This story was originally published by ProPublica.
A long-suppressed FBI report on Saudi Arabia’s connections to the 9/11 plot has revealed that Saudi religious officials stationed in the United States had more significant connections to two of the hijackers than has been previously known.
The 2016 report was released late Saturday night under an executive order
from President Joe Biden, who promised to make it public no later than the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that killed 2,977 people and injured more than 6,000 others. The 16-page document was a final inventory of circumstantial evidence and leads from the FBI’s investigation of Saudi ties to the plot; it was heavily redacted.
Nonetheless, lawyers for families of the 9/11 victims, who are suing the Saudi kingdom in federal court, said the document provided important support to their theory that a handful of Saudis connected to their government worked in concert to assist the first two Qaida hijackers sent to the United States in January 2000.
“This validates what we have been saying,” said James Kreindler, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “The FBI agents working this case detailed a Saudi government support network that was working in 1999, 2000 and 2001 to provide the hijackers with everything they needed to mount the attacks — apartments, money, English lessons, flight school.”
The Saudi government has always denied any role in the attacks, noting that al-Qaida and its former leader, Osama bin Laden, were sworn enemies of the royal family. But the 2016 report shows that FBI agents found evidence that several Saudi religious officials working in the United States had connections not only to people who assisted the hijackers but also to other Qaida operatives and suspected extremists. At the time, there were many Saudis in the country who had diplomatic credentials but were mainly involved in religious activity. The FBI later investigated many of them for extremism.
The FBI agents investigating possible Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks were part of a largely secret second phase of the bureau’s examination of the plot, called Operation Encore. The story of that inquiry, and the obstacles it faced, was first revealed last year by ProPublica
and The New York Times Magazine.
The report released on Saturday was written by a senior analyst on the Encore team, John Nicholson, after the leader of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, Carlos Fernandez, decided with federal prosecutors to reassign Nicholson and the rest of his New York team, effectively shutting down their work.
Although the FBI stopped investigating the case, officials said, it kept the Encore file nominally open until earlier this year. The Justice Department repeatedly cited the continuing inquiry as a primary reason why it could not disclose Encore files to families of the 9/11 victims. But relatives of the victims say the U.S. government has maintained a shield of secrecy to protect the Saudi kingdom from embarrassing revelations.
“There is no reason this shouldn’t be brought to light,” said Christopher Ganci, a battalion chief in the New York Fire Department, whose father, Peter, was the highest-ranking fire official to die in the attacks. “The American people deserve to know this information. The ground troops, the FBI agents on the street, have been chomping at the bit to have this come out. It’s been so frustrating for them and for us.”
Among the pieces of new evidence cited in the 2016 report are telephone records showing that a Saudi graduate student who helped the two first hijackers to settle in San Diego was in contact with a Saudi religious official stationed in the United States, who in turn had connections to other Qaida operatives and later became a target of a new investigation.
The Saudi student, Omar al-Bayoumi, was a middle-aged man who rarely attended classes and was being paid surreptitiously by the Saudi Defense Ministry, where he had previously worked. Starting in 1998, the FBI had investigated him for suspected extremist activity, but that inquiry was inconclusive.
An FBI official who was a case agent for the bureau’s initial investigation of the attacks, Jacqueline Maguire, testified to the bipartisan 9/11 Commission in 2004 that “by all indications” Bayoumi’s first meeting with the hijackers “was a random encounter.” Maguire and other FBI officials have described Bayoumi as an unwitting accomplice.
But the Encore team came to believe that Bayoumi not only gave extensive help to the two Qaida operatives, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, but later lied about his dealings with them and others.
Although Mihdhar and Hazmi were seasoned Qaida operatives, they spoke virtually no English, could not read street signs and were unable to navigate around the United States without considerable help, people who knew them told investigators. The Encore team believed that a support network of Saudi officials and other extremists in Southern California mobilized before their arrival in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000. Continue Reading