In the Loop

03.13.12

Was the Saudi Government Involved in the 9/11 Terror Attacks?

Former lawmakers again stir suspicions that the hijackers had help. The evidence is murky, but critics believe that American investigators have not dug hard enough.

Since 2002, when former senator Bob Graham led the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry (JICI) into the 9/11 attacks, he has insisted that members of the Saudi government played a role. But he’s had a hard time getting others to listen.

“There’s no question in my mind that the Saudi government was involved in 9/11,” the Florida Democrat tells The Daily Beast. “But there’s still so much we don’t know. Unfortunately, many Americans seem to have lost interest.”

The issue was revived last month when The New York Times reported that Graham and former senator Bob Kerrey, a Democrat from Nebraska, had given affidavits in an ongoing lawsuit against Saudi Arabia over compensation for families of the 9/11 victims. “I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia,” Graham said in the affidavit. In a separate affidavit, Kerrey said, “Evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.”

In the weeks and months following 9/11, allegations that Saudi royals supported the suicide hijackers’ plot were investigated extensively by Newsweek and many other media outlets. In its final report, the 9/11 Commission, which is separate from the JICI, found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi individuals funded” the 9/11 terrorists.

Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, tells The Daily Beast, “We looked quite carefully at [possible Saudi involvement] and even sent investigators over there, and we found no hard evidence of any linkage to the hijackers. At the end of the day, you have to have hard evidence. Having said that, I will also say that despite our thorough investigation, a lot of questions about 9/11 remain unanswered.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Graham says, “The three primary questions that remain for me are: what was the extent of involvement by Saudi officials in 9/11, what was their motivation, and why has the U.S. government gone to such lengths to cover it up?”

Graham believes Washington should launch a new investigation that would attempt to answer these questions. He says the 9/11 Commission’s final report does not exonerate the Saudis, and insists that neither the media nor federal law enforcement ever got to the bottom of the plot.

“San Diego was ground zero in terms of the connections between the terrorists and the Saudi government,” says Graham, “but there was also a significant investigation in Sarasota, Fla., which most people probably don’t even know about, and which I was not aware of during the inquiry.”

The FBI-led investigation in Sarasota reportedly focused on Saudi millionaire Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud. Their upscale home was owned by Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an adviser to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the nephew of King Fahd.

The al-Hijji family reportedly moved out of their Sarasota house and left the country abruptly in the weeks before 9/11, leaving behind three luxury cars and personal belongings including clothing, furniture, and fresh food. They also left the swimming-pool water circulating.

This account, first reported publicly by author Anthony Summers and Florida investigative reporter Dan Christensen, has been covered by several Florida news sites and newspapers, including Browardbulldog.org, the Miami Heraldand the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Most recently, the British Telegraph newspaper followed up.

The news reports have said that the gated community’s visitor logs and photos of license tags showed that vehicles driven by several of the future hijackers, as well as other members of al Qaeda, had visited the al-Hijji home. The reports are based on an anonymous “counterterrorism agent” and Larry Berberich, the former head of security at the gated community where the al-Hijjis lived.

Reached for comment, Berberich indicated to The Daily Beast that his knowledge was mostly secondhand. “I was told by someone in [law enforcement] that the license plates on the vehicles that entered the community and went to al-Hijji’s home corresponded to cars that were used by the hijackers,” he said. “It was not totally shocking to me ... They left their home so abruptly, as if they were going to a movie. It was suspicious, and some of the neighbors had suspicions as well.”

Berberich would not identify by name the law-enforcement agent who spoke to him, but said he was a deputy in the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office who later joined a Homeland Security task force in the area.

The FBI provided a statement to The Daily Beast denying any evidence connecting the al-Hijji family to the hijackers: 

“The FBI did follow up on the information about suspicions surrounding the referenced Sarasota home and family. Family members were subsequently located and interviewed. At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers … and there was no connection found to the 9/11 plot. The anonymous 'counterterrorism officer' cited in the [Miami Herald] article apparently was not an FBI agent and had no access to the facts and circumstances pertaining to the resolution of this lead, otherwise this person would know this matter was resolved without any nexus to the 9/11 plot. Finally, all of the documentation regarding the 9/11 investigation was made available to the 9/11 Commission and the JICI.”

When asked about the report that license plates of cars seen at al-Hijji’s home matched those that were being used by several of the 9/11 hijackers, the FBI declined to comment.

Al-Hijji, who now lives in London and works for a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, recently said in an email to the Telegraph that he was “saddened and oppressed by these false allegations,” and he denied that any 9/11 hijackers had visited him at his Sarasota home.

The FBI also declined to discuss comments an informant made in 2004 about al-Hijji’s connections to an al Qaeda terrorist.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained by The Daily Beast state that an informant, Wissam Hammoud, told the FBI in 2004 that he knew al-Hijji very well, that al-Hijji had considered Osama bin Laden a “hero,” and that he had once introduced Hammoud to Adnan El Shukrijumah, who would later be placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list because of his role in al Qaeda.

Graham says he recently gained access to two secret documents regarding the FBI’s investigation of al-Hijji’s family, and says one of the documents “completely contradicts” the bureau’s public statements that there was no connection between the 9/11 hijackers and the al-Hijjis.

