While al-Hussayen claimed after 9/11 not to know the hijackers, FBI agents believed he was being deceptive,” says the report. He was able to leave the US despite the FBI wanting to question him further.

* On page 433 (the 28 page document is numbered from page 415 to 443), the report refers to an incident described as a possible "dry run" for the 2001 attacks when, in 1999, Mohammed al-Qudhaeein and Hamdan al-Shalawi were flying from Phoenix to Washington DC to attend a party at the Saudi embassy. "After boarding the plane... they began asking the flight attendants technical questions about the flight that the flight attendants found suspicious." At one point, "al-Qudhaeein went to the front of the plane and attempted on two occasions to enter the cockpit. The plane made an emergency landing and the FBI investigated the incident, but decided not to pursue a prosecution." The men said their plane tickets were paid for by the Saudi embassy.

* The most senior figure by far implicated through multiple connections to the agents who assisted the hijackers is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was then Saudi ambassador to the US in Washington. His father, Prince Sultan, was at that time Saudi defence minister. Among phone numbers found in the phone book of Pakistani al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubayda were one subscribed to the APSCOL Corporation in Aspen, which managed the Colorado residence of Prince Bandar.

US President George W. Bush (L) meets with Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch 27 August 2002 in Crawford, Texas. (AFP)

The 28 pages also include new information linking Prince Bandar to Osama Bin Laden’s safe house in Pakistan:

“The U.S. Government also located another Virginia number at Usama Bin Ladin’s safe house in Pakistan. The number is subscribed to by an individual named [REDACTED] was interviewed by the FBI in June 2002. He could not explain why his number ended up [ina safe house in Pakistan, but stated that he regularly provides services to a couple who are personal assistants to Prince Bandar.”

Again, no smoking gun, but a further link between Bandar and the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden.

Bandar the survivor

Bandar went on to become head of the Saudi National Security Council and General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and was in charge of the Syria file until, it seems, his alleged support for the Islamic State group became a liability and he was removed from post.

Given that Bandar has been sidelined and there has been a shift in power in Saudi to a new generation under Prince Salman, some may suggest the 28 pages do not count for much. But that won’t wash. Just imagine if we were to replace the country named in the report with Russia, Iran or another traditional US nemesis. What would the Western media reaction have been to the declassification of these pages?

Casus belli?

The US Senate recently voted unanimously to allow families to sue the Saudi government for its involvement in 9/11. Although no politicians are calling for war with Saudi Arabia as a result of the revelations in the 28 pages, it is the case that compared to the casus belli for the invasions of Afghanistan and even more so for Iraq, the evidence of direct links between the Saudi government and the 9/11 attacks is much more compelling. America has invaded two Middle East nations for far less.

Ultimately, a new war will not resolve the problems unleashed by the war on terror since 9/11. The main victims of such a war would not be the billionaire princes accused of assisting the 9/11 terrorists but - as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - the ordinary people and conscripted soldiers who are incinerated by expensive American bombs. 

Instead, Americans must seriously ask themselves how they can continue to be an ally of a government that has most probably helped bring about the worst mainland attack in the country's history. They must also ask how a US president who styled himself as a defender of national security repeatedly put obstacles in front of law enforcement agencies investigating Saudi terror links and then ignored his own flying ban to whisk senior Saudis out of the country to evade justice.

Two years later, he took America to war with Iraq, in part through falsely linking Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attacks, and destroyed that country.

Kristen Breitweiser(R), who lost her husband in the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, wipes a tear as Stephen Push, who lost his wife on Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon, testify during a hearing of the Senate Committee (AFP)

As 9/11 widow and activist Kristen Breitweiser wrote this month: “The 29 pages have been kept secret and suppressed from the American public for 15 years - not for matters of genuine national security - but for matters of convenience, embarrassment, and cover-up.” 

She emphasises how badly the 9/11 Commission report chairman Philip Zelikow, appointed by Bush, did not want the Saudi role investigated, going so far as to fire the investigator looking into the Saudis’ role when he was brought over from the Congressional Joint Inquiry.

And the question of motive hangs over these pages. What could any member of the Saudi government possibly gain from attacking the US, its long-time ally and protector of the wealth of the al-Sauds, unless they too signed up to the bin Laden worldview?

The 9/11 story is very far from over. As Breitweiser, who is one of a several widows fighting for justice, warns: “The 29 pages do not include information found in the more than 80,000 documents that are currently being reviewed by a federal judge in Florida - 80,000 documents that neither the 9/11 Commission, the Joint Inquiry, the Clinton, Bush, or Obama White House, nor the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, wants us to know about.”

Joe Gill has lived and worked as a journalist in Oman, London, Venezuela and the US, for newspapers including Financial Times, Brand Republic, Morning Star and Caracas Daily Journal. His Masters was in Politics of the World Economy at the London School of Economics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US President George W. Bush, with US Attorney General John Ashcroft (L), Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz al-Saud (2nd-L) and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaks 19 November 2001 before a prayer by Imam Abdullah Muhammad Khouj during a Ramadan dinner in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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