FBI releases newly declassified record on September 11 attacks

Document describes contacts the hijackers had with Saudi associates in the US but offers no evidence the Saudi government was complicit in the plot.

In this September 11, 2001, photo, thick smoke billows into the sky from behind the Statue of Liberty, lower left, where the World Trade Center towers stood [Daniel Hulshizer/AP]

The FBI has released a newly declassified 16-page document related to logistical support provided to two of the Saudi hijackers in the run-up to the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The document, released late on Saturday, describes contacts the hijackers had with Saudi associates in the United States but offers no evidence the Saudi government was complicit in the plot.

It is the first investigative record to be disclosed since US President Joe Biden ordered a declassification review of materials that for years have remained out of public view.

Biden had encountered pressure in recent weeks from victims’ families, who have long sought the records as they pursue a lawsuit in New York alleging that senior Saudi officials were complicit in the attacks.

Speculation of official involvement swirled shortly after the attacks when it was revealed that 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis. Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda at the time, was also from a prominent family in the kingdom.

The Saudi government has long denied any involvement, however. The Saudi Embassy in Washington said on Wednesday it supported the full declassification of all records as a way to “end the baseless allegations against the Kingdom once and for all”.

The embassy said any allegation that Saudi Arabia was complicit was “categorically false”.

“As past investigations have revealed, including the 9/11 Commission and the release of the so-called ’28 Pages,’ no evidence has ever emerged to indicate that the Saudi government or its officials had previous knowledge of the terrorist attack or were in any way involved,” the embassy’s statement said.

The Saudi government denied sending money to two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, left, and Nawaf al-Hazmi

Biden last week ordered the Justice Department and other agencies to conduct a declassification review of investigative documents and release what they can over the next six months. The 16 pages were released on Saturday night, hours after Biden attended September 11 memorial events in New York, Pennsylvania and northern Virginia.

Victims’ relatives – who are seeking billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia – had earlier objected to Biden’s presence at ceremonial events as long as the documents remained classified.

Chance encounter?

The heavily redacted record describes a 2015 interview with a person who was applying for US citizenship and years earlier had repeated contacts with Saudi nationals who investigators said provided “significant logistical support” to several of the hijackers.

The man’s identity is redacted throughout the document, but he is described as having worked at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles.

Among his contacts was a Saudi national named Omar al-Bayoumi, according to the document.

Al-Bayoumi, who had ties to the Saudi government, helped two of the hijackers find and lease an apartment in San Diego, shortly after their arrival in southern California.

Al-Bayoumi has described his restaurant meeting with the hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar in February 2000 as a “chance encounter”, and the FBI during its interview made multiple attempts to ascertain if that characterisation was accurate or if it had actually been arranged in advance, according to the document.

“Bayoumi’s assistance to Hazmi and Mihdhar included translation, travel, lodging and financing,” the document said, adding that the wife of the FBI’s source told them al-Bayoumi often talked about “jihad”.

Also referenced in the document is Fahad al-Thumairy, at the time an accredited diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles who investigators say led a hardline faction at his mosque.

The document says communications analysis identified a seven-minute phone call in 1999 from al-Thumairy’s phone to the Saudi Arabian family home phone of two brothers who became future detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Both al-Bayoumi and al-Thumairy left the US weeks before the attacks.

Victims’ relatives cheered the document’s release as a significant step in their effort to connect the attacks to Saudi Arabia.

Brett Eagleson, whose father, Bruce, was killed in the World Trade Center attack, said the release of the FBI material “accelerates our pursuit of truth and justice”.

Jim Kreindler, a lawyer for the victims’ relatives, said in a statement that “the findings and conclusions in this FBI investigation validate the arguments we have made in the litigation regarding the Saudi government’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.

“This document, together with the public evidence gathered to date, provides a blueprint for how [al-Qaeda] operated inside the US with the active, knowing support of the Saudi government,” he said.

That includes, he added, Saudi officials exchanging phone calls among themselves and al-Qaeda operatives and then having “accidental meetings” with the hijackers while providing them with assistance to get settled and find flight schools.

The US has previously investigated some Saudi diplomats and others with Saudi government ties who knew hijackers after they arrived in the US. But the 9/11 Commission report found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” the attacks that al-Qaeda masterminded.

The commission, however, noted “the likelihood” that Saudi government-sponsored charities did.

In a statement on behalf of the organisation 9/11 Families United, Terry Strada, whose husband Tom was killed on September 11, 2001, said the document released by the FBI put to bed any doubts about Saudi complicity in the attacks.

“Now the Saudis’ secrets are exposed and it is well past time for the Kingdom to own up to its officials’ roles in murdering thousands on American soil,” said Strada.

The new documents are being released at a politically delicate time for the US and Saudi Arabia, two nations that have forged a strategic – if difficult – alliance, particularly on counterterrorism matters.

The Biden administration in February released an intelligence assessment implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the 2018 killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi but drew criticism from Democrats for avoiding a direct punishment of the crown prince himself.

Source: News Agencies