UPDATE 5/3/2020: Since first publishing this piece back in April 2016, the 28 pages referenced were partially de-classified by the Obama administration and are available to the public to read here. The families of 9/11 victims were promised by President Trump a full de-classification as well as additional evidence to be released, but the request was rejected by Attorney General Bill Barr and the Department of Justice on the grounds that their release would imperil national security.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. implicated in providing financial support to the hijackers in Los Angeles, has been replaced from his role with his daughter Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud.
Last week President Obama declared that he would veto the Justice Against The Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Interestingly, this bill has bipartisan support in Congress and was publicly supported by both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail the night before the New York primary just a few days ago.
The bill would make it easier for the victims and families of 9/11 to sue official members of a state government if they played a direct role in assisting or abetting the 9/11 hijackers.
One of the most controversial elements of the bill is that it narrows the scope of a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity This is the idea that a state government cannot be held legally responsible for any wrongdoing conducted by its citizens and is thus protected from civil suits or criminal prosecution.
The country that faces the most legal risk if the bill passes is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were citizens of Saudi Arabia while 2 were from the United Arab Emirates, 1 from Egypt, and 1 from Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any connection with the 9/11 hijackers, calling any such allegations as resting on “grave distortions of the record, implausible interpretations of the allegations, facts and evidence”.
But the FBI and Congressional investigators tasked with getting to the bottom of who provided financial and material support for the 9/11 hijackers aren’t so sure.
Published in 2004, the 9/11 Commission was the final report from the congressional investigation into the causes and events leading up to the attack on the World Trade Center.
The report is almost 600 pages long but does not include the final 28 pages from the last chapter titled “Part 4: Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters.”
The Bush administration sealed the pages and said that their publication would damage American intelligence operations and reveal “sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror”. There has been an ongoing push to declassify these last pages of the 9/11 Commission now that we are well over a decade since the attack happened.
Only members of Congress are able to read the 28 pages, but even they must go through a difficult process to get clearance from the House Intelligence Committee. Once getting approval, they can read the 28 pages inside a highly secure, soundproof facility in the basement of Congress where they are not allowed to take any notes and are observed closely while reading them.
Bernie Sanders has not read the 28 pages thus far and actually said he won’t, while Hillary Clinton would not comment when asked if she had read them. From those who have read the 28 pages they have indicated that there is significant evidence of Saudi involvement in supporting the hijackers.
“The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11 and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier.”Bob Graham (D) – Florida
“Those twenty-eight pages tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report. The evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 hijacking is very disturbing and the real question is whether it was sanctioned at the royal-family level or beneath that, and whether these leads were followed through.”Rep. Stephen Lynch (D) – Massachusetts, said to the New Yorker in 2014
“I had to stop every two or three pages and rearrange my perception of history.”Rep. Thomas Massie (R) – Kentucky in a 2014 press conference
The victims and families of 9/11 are pushing the Obama administration to declassify the 28 pages so they can be used as evidence in numerous on-going lawsuits filed by the families targeting Saudi charities, banks, and individuals.
FBI agents in the Joint Terrorism Task Force believe there is already enough information support allegations that the hijackers received direct assistance from Saudi government officials, the most prominent of whom is Prince Bandar bin Sultan – the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States.
According to those who have read the 28 pages the story picks up with the arrival of two young Saudis in Los Angeles in January 2000: Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. These two were the first wave of the 9/11 hijackers and neither of them spoke English well or had much money.
Two weeks after their arrival, a man named Omar al-Bayoumi met with the two at a halal restaurant in Culver City. Bayoumi was an employee of the Saudi aviation-services company Dallah Avco.
Before meeting with Hazmi and Mihidhar, Bayoumi spent about an hour meeting with an official from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs at the Saudi Embassy in Los Angeles – Fahad al-Thumairy. In 2003, Thumairy was stripped of his diplomatic visa and deported because of suspected ties to terrorists.
After meeting with Thumairy, Bayoumi met the two hijackers-to-be and invited them to move to San Diego, where he set them up in his same apartment complex. Because the two had no bank account, he paid their security deposit and rent. He also introduced them to other members of the local Arab community, including the imam of a local mosque, Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki later became the most prominent spokesperson for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, ultimately being killed in a drone strike in 2011.
Bayoumi was in frequent contact with the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., and with the consulate in Los Angeles. After two months, Bayoumi’s wife began receiving monthly stipends of around $2,000. By September 11th, 2001, $130,000 was transferred into Bayoumi’s wife’s bank account. With the money, Bayoumi was able to sustain the cost of living for the hijackers for 2 years in which time they were also able to obtain flying lessons at flight schools in Florida.
