REVEALED: 9/11 families could sue UAE for alleged role in attacks
The families of hundreds of people killed in the 9/11 attacks are considering adding the United Arab Emirates as a defendant to a legal case against Saudi Arabia for its roles in the outrage, Middle East Eye can reveal.
Nearly 3,000 people died when hijacked airplanes crashed into New York's World Trade Centre, the Pentagon building and a Pennsylvania field in September 2001.
Until now the attention of the victims' families and their legal representatives has been focused on Saudi Arabia, which it is alleged helped support the attack through its alleged funding of al-Qaeda training camps and its support for the group, including weapons, funding and logistical support.
'I'm simply going to say this - to me, their hands don't seem clean'
- Kristen Breitweiser
But the UAE's alleged support for al-Qaeda has been raised in New York legal circles in the context of the Qatar crisis, leading victims' families to discuss taking legal action before a statute of limitations on court challenges over the devastating attacks expires in January 2019.
Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband Ronald in the 9/11 attacks, told MEE that the UAE is "on the radar" of victims' families and their legal teams.
"The UAE needs some attention and our lawyers need to start delving into it in a more concerted way," said Breitweiser, a high-profile activist and member of the "Jersey Girls", four women from New Jersey whose husbands were killed on 9/11 and went on to campaign for a national commission of inquiry into the attack.
"I'm simply going to say this - to me, their hands don't seem clean and I think their role in the 9/11 attacks and their connection to the hijackers bears further investigation."
Did UAE support al-Qaeda?
In a series of interviews, relatives of 9/11 victims, including Breitweiser, and New York lawyers, pointed to the 9/11 Commission report finding as justification to add the UAE to the defendant lists in a string of court cases currently being brought against Saudi Arabia under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Jasta), which was passed in September 2016.
Two of the 19 hijackers who flew planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre towers were from the UAE, while 15 others were Saudi.
The 9/11 Commission report, which was published in July 2004, and accompanying documents, made more than 70 mentions of the UAE and found that most of the attackers travelled through Dubai on their way to take part in the attacks.
It was found that $120,000 was transferred from attack ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, now facing a military trial in Guantanamo Bay, to plot facilitator Abdul Aziz Ali in Dubai. The money was then wired to fund the hijackers in the US.
The legal focus is currently on the larger alleged role of the government of Saudi Arabia, which only moved to ban al-Qaeda in 2013, but more than 700 defendants were initially named across at least seven courts challenges: These included a number of Middle East banks, including the Dubai Islamic Bank, charities and individuals from across the Gulf.
Court documents for one case, filed in New York in December, alleged the UAE's Dubai Islamic Bank "knowingly and purposefully provided financial services and other forms of material support to al-Qaeda... including the transfer of financial resources to an al-Qaeda operative who participated in the planning and executions of the 11 September attacks".
Neither the Dubai Islamic Bank or the UAE embassy in London responded to request for comment from MEE over alleged links to the 9/11 attackers and funding for the tragedy.
A New York legal source, who asked not to be named as they were working on a possible legal challenge involving the UAE, said it was common knowledge that the UAE had been involved in "extensive lobbying against Jasta alongside Saudi Arabia."
They said: "It's also interesting that a bank from the UAE, the Dubai Islamic Bank, is a defendant in at least three of the court cases moving through the courts."
'A base of operations'
Gordon Haberman, whose daughter Andrea Lyn Haberman was killed after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into World Trade Centre 1, told MEE that it was "frustrating" that ties between the UAE and terrorism have not been explored thoroughly since the 9/11 Commission report was released.
He told MEE: "The UAE was certainly a country used as a base of operations for staging and prepping the hijackers who eventually were made the 'muscle' men aboard the planes on 9/11.
"They were provided a safe haven in Dubai by two of the defendants in the 9/11 trial now going on in Guantanamo: Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali.
"The banking system in the UAE was used by Hawsawi to funnel money and material support to Mohammed Atta [one of the 9/11 ringleaders] in the United States. Most of the hijackers travelled from Dubai… on their way to the US and to take part in 9/11."
