In January 2003, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report on their Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001. The public version of the report (dated December 2002) omitted a 28-page section titled "Part Four - Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters", regarding potential connections between Al-Qaeda and the Saudi government. The pages were classified secret at the request of the Bush Administration and despite repeated requests to make them public had continued to be withheld by both that administration and during the first 6 years of the Obama administration. This year, the Administration made the right decision, dropping its objections and the 28 pages were released publicly in July 2016 (although there remain security-related redacted passages in the public version).
I recently read the 28 pages (you can find them here) and this is my summary of what they contain. As a general matter, there is nothing particularly surprising for those who have closely followed various unofficial revelations over the years. Though carefully phrased with numerous caveats regarding the quality and verifiability of the information, the report raises intriguing questions about Saudi involvement. The Joint Inquiry does not resolve any of those questions but raise a number of issues:
- To what extent were elements within the Saudi government sympathetic to Al Qaeda?
- How high in the government did support for terrorism go?
- To what extent did Al Qaeda use double agents to provide support to its members in the US and make Saudi intelligence an unwitting tool?
Excerpts from The Joint Inquiry's summary findings:
While in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi Government. There is information, primarily from FBI sources, that at least two of those individuals were alleged by some to be Saudi intelligence officers. The Joint Inquiry's review confirmed that the Intelligence Community also had information, much of which has yet to be independently verified, indicating that individuals associated with the Saudi Government in the United States may have other ties to al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups. In their testimony, neither CIA nor FBI witnesses were able to identify definitively the extent of Saudi support for terrorist activity globally or within the United States and the extent to which such support, if it exists, is knowing or inadvertent in nature. . .
Prior to September 11, the FBI apparently did not focus investigative resources on [REDACTED] Saudi nationals in the United States due to Saudi Arabia's status as an American "ally". . . prior to September 11, 2001, the FBI received "no reporting from any member of the Intelligence Community" that there was a [REDACTED] presence in the United States.
It should be clear that this Joint Inquiry has made no final determinations as to the reliability or sufficiency of the information regarding these issues that we found contained in FBI and CIA documents.
Before discussing the specifics of the report, some background on the two hijackers front and center in the 28 pages would be helpful. Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were both Saudi nationals and part of the crew that crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11. For the post 9-11 whereabouts of all the hijackers, you can read this well-informed report from the September 26, 2001 issue of The Onion.
(Mihdhar from global security.org)
(Hazmi from wikipedia)
Friends from childhood, Mihdhar and Hazmi traveled to Bosnia to fight on behalf of Muslims during the wars of the mid-1990s. Both became radicalized and members of Al Qaeda shortly thereafter, and went to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against its opponents. Both came under CIA suspicion in connection with the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the CIA also tracked Mihdhar's father-in-law, who was also connected with Al Qaeda.
At some point in 1999, Osama Bin Laden anointed both as pilots in the upcoming airliner plot. In early January 2000 they left Saudi Arabia. Stopping overnight in Dubai, the CIA, which had identified Mihdhar as a possible terrorist, broke into his hotel room and photocopied his passport allowing them to specifically identify and track him. The next day, Mihdhar and Hazmi flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where they held a meeting with several other hijack plotters. The CIA was aware of the meeting, though not of its significance, which in retrospect was about details of the 9-11 plot, and asked Malaysian intelligence to observe it. As a result, the agency was provided with photos of the plotters. One of the operatives they met with was later implicated in the October 2000 bombing of the U.S. Cole. From there, Mihdhar and Hazmi flew to the U.S. and went to San Diego where they lived together. Although both were suspected terrorists and the CIA knew they had entered the United States, the agency never informed the FBI, which had primary responsibility for domestic counter-terrorism.
While in California, Mihdhar and Hazmi held several closed door meetings with a local Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who, for a period immediately after 9-11 was considered by the U.S. government a "moderate" Muslim, before he left for Yemen and revealed himself to be a key Al Qaeda operative. In 2011, he was incinerated by an Obama Administration drone strike.*
Mihdhar and Hazmi did not do well in their pilot training and ended up being assigned as part of the 15-member "muscle" team for the hijackings. In June 2000, Midhar left the U.S. for Yemen, later traveling on to Afghanistan. In July 2001, he returned to the U.S., staying in New Jersey.
