The Unknowns of 9/11

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The south tower of the World Trade Center collapsing on Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Jim Collins)

20 years after the 9/11 attacks, one might expect that the commemorations would be an opportunity to honor the victims and remember the horrors of the days surrounding the tragedy.

Yet for many of those who survived the attacks and families of those that perished, the milestone anniversary serves as a reminder of what they see as unfinished business of achieving justice and revealing the extent of the plot that killed over 3,000 Americans, injured many more, and began an ongoing international war on Islamist terror.

One such member of what has become known as the “9/11 community” is Timothy Frolich. Mr. Frolich was working in the accounting department of Fuji Bank on the 80th floor of the South Tower when the first plane collided with the North Tower. He managed to escape the building before it too collapsed, but suffered injuries that left him with permanent damage to one foot and a long list of other chronic health issues.

“I believe the complete history of the 9/11 plot and those who executed the attacks has not been told,” he said. “The American people and the 9/11 families deserve to know the full truth.”

The 9/11 attackers died in their suicide missions, the al-Qaida cells directly implicated in the attacks were dismantled in the initial stages of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other counter-terror operations that accompanied it, and Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011.

Still, many members of the 9/11 community feel the role the Saudi Arabian government or some of its high-ranking officials played is the missing piece in the list of nefarious figures responsible for the attacks. Their frustration is compounded by the fact that three U.S. administrations have kept documents related to the Saudis’ role classified in what they believe is a concerted effort to shield one of America’s most complicated allies from embarrassment, liability and potential political fallout.

The refusal of White Houses of different parties and vastly different foreign policy orientations citing national security concerns has been consistent even as multiple bipartisan calls from Congress have asked for the documents to be declassified.

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Joseph Biden pledged greater “transparency” with still-secret 9/11 information. In early August, the President welcomed an announcement by the Department of Justice that they would conduct a review of the relevant documents to reconsider whether they would be made public.

Throwing down the gauntlet, over 1,600 people affected by the attacks penned a letter to President Biden asking him to either open up the documents or forgo attending commemoration ceremonies.

“The Biden administration still has a historic opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise and, more important, finally give our families and the American people the truth they deserve about 9/11. Twenty years later, there is simply no reason — unmerited claims of ‘national security’ or otherwise — to keep this information secret. But if President Biden reneges on his commitment and sides with the Saudi government, we would be compelled to publicly stand in objection to any participation by his administration in any memorial ceremony of 9/11, given its continuation of polices that thwart Americans’ rights to hold accountable those who, known evidence reveals, materially supported the 9/11 hijackers.”

28 Pages

The fight for openness about the role the Saudi government played in the attacks runs through much of the 9/11 debate. In 2004, the Congressional commission on 9/11 released its official report including the conclusion that while it was likely that Islamic “charities” that received funds from the Saudi government had funded the terrorists, that there was no compelling evidence that the “Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaida or had direct involvement in the attacks.

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9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar, a Saudi Arabian.

However, redacted from the commission’s report was the section that dealt in detail with questions of the Saudis’ role. A fight ensued to argue for the release of the controversial 28 pages. After more than a decade of advocacy, in the dog days of the Obama administration in mid-2016, the pages were made public, with some passages redacted. What emerged was not an indictment of the Saudis but a plethora of details that many felt could plausibly lead back to Riyadh.

The first Saudi connection, known long before the report, was that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden himself (though his citizenship was stripped in 1994).

The commission’s report showed multiple dealings between 9/11 terrorists and Saudi officials.

One line says that “while in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support and assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi Government … [A]t least two of those individuals were alleged by some to be Saudi intelligence officers.”

More specific points emerged as well, such as the fact that Saudi agent Osama Bassnan, who was identified as one of those who passed tens of thousands of dollars to the hijackers at various points, had received a “significant amount of cash” from “a member of the Saudi Royal Family” when the two met in Houston in 2002. The report also noted that Bassnan’s wife had been regularly receiving payments from Princess Haifa bin Faisal Sultan, the wife of Saudi Arabia’s former U.S. ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud. Prince Bandar, who had strong ties to the U.S. government, makes other appearances in the report, including the fact that captured al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaida carried the number of the security company that managed the ambassador’s Colorado residence in his personal phone book.

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9/11 hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi, a Saudi Arabian.

