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US Supreme Court: families of 9/11 victims can sue Saudi Arabia

After years of legal wrangling, victims' families will be able to sue a sovereign government
The September 11 attacks were carried out by 15 Saudi Arabian citizens (Flickr - Roadsidepictures)

The US Supreme Court on Monday gave the go-ahead for victims of the 9/11 terror attacks to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, alleging complicity in the funding of al-Qaeda.

The decision comes after years of legal wrangling which has seen victim's families try and until now fail to establish a legal case for liability. 

According to online newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Supreme Court declined to listen to an appeal by the Saudi government challenging a lower-court decision that the lawsuit could go ahead.

The attacks which took place in New York on September 11 2001 led to almost 3,000 deaths and sparked a US-led invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan which was allegedly harbouring the al-Qaeda leadership, including Osama Bin Laden, who claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Fifteen out of the 19 hijackers involved in the attack were citizens of Saudi Arabia and rumours have circulated for years about the involvement - both financial and ideological - of influential Saudi nationals or government officials in the attack.

"From our perspective, we are looking forward to having the opportunity to finally conduct an inquiry into the financing of the Sept. 11 attacks," said Sean Carter, a partner at law firm Cozen O'Connor, one of the firms involved in the litigation against Saudi Arabia.

The firm had previously attempted to sue the government of Saudi Arabia in 2003, alleging that Saudi-funded charities had been providing money and information to al-Qaeda for over a decade. However, a federal District Court judge in Manhattan eventually ruled that Saudi Arabia could not be sued because it could not be held accountable for how charities used their money.

In 2008, the US Court of Appeals Second Circuit agreed that the country could not be the target of such a lawsuit.

But in December 2013 the court, reversed its decision and reinstated Saudi Arabia as a defendant, a decision that Saudi Arabia subsequently tried to appeal until the appeal was quashed on Monday.

Legal precedent

Ryan J. Suto, an independent legal analyst, told the Middle East Eye that there are usually legal safeguards in place to prevent diplomatic incidents arising from cases such as this.

“The central statute at issue is the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a law which codifies a traditional jurisdictional limit for US courts and prevents litigants from dragging foreign governments into US courts,” he said.

“However, there are exceptions to the FSIA, such as domestic tort claims and claims arising from activities of state-sponsored terrorism.”

Suto told MEE that while there was no explanation from the Supreme Court as to why they dismissed Saudi Arabia’s appeal, the “extraordinary” nature of the case allowed the lower court to proceed with its ruling.

“The Supreme Court likely felt that the previous decision was sufficiently limited so as not to open the floodgates of litigation against a plethora of foreign governments,” he said.

“That is to say that if such tort claims are limited to 9/11-like events, allowing them to be heard on the merits would not challenge the executive's ability to carry out foreign relations.”

Conversely, a bid to revive the pursuit of legal action against various banks, financial officials and members of the Bin Laden family for involvement in providing support to al-Qaeda was rejected.

"The cases declined by the Supreme Court are still just beating around the bush, focusing on questions of jurisdiction," says David Weinberg, a senior fellow at Washington-based think tank the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

"Saudi institutions have not yet had to face well-sourced accusations that they knowingly aided and abetted the terrorist group al-Qaeda."

Ali al-Ahmed, a writer and political speaker at the US-based Gulf Institute, says that on the one hand the ruling by the Supreme Court could prove problematic for the US’s largely pro-Saudi foreign policy. The two countries are long-term allies and have deep security and economic ties.

“On the other hand, however, it will change a lot in terms of the rise of terrorism in the region because the Saudis don’t want to be called the funders of terrorism so they will try to cut down on this and avoid funding terrorism,” he told MEE.

Weinberg also stressed that there would likely be strong official pressure by the US State Department and others to sweep the issue under the rug.

"The US government has tried repeatedly to make this case go away, arguing that the Supreme Court should not hear cases that seek to hold members of the Saudi royal family accountable if they were indeed past sponsors of terrorism," he said.

"For instance, the executive branch succeeded previously in 2009 in a similar instance of convincing the Supreme Court not to hear an earlier case by the 9/11 victim’s families."

Ahmed has been working at the Gulf Institute on providing evidence of Saudi complicity in international terrorism, including the government’s seeming lack of oversight on the influx of Saudi citizens travelling to fight with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

“One of the things that we will do in the next few weeks is provide some of this evidence in one of the reports we are working on,” he said.

“For example, one of the 9/11 recruiters still lives in Saudi Arabia on the largesse of the Saudi King. We have pictures, names and details and we will publish that in our report.”

He dismissed claims that the problems lay exclusively with private citizens in the country.

“That’s what they are saying, but in a country like Saudi Arabia it would be very hard to operate privately without government approval or the government looking the other way,” he told MEE.

“You see the Saudis saying, because they have a lot of influence over the media, they say ‘oh these are private parties’ - but nothing in the Gulf countries happens privately.”

The Saudi authorities have long denied any such links to militant groups and often point to the harsh penalties doled out to people with suspected links to such groups. In recent months, they have also stepped up their security further and vowed to crackdown on anyone suspected of aiding groups like Islamic State (IS) which has taken over swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Measures like these, however, have failed to appease critics.

“If you tweet something that the government doesn’t like - even if you don’t use your name - they find you and arrest you and throw you in jail for five or ten years,” said Ahmed.

“But [the authorities] are not willing to arrest people who are raising money for terrorists in the open? I’m sorry, but the government is involved.”

The nature of centralised Saudi Arabian power structure may help prosecutors fighting the 9/11 case for damages, argues Weinberg.

"The blurring of public and private lines in a country like Saudi Arabia certainly makes assessing responsibility more challenging for a law suit such as this one, but the plaintiffs have provided an enormous amount of material to source their accusations against leading members of the Saudi royal family – including Crown Prince Salman and former intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal," he said.

"Avoiding the question of whether or not they are guilty of such grievous offenses on jurisdictional technicalities, as the Saudi and American governments are trying to do, is inexcusable, because it suggests that it doesn’t really matter whether or not these foreign leaders chose to sponsor terrorism.

"The thousands of civilians who were killed or injured on 9/11 deserve a genuine inquiry, not a dog and pony show over claims of sovereign immunity,” he added.