Graham says he can’t comment further on the specifics of the documents because they are classified.

Regarding the alleged links in Sarasota, former congressman Hamilton tells The Daily Beast: “I talked briefly with Bob [Graham] about this a few months ago. He told me about it, and I told him I didn’t know anything about that Saudi resident of Sarasota. I don’t have evidence of that linkage. But I have enormous respect for Bob; he’s done terrific work on intelligence over the years and has been a fair and tough critic of intelligence and the FBI. He’s a solid guy, but I couldn’t help him on the Sarasota issue because I simply have no knowledge of it.”

In San Diego, allegations of links between the Saudi government and the 9/11 hijackers revolve around two enigmatic Saudi men: Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan, both of whom have long since left the United States.

Al-Bayoumi had previously worked for the Saudi government in civil aviation (a part of the Saudi defense department), and was alleged by many San Diego Muslims to be an agent for the Saudi government who reported on the activities of Saudi-born students living in Southern California. 

In early 2000, al-Bayoumi invited two of the hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, to San Diego from Los Angeles. He told authorities he met the two men by chance when he sat next to them at a restaurant.

As Newsweek reported in 2002, al-Bayoumi’s invitation was extended on the same day that he visited the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles for a private meeting.

Al-Bayoumi arranged for the two future hijackers to live in an apartment near the San Diego Islamic Center mosque and paid $1,500 to cover their first two months of rent.

When asked not long after the 9/11 attacks about al-Bayoumi’s possible involvement, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, then the San Diego head of the FBI, told this reporter that there was no evidence al-Bayoumi played a role.

But a former top FBI official later told Newsweek, “We firmly believed that [al-Bayoumi] had knowledge [of the 9/11 plot].”

After 9/11, al-Bayoumi was detained by New Scotland Yard while living in the U.K. Gore said the FBI sent agents to London to interview him, but he was released a week later and allowed to return to Saudi Arabia.

Newsweek reported that classified sections of the congressional 9/11 inquiry indicated that the Saudi Embassy in London pushed for al-Bayoumi’s release.

Where is al-Bayoumi now? “I can’t say too much, but what I can tell you is that he is still alive and living in Saudi Arabia,” says Graham.

As for Basnan, whom Graham calls “Bayoumi’s successor,” Newsweek reported that he received monthly checks for several years totaling as much as $73,000 from the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, and his wife, Princess Haifa Faisal.

The checks were sent because Basnan’s wife, Majeda Dweikat, needed thyroid surgery, Newsweek and other media outlets reported. But Dweikat inexplicably signed many of the checks over to al-Bayoumi’s wife, Manal Bajadr. This money allegedly made its way into the hands of hijackers Almihdhar and Alhazmi, according to the congressional report.

At a post-9/11 gathering in San Diego, Basnan allegedly called the attack “a wonderful, glorious day” and celebrated the hijackers’ “heroism,” a law-enforcement official told Newsweek.

Despite all this, he was ultimately allowed to return to Saudi Arabia, and Dweikat was deported to Jordan. “I am not aware of [Basnan’s] current whereabouts,” says Graham.

Another man who might have helped investigators get to the bottom of this mystery is Abdussattar Shaikh, a longtime FBI asset in San Diego who was friends with al-Bayoumi and invited two of the San Diego-based hijackers to live in his home.

However, Shaikh was not allowed by the FBI or the Bush administration to testify before the 9/11 Commission or the JICI.

“For me, that was the low point of the [JICI] investigation,” says Graham. “Bayoumi introduced the hijackers to Shaikh, who clearly knew a lot, but the FBI, who had Shaikh in protective custody, seemed to care more about protecting their asset than allowing us to find out what he knew about 9/11.”

During roughly the same period after the 9/11 attacks, San Diego FBI agent Steven Butler alerted his superiors about a flow of money from Saudi government officials that had made its way into the hands of two of the San Diego-based hijackers, according to U.S. News & World Report. But the warning was ignored.

“Butler is claiming that people [in the FBI] didn’t follow up,” a congressional source told U.S. News & World Report. Another congressional source told U.S. News: “Butler saw a pattern, a trail, and he told his supervisors, but it ended there.”

The investigation into the Saudi government’s alleged connections to the hijackers seemed to end there. Arguably the greatest crime mystery of our time has become a cold case.

“Someday, I do believe we will get to the bottom of 9/11 and the Saudi government connections.”

“I can’t believe the American public has let this go,” says Randall Hamud, the attorney who represented several of the San Diego-based hijackers’ non-Saudi friends as well as the family of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker.

Hamud insists the Saudis were “given a pass by [President] Bush” throughout the 9/11 investigation. “There was overwhelming evidence that the Saudi government was connected to 9/11, but we still let Bayoumi return to Saudi Arabia,” he says. “What more do you need to know?”

Graham, who also believes the Bush administration protected the Saudis during the 9/11 inquiry, wonders why the Obama administration hasn’t reopened the investigation and sought answers.

“Perhaps they feel that we can’t afford to irritate the Saudis, especially with oil prices going up now,” he says. “I don’t know. Someday, I do believe we will get to the bottom of 9/11 and the Saudi government connections.”