The publication quoted an FBI report that an incident in 1999 when two well-connected Saudis who were temporarily detained for attempting to enter the cockpit of a commercial flight were in fact engaged in a dry run to “test the security procedures of America West Airlines in preparation for and in furtherance of UBL [Osama bin Laden]/Al-Qaida operations.” The report also says that their trip was paid for by the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Still, the commission’s conclusion was that there was no solid trail of evidence implicating Saudi Arabia in the attacks.

“[The 28 pages] added weight of circumstantial evidence in terms of connections with the perpetrators of the attacks, but there was no smoking gun that anyone in the Saudi government knew the attacks were going to take place and did not alert the U.S., or that they were involved in planning them,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East.

Operation Encore

Long before the 28 pages were declassified, many suspected some level of Saudi involvement. Many in the 9/11 community fought to bring a civil suit against the kingdom but were stymied by laws stopping legal actions from advancing in U.S. courts against foreign powers.

That hurdle was overcome in 2016 when Congress passed the bipartisan The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). Opposing the bill was a multimillion-dollar lobby effort by the Saudi government, which maintains that it never had any connection to the attacks or those who planned them.

President Barack Obama vetoed the bill, arguing that it could create future problems for U.S. diplomats, but the veto was overridden and JASTA became law.

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Then-President George W. Bush greets then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2005. Abdullah bevcame king later that year, serving until his death in 2015. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In 2017, 1,500 injured 9/11 survivors and 850 family members of victims filed suit against Saudi Arabia, claiming that the kingdom knew that some of its officials had contact with al-Qaida members and that they “knowingly provided material support and resources to the al-Qaida terrorist organization and facilitated the September 11th Attacks.”

Many members of the 9/11 community believe they have many more clues pointing Saudi Arabia’s way than what the commission’s report reveals.

Over the two decades since the attacks, the FBI carried on an investigation into Saudi connections to the attacks, known as Operation Encore. The investigation’s classified findings are at the heart of what 9/11 community members want to be made public. Still, much about the operation has leaked over time from retired agents who worked on the case, most recently pieced together in a lengthy article by Pro Publica.

The part of this story that has garnered the most attention centers on Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two Saudi-born al-Qaida terrorists who would go on to hijack flight 77, crashing it into the Pentagon. The two were known to the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies but seemingly had little problem entering the country after a trip to Malaysia, where it is believed that the 9/11 attacks were planned with other al-Qaida operatives.

Hazmi and Mihdhar arrived in Los Angeles in January 2000. Knowing no English and with little knowledge of America, they were aided by fellow Saudi Omar al-Bayoumi, an enigmatic figure widely believed to be an agent of the kingdom. Investigations showed that Bayoumi had a good deal of contact with the two hijackers and, at the same time, he began receiving a larger stipend through sources connected to the Saudi government. Investigators said that Bayoumi’s name surfaced multiple times in connection to Hazmi and Mihdhar, including on bank documents and on a lease for an apartment they would later rent in San Diego.

During their stay in Los Angeles, the two terrorists also made contact with Fahad al-Thumairy, another Saudi who held diplomatic papers and served as imam of the kingdom-sponsored King Fahad Mosque in Culver City. Thumairy instructed a frequenter of the mosque to help Hazmi and Mihdhar navigate Los Angeles, and agents say that the cleric also spent a good deal of time with the hijackers.

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Emergency crews in Lower Manhattan after the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)

Both Bayoumi and Thumairy left the United States before the attacks occurred. They were questioned after the attacks by U.S. and British intelligence but never charged with any wrongdoing. The pair claimed that they met Hazmi and Mihdhar by chance and helped them as fellow countrymen and Muslims in need in a foreign land, denying any knowledge of their planned attack or terrorist links.

Gawdat Bahgat, a professor at the National Defense University and fellow at the Middle East Institute, felt that the exit of several Saudi officials before the attacks presented serious questions about what the kingdom knew about the terrorist threat.

“It’s hard to speculate since the information is classified, but we know from reports that the Saudi embassy tried to take a large number of Saudis out of the county,” he said. “If there was no Saudi involvement, why would they try to get them out?”

Some of the retired FBI agents backing up claims of Saudi involvement have said that their investigations showed that Bayoumi and Thumairy were the hijackers’ pre-arranged handlers before they reached the U.S. and that their task had been assigned by higher- level kingdom officials.

Yet the story also reveals tensions within the intelligence community. Some retired agents say their efforts to dig deeper on Saudi connections were repeatedly shut down, a move the 9/11 community’s attorneys point to as a sign of a fear on the part of the U.S. government that investigations would hurt U.S.-Saudi relations.