Hazmi stayed behind and was joined in late 2000 by Hani Hanjour, later to be the pilot who crashed Flight 77 into the Pentagon. They moved to Mesa, Arizona before relocating in 2001 to suburban Virginia.
On August 21, 2001, Mihdhar and Hazmi were put on a CIA watchlist. On August 28, the FBI NY office requested a criminal case be opened to determine if Mihdhar was still in the US. The request was denied, meaning the matter would be treated as an intelligence case on which criminal investigators were forbidden to work. Responding to the denial, an agent in NY sent an email to FBI HQ complaining that:
Whatever has happened to this, someday someone will die, and the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain problems.HQ responded saying:
. . . we are all frustrated with this issue . . . these are the rules. [We do] not make them up.**
The Bayoumi/Bassnan Connection
There were two individuals of concern to the Joint Inquiry who had extensive contact with Mihdhar (M) and Hazmi (H) during their time in San Diego.
The first was Omar al-Bayoumi, alleged by several FBI informants to be working for Saudi intelligence. The Joint Inquiry found Bayoumi had ties to the Saudi government, the most incriminating of which was that:
While in San Diego, al-Bayoumi was receiving money from the Saudi ministry of Defense through a Saudi company called "Erean". [REDACTED] for that company informed the FBI after September 11, 2001 that, although al-Bayoumi only showed up at the company on one occasion, he received a monthly salary and allowances. [REDACTED] stated that, at first, he attempted to refuse to pay al-Bayoumi a monthly salary, but he was told that his company would lose their contract if he did not pay him.Bayoumi's pay increased while M and H were in the U.S. Prior to their arrival he was receiving $465 a month in allowances. A month after they arrived in San Diego, Bayoumi's allowance was increased to $3700 a month. After H left San Diego, his allowance was reduced to $3200, an amount paid until he left the U.S., a month before the September 11 attacks.
(Bayoumi from history commons)
Bayoumi called Saudi government locations in the U.S. almost 100 times between January and May 2000 and was in contact with at least three people at the Saudi embassy in Washington and three at the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles. He was also known to have access to large amounts of money without appearing to have a job. Prior to 9-11, the FBI was informed Bayoumi received $400,000 from Saudi to establish a mosque in San Diego. The agency conducted a counter-terrorism investigation of him in 1998 and 1999, but closed it without findings.
Further investigation after 9-11 led the FBI to conclude:
. . . after an exhaustive translation of Bayoumi's documents, it is clear that in Bayoumi's correspondence he is providing guidance to young Muslims and some of his writings can be interpreted as jihadist.The second was Osama Bassnan, a close associate of Bayoumi, with whom he spoke several times a day while they were together in San Diego. In the 1990s, while in Washington DC, he listed his employment as the Saudi Arabian Education Mission. The FBI developed information that Bassnan was a supporter of Osama Bin Laden. In 1992 he had hosted a party for the Blind Sheik (the man behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) and had praised Bin Laden on many occasions to FBI informants. The CIA reported that Bassnan had traveled to Houston and met with a member of the Saudi Royal Family who provided him with "a significant amount of cash".
(Bassnan from history commons)
When M and H arrived in San Diego, Bayoumi provided them with "considerable assistance". They stayed with him for several days before he found them an apartment (which was across the street from Bassnan's apartment), co-signed their lease and may have paid their first month's rent and security deposit. He threw a party to welcome them to the community and assigned someone from the Islamic Center of San Diego to serve as their translator and help them obtain drivers licenses and locate flight schools.
Bassnan made comments to at least two FBI assets that he knew M and H and helped them. The FBI found evidence that M and H contacted Khaled al-Kayed, a commercial airline pilot, certified flight instructor, and close friend of Bassnan, who also lived in San Diego. Kayed later admitted that M and H contacted him about learning to fly Boeing jet aircraft.