The stipends came in the form of cashier’s checks, purchased from Washington’s Riggs Bank by Princess Haifa bint Faisal. She is the daughter of the late King Faisal and wife of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States – Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
Federal investigators in the 9/11 task force said virtually every road led back to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, as well as the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles. Yet time and time again, they were called off from pursuing leads because of “diplomatic immunity.”
One FBI investigator complained that instead of investigating Bandar, the US government protected him. Literally. He said the State Department assigned a security detail to help guard Bandar not only at the embassy, but also at his mansion in McLean, Virginia.
Former FBI agent John Guandolo, who worked 9/11 and related al Qaeda cases out of the bureau’s Washington field office, says Bandar should have been a key suspect in the 9/11 probe.
“The Saudi ambassador funded two of the 9/11 hijackers through a third party,” Guandolo said. “He should be treated as a terrorist suspect, as should other members of the Saudi elite class who the US government knows are currently funding the global jihad.”
The source added that the task force wanted to jail a number of embassy employees, “but the embassy complained to the US attorney” and their diplomatic visas were revoked as a compromise. “The FBI was thwarted from interviewing the Saudis we wanted to interview by the White House,” said former FBI agent Mark Rossini, who was involved in the investigation of al Qaeda and the hijackers. The White House “let them off the hook.”
What’s more, Rossini said the bureau was told no subpoenas could be served to produce evidence tying the departing Saudi suspects to the 9/11 attacks. The FBI, in turn, iced local investigations that led back to the Saudi’s.
Those who have read the 28 pages believe they contain “incontrovertible evidence” that Prince Bandar, along with other Saudi government officials and members of the Saudi family, were directly linked to funding the hijackers in 9/11. Bandar’s father was Sultan bin Abdulaziz, who became the Crown prince and heir apparent to the Saudi throne in 2005 until his death in 2011. Bandar ultimately was ousted from his role as Ambassador to the United States by the new Saudi King Salman in 2013.
In 2005, the government of Saudi Arabia was dismissed from the lawsuits suits on the grounds of sovereign immunity. But in July 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the Kingdom as a defendant. Now Congress may try and eliminate the “sovereign immunity” defense from these issues entirely.
President Obama has twice promised to release the 28 pages, but so far has failed to do so. Though his reluctance to approve the bill may have more to do with the legal ramifications for the U.S. by stripping sovereign immunity rather than upsetting a key U.S. ally.
Those who oppose the bill believe that if the U.S. passes this law then other countries could pass similar laws which would put U.S. government officials at risk of being sued for having ties to terrorist attacks against foreign governments.
“It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign the bill as it’s currently drafted. It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk if other countries were to adopt a similar law. The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake.”White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, April 18th, 2016
This is perhaps an unsurprising concern given the abundance of documented proof since World War II that the U.S. has directly supported government coups, terrorist groups and paramilitaries in over 35 countries from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Understandably, the U.S. does not want to open Pandora’s box of litigation and possibly be held accountable in court for its own part in inciting acts of terrorism abroad.
However, the threat of future lawsuits is not the only deterrent that’s keeping the Obama administration from signing off on the bill. Last week, Saudi Arabia threatened to sell off close to $1 trillion in US assets if the bill was passed and signed into law.
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir came to Washington himself to personally deliver the message that if the US passed this bill, it would sell of $750 billion worth of US Treasury securities and other assets before they could be frozen by an American court.
But even if the Saudis don’t respond by selling U.S. treasuries, they have other ways to harm the United States. They have enormous leverage over the price of oil which they have dramatically lowered before in an attempt to make U.S. fracking industry unprofitable. They can also scale back paying for American efforts to train “moderate” rebels in Syria in the civil war against Bashar al-Assad.
Ultimately the Obama administration must determine how likely is it that the Justice for the Sponsors of Terrorism Act and the de-classification of the final 28 pages of the 9/11 commission would irreparably damage our relationship with Saudi Arabia, put American citizens and government officials in legal jeopardy, and possibly threaten even more economic or political instability.
Momentum in Congress and support from two presidential candidates may yet result in unmasking the true perpetrators of our nation’s worst terrorist attack, whatever the cost.
Fifteen years later the world continues to live with the aftermath of 9/11 in dealing with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, global surveillance programs, even the Apple vs. FBI showdown.
But the real victims living with the aftermath of 9/11 are still awaiting justice.
About The Author
Chetan Hebbale is currently a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. focused on international economics, climate change, and sustainability.
Prior to this, he spent over 4 years at Deloitte Consulting working on technology and strategy projects at the CDC and U.S. Treasury Department.
He is a native of Atlanta, GA and attended the University of Georgia.