A top State Department official told Congress Monday evening that the Saudis view the massive attack on their oil infrastructure as their 9/11, according to two congressional sources.
After a national security meeting this morning, President Donald Trump told reporters that it was “looking” like the attack over the weekend emanated from Iran but that the U.S. would wait for Saudi Arabia to conduct an investigation into the strikes.
Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s special representative for Iran, made the 9/11 comparison during a telephone briefing on Capitol Hill about the administration’s latest thinking on the attack. Hook communicated the reaction from Riyadh and said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would be headed to the country soon. Several individuals on the call said Hook’s update was thin, but the administration had made available to lawmakers intelligence about the attack that they could review under a classified setting.
CNN first tweeted that Hook told congressional staffers that the Saudis view this as “their 9/11.”
The 9/11 reference, made less than a week after the 18th anniversary of the attack which killed over 3,000 Americans, came despite the uncomfortable fact that 13 of the 19 hijackers who attacked the U.S. on that day were Saudi citizens. Last week, the Trump administration pledged to reveal the name of a Saudi official investigated by the FBI for a possible role in the 9/11 attacks.
“From an American perspective, it seems like a trivialization of the tragedy of 9/11, and perhaps offensively so, but from a Saudi point of view it is a way of explaining their shock to Americans,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute.
The White House did not provide comment for this story. However, a source with direct knowledge says that Trump was briefed on the situation in Saudi Arabia with an official using the same 9/11 comparison. Trump appeared “unmoved” by the analogy, the source noted.
The National Security Council declined to comment when reached by The Daily Beast.
Hook’s call comes as President Trump grapples with how to respond to the attacks. That decision is confused, in part, because of the departure of his former National Security Adviser John Bolton. Bolton, one of the main architects of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, was