The most surprising revelation to me in in the 28 pages resulted from a post 9-11 search of Bassnan's residence which found copies of 31 cashier checks totalling $74,000 made out to Bassnan's wife from Princess Haifa bint Faisal, the wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a member of the House of Saud, who served as the Saudi Ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005. According to the FBI, the wife provided no services to the princess. The FBI also determined that Prince Bandar sent a check for $15,000 to Bassnan and one for $10,000 to his wife. In a further weird twist, the FBI confirmed that Bayoumi's wife attempted to deposit three of the checks from Princess Haifa to Bassnan's wife.
(Prince Bandar with President George HW Bush from the daily beast)
Bandar was a well known and well-respected fixture in America, appearing on many news shows, a friend to many politicians, including the Bush family, and seemed to have pro-Western views. His mother was an Ethiopian slave and consort in a royal Saudi house. Later acknowledged by his father, he became a fighter pilot and then received a Master's in International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins. From 2005 until his retirement last year, Bandar was secretary general of Saudi Arabia's National Security Council.
The revelations in the newly released pages raises several different possibilities about Bandar:
- It may have been completely innocent; just part of the labyrinth of connections among Saudis
- They may have been indirect payments to Bassnan for what Bandar thought were his services as a Saudi intelligence agent, including infiltrating Al Qaeda
- Bassnan may have been a double agent actually working for Al Qaeda
- Bandar may not have been what he seemed
We've had a lot of suspicions before September 11 which we documented in a number of different papers, and again it's a lot of smoke and the issues that come up are who knows about the payments, on whose behalf are payments being made, are they being made on behalf of the central government or are they being made by a local official or a person. Do the people who are making the payments know what's happening to the money? If they do know what's happening, why are they making the payments? Is it a form of blackmail? Do they recognize the terrorist support?
Part Two about other Saudi contacts with Al-Qaeda coming up . . . .
* I've been shocked at how many people described in the years following 9-11 as moderate Moslems turned out to be radicals who supported terrorism, were anti-American and anti-Semitic. Even with that, I still have the capacity to be surprised. During the recent Olympics, the U.S. press was filled with glowing stories about Ibtihag Muhammed, a female fencer, and the first American Olympian to wear a hijab. None of that coverage mentioned that the keynote speaker at her major fundraiser in Newark was an iman who was an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, a follower of the Blind Sheik who inspired the plot, and an advocate of death for homosexuals. I did not believe this when first reading about it, but have since tracked down the online invitation for the event.
** The reference is to the "wall of separation", designed to keep U.S. intelligence gathering separate from law enforcement. Although these efforts began in the 1980s, they were codified in the mid-90s by the #2 at the Department of Justice, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, in a manner that, in her words ,“go beyond what is legally required,” in order to avoid “any risk of creating an unwarranted appearance” that the Justice Department was using Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants, instead of ordinary criminal investigative procedures, in an effort to undermine the civil liberties of terrorism suspects. While Gorelick was not solely responsible for taking this position, it was her memo that set in motion a foreseeable series of events that ended up with the bureaucracy "covering its ass" by extending the reach of the memo even further.
In 1997, after her stint at Justice, President Clinton appointed Gorelick as Vice-Chairman of Fannie Mae, the private/public mortgage finance corporation. In 2003, Gorelick resigned after auditors discovered massive financial fraud at the company. From 1998 through 2002 she received more than $26 million in compensation from Fannie Mae.
Despite being involved in two of the largest public policy debacles of the past quarter-century, Ms Gorelick paid no price. Upon leaving Fannie Mae, she became a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, one of the nation's largest law firms, a member of the Board of Directors at United Technologies and Schlumberger, and is currently a Board member at Amazon and VeriSign along with serving on the Government Advisory Board for Alcatel-Lucent. She is also on the boards of the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In an astounding turn of events, Gorelick was installed on the 9-11 Commission by Senate Democrats, despite her involvement in the wall of separation! She was one of two brilliant choices by the Democrats; the other being Richard Ben-Veniste, a former prosecutor, Democratic party hack and attack dog, who led the charge in making the commission a public assault on the Bush Administration. Gorelick's role was to help deflect attention from the Clinton Administration's failures (both administrations had actions worth scrutinizing). In one of the innumerable political failures of the Bush Administration it appointed nice, polite Republican moderates with a history of bipartisanship to the commission who, in deference to Gorelick's presence, decided the inquiry would not address events she had been involved with. How convenient.