9/11 Attackers May Have Had Saudi Help, Classified Pages Say

Updated on
  • Lawmakers issuing long-secret pages call information unvetted
  • Saudis have said allegations of involvement are untrue

Smoke pours from the twin towers of the World Trade Center after they were hit by two hijacked airliners in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.

Photographer: Robert Giroux/Getty Images

Saudi nationals connected to the government in Riyadh may have aided some of the Sept. 11 hijackers in the U.S. before they carried out their attacks, according to a long-classified portion of a congressional inquiry.

"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,” according to the section released Friday by the House Intelligence Committee with some portions blacked out.

But top U.S. intelligence officials who approved releasing the report, as families of some of the 3,000 victims of the attacks have long demanded, emphasized that they didn’t consider it accurate or reliable. Saudi officials have long said the 28 pages from the report written in 2002 provide no evidence that the U.S. ally was involved in the attacks, and that conclusion was echoed by the lawmakers who released the document.

The 28 pages do “not put forward vetted conclusions, but rather unverified leads that were later fully investigated by the intelligence committee,” Representative Devin Nunes of California, the committee’s Republican chairman, said in a statement.

Intelligence Agency

The intelligence agency that took part in declassifying the 28 pages also released a previously secret follow-up report based on further inquiries by the FBI and the CIA.

“There is no evidence that either the Saudi government or members of the Saudi royal family knowingly provided support for the attacks of 11 September 2001 or that they had foreknowledge of terrorist operations in the Kingdom or elsewhere," according to a summary issued Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The 28 pages were released as complaints have re-emerged in recent months from some Americans that Saudi Arabia or organizations and wealthy individuals based there have financed groups linked to terrorism or failed to crack down on militants. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks were identified as Saudi nationals.

9/11 Families

Release of the 28-page report was hailed by lawyers representing family members of 9/11 victims who are suing the Saudi government for compensation.

The report "confirms what we have long known -- that each of the claims the 9/11 families and victims has made against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enjoys extensive support in the findings of a broad range of investigative documents authored by multiple U.S. intelligence agencies, the bulk of which still are being withheld from the American public," according to the statement from the lawyers including James Kreindler of Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in New York.

The release also was praised by former Democratic Senator Bob Graham of Florida, who has long differed with most fellow lawmakers about the significance of the 28 pages and the likelihood of Saudi involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We’re now at a point where the American people can read the 28 pages and form their own opinion," Graham, a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, said in a telephone interview. "This makes a very compelling case that the Saudis were the source of assistance to the 9/11 hijackers."

‘Found No Evidence’

The U.S. commission that investigated the 2001 attacks said in its 2004 report that it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al-Qaeda." Leaders of the commission and of the intelligence committees in Congress stood by that conclusion on Friday.

But some current and former members of Congress, including Graham, have said that formulation left room for less direct involvement and pressed for the release of the 28 classified pages. A CBS “60 Minutes” report in April suggested a Saudi diplomat “known to hold extremist views” may have helped the hijackers after they traveled to the U.S. to prepare for the attacks.

Related story: Saudis Face Echoes of Kingdom’s Past

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that “we do not think” the 28 pages shed any new light on a Saudi role in the Sept. 11 attacks. He said release of the “investigative material” is in keeping with the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency even though he acknowledged that “it did take quite some time for the decision to be made.”

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters at the embassy in Washington Friday that his government welcomes the release of the 28 pages and has long called for doing so.

He said Saudi Arabia hopes that, with the release, "aspersions that have been cast against the kingdom" in the past decade "will come to an end" and "we can focus on moving ahead."  

He said Saudi Arabia has acted to stop terrorists and terrorist financing, including shutting down organizations and mosques.

The 28 pages set out possible leads connecting various Saudi individuals, organizations, government officials and extremist figures. The congressional aides who wrote it said it was based on a review of FBI and CIA documents, though they "did not attempt to investigate and assess the accuracy and significance of this information independently."

Report’s Allegations

The report focuses on those who it said had contact with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, after they arrived in Southern California in 2000:

  • Omar al-Bayoumi provided "substantial assistance" to the pair in San Diego, and the there were indications that his encounter with them "may not have been accidental," according to the report. During this same time, al-Bayoumi received financial support from a Saudi company affiliated with the Saudi Ministry of Defense.

  • Osama Bassnan, a close associate of al-Bayoumi, also was in contact with al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi in San Diego. He had "many ties to the Saudi government" and had earlier been an employee of the Saudi Arabian Education Mission, according to the report. The report said the FBI called Bassnan “an extremist" and a supporter of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

  • Fahad al-Thumairy, an accredited diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and the imam of a mosque in Culver City, who the report said may have had contact with the two hijackers.

The follow-up report released Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said “there is no information to indicate that either Omar al-Bayoumi or Osama Basnan materially supported the hijackers wittingly, were intelligence officers of the Saudi Government or provided material support for the 11 September attacks.”

The former chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, released a statement Friday saying that only al-Thumairy "turned out to be of continuing interest." The pair added that commission staff members interviewed him and "found no evidence" that he aided the attackers, but said he "is still a person of interest."

The 28 pages said that Saudi government officials in the U.S. may have had ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, while acknowledging that much of the information was “speculative and yet to be independently verified.” The report also said FBI and CIA agents complained about "the lack of Saudi cooperation in terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks.”

‘Inherited a History’

Saudi officials have pointed to statements from U.S. officials supporting their position, including an interview CIA Director John Brennan did with the Saudi-owned Arabic news channel Al Arabiya on June 12 in which he said the 28 pages were part of “a very preliminary review.”

"People shouldn’t take them as evidence of Saudi complicity in the attacks,” Brennan said. “Indeed, subsequently the assessments that have been done have shown it was very unfortunate that these attacks took place but this was the work of al-Qaeda, al-Zawahiri, and others of that ilk."

But Brennan also has addressed the underlying concern about the kingdom’s embrace, since its founding more than eight decades ago, of Wahhabism, a deeply conservative branch of Sunni Muslim theology that has proved fertile ground for terrorists.

“The Saudi government and leadership today has inherited a history whereby there have been a number of individuals both inside of Saudi Arabia as well as outside who have embraced a rather fundamentalist -- extremist in some areas -- version of the Islamic faith, which has allowed individuals who then move toward violence and terrorism to exploit that and capitalize on that," Brennan said in a speech in Washington on July 13.

Related story: CIA Chief Says Saudi Arabia Must Adapt Society

While the U.S. and Saudis are longtime allies, relations have been roiled by the Obama administration’s participation in a nuclear deal with Iran and by Senate legislation passed in May that would let American victims and their families sue other countries over alleged involvement in the 2001 attacks.

In an interview with the Atlantic magazine published in April, President Barack Obama called the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia “complicated” and said the Sunni-led kingdom should “share” the Middle East with Shiite Iran, its chief rival.