'Most of the hijackers travelled from Dubai… on their way to the US and to take part in 9/11'
- Gordon Hamberman, 9/11 victim's father
Haberman added that much of the information on ties to the UAE has been in the "public domain for years" but that it was his hope that the "passage of Jasta in the US will give pause to nations, prior to their funding and facilitating terror groups and their members".
Lawyers say there is extensive evidence to link Saudi Arabia to the attacks, while the 9/11 Commission report presents evidence of Saudi, UAE, Iranian and Qatar support for the attackers.
The report also detailed how US military planners missed the chance to target Osama bin Laden at an Afghan camp in February 1999. US officials failed to launch an air strike or missile attack over fears the al-Qaeda leader was meeting with "visitors from a Gulf state".
The 9/11 report identified these visitors as high-level UAE officials. It appears UAE officials then tipped off Bin Laden to thwart future efforts to kill him.
More recent State Department reports say Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar all have issues with money laundering and private terrorism financing to varying degrees. Plot ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also spent time in Qatar, where he worked for the government, in the years prior to the attacks.
Terry Strada, who lost her husband Tom in the attacks on New York, told MEE: "As for me, I would consult my attorneys and look to where the evidence leads. Our counsel, on our behalf, have been and continue to pay close attention to the evidence regarding the sources of support for al-Qaeda leading into the 9/11 attacks.
"They have been careful in presenting our claims – for example, claims against Saudi Arabia were brought only after amassing a compelling body of evidence. I would anticipate a similar approach regarding any other source of support that might be identified."
There are currently at least seven court challenges against Saudi Arabia seeking to take advantage of Jasta, which provided a legal exemption to the legal principle of sovereign immunity so families could take the Saudi and other governments to court.
Lawyer Jim Kreindler, who is representing 850 victims in a legal claim against the Saudi government, said Saudi is "by far the biggest, most culpable defendant" but refused to rule out expanding the case to include UAE at some point in the next 18 months.
He told MEE: "Most active families are aware of the role played by the UAE in 9/11. If we wanted to paint with the broadest brush possible we could identify other entities that provided some support to the attackers, but to get this case to the finish line it is important to focus on the entity most involved and most critical in supporting al-Qaeda."
He added that Saudi Arabia was the "elephant in our sights" but that "there may be reasons" to add other defendants "for the victims".
'The hypocrisy is galling'
Discussions over expanding the legal campaign to include UAE have intensified after the UAE warned it could withdraw intelligence cooperation with the US in an attempt to block Jasta.
Leaked emails reported by The Daily Telegraph last month show how Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE's ambassador to the US, warned politicians that countries at risk of being sued in US courts would be "less likely to share crucial information and intelligence".
This comes after the UAE's foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, tweeted in September that Jasta would have "serious and enduring" repercussions.
The role played by the UAE in lobbying against Jasta was described as "alarming and extremely telling" by 9/11 families.
"Clearly, if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about when it comes to Jasta... So to me, learning that information sets off huge alarm bells, sort of gets the system blinking red," said 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser.
'Quite frankly, the hypocrisy is galling for Saudi... Why don't they look in the mirror?'
- Kristen Breitweiser
The Jasta lobbying revelation came amid an ongoing row between Gulf monarchies after Saudi Arabia and the UAE severed diplomatic ties and transport links with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism.
Breitweiser added: "Quite frankly, the hypocrisy is galling for Saudi to be putting the screws to Qatar in the manner that they are - sanctioning or blockading the Qataris for their funding of terrorism. Why don't they look in the mirror, require the same list of measures and demands of themselves - open their own books for all to see?"
The crisis saw Qatar's ambassador to the US, Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani, accuse the UAE of supporting 9/11 last month as the diplomatic war of words between the two states continued.
Alice Hoagland, the mother of Mark Bingham who died on United Flight 93 when it crashed in a Pennsylvania field, said she feared 9/11 was being used as a "political football" in the crisis.
She told MEE: "I believe Qatar's ambassador treads on sore toes of many 9/11 families in announcing that Emiratis, not Qataris, were among the hijackers who flew planes into the Twin Towers.
"I plan to continue to study al-Thani's reasons for asserting involvement by the UAE in 9/11."