Other voices from within the agency claimed that none of the evidence gathered ever pointed to a convincing picture of a broader conspiracy involving Bayoumi and Thumairy or any other Saudi connections.

“I believe that there are parts of the Encore investigations that were never shown to the 9/11 commission and that there were high-ranking Saudi officials involved in the planning and execution of the attacks,” said Mr. Frolich, the 9/11 survivor. “Those documents clearly indicate Saudi complicity, and the question to ask is that if there’s nothing in the documents, then why hasn’t the government released them?”

What You Don’t Know

Since the FBI files on it remain classified, the 9/11 lawsuit remains largely at a standstill — making the fight for declassification crucial to its cause.

Recently, the Department of Justice supplied the 9/11 legal team with some additional material, but the attorneys are barred from discussing the contents even with their own clients. Mr. Frolich said that the lawyer he dealt with was not impressed by what the government turned over so far.

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Saudi King Salman in 2020. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

“The FBI sent 297 pages of supposedly new documents to the attorneys. They’re not allowed to tell us what is in them, but the information that we got back was that these documents were duplicates of things they already had and what was in them was pure garbage and not relevant to our case,” he said. “That’s an example of the bad faith and arrogance of the FBI and the DOJ in how they’ve handled this.”

President Biden has taken a harder line on Saudi Arabia, calling out what he labeled human rights abuses and cutting off U.S. support to the Riyadh-supported Sunni Yemenite government, giving families some hope he could take a different approach.

The Baker Institute’s Mr. Ulrichsen said that there were still hard realities the White House would have to deal with.

“Biden has not done much to push the Saudis on the Khashoggi killing,” he said, referencing the 2018 murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “The campaign rhetoric meets up with the realpolitik of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but political pressure could change things; that’s what we saw in 2016 when Congress pushed JASTA.”

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has always been a complicated one, long based largely on the oil trade but increasingly tied to the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran and attempts to keep Muslim extremist threats that challenge the royal family’s rule in check.

While the reasons for refusal to open the documents are up for conjecture, it would seem that there is a compelling U.S. national interest in doing so that moved former Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump to take a similar line on the matter.

“There is only one living member of the royal family that could still be implicated, but he is the King. It’s possible that the Saudis’ support for Islamic causes ended up sending money to groups that were extreme in nature and that there is political pressure not to embarrass or implicate the most senior figure in the regime,” said Mr. Ulrichsen.

He added that the national security concerns claimed by the Presidents could be legitimate.

“No administration wants the methods of how the U.S. collects data on other countries being opened up to the public.”

Professor Bahgat of the Middle East Institute posited that President Biden was seeking a middle ground on the issue.

“Since Biden took office, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been under some stress,” he said. “At the same time, Biden knows that Saudi Arabia is an important power, which is why the U.S. has a relationship with them. I do not think that he will only stick to his campaign line of basing policy on human rights, but he will try to balance that with a combination of American values and interests which could come into play with the 9/11 documents.”

There are reasons to doubt the Saudis played a direct role in the attacks. Besides the tremendous risks of endangering the kingdom’s relationship with the U.S., by the time of the attacks, the Saudi government had come to see al-Qaida as a threat and taken action against it. Yet, it was not until 2003, when al-Qaida initiated direct attacks in Saudi Arabia, that the kingdom began an all-out campaign against the organization. Prior to that, the Saudi government’s support for Wahabi Muslim groups funneled money into several organizations that played a role in supporting Islamist terror, including al-Qaida.

Mr. Ulrichsen thought it was unlikely that the Saudi government had a role in the attacks, but that they might have indirectly allowed al-Qaida to flourish.

“The Saudi government was willing to turn a blind eye and let radicalized Saudis focus their attention on Afghanistan or Bosnia. Their attitude was that if they were going to perform jihad, it was better from their perspective that they should do it far away,” he said.

Some suggested that the Saudis’ desire to keep al-Qaida occupied elsewhere took a more nefarious form, and multiple reports claim that Saudi royals paid Osama bin Laden millions to restrict his violent activities to other countries following his organization’s 1995 attack on American soldiers in Riyadh.

Irrespective of the politically thorny issues likely involved in more transparency on the Saudi’s role in 9/11, Mr. Frolich said that in addition to the government’s moral obligation to let the whole truth of the attacks be told, doing so serves a broader national interest as well.

“If this happened once and our own government helped cover up the facts, that increases the potential for it to repeat itself,” he said. “Especially today, with the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, it’s more important than ever that we know the whole story so we can do what we can to make sure this does not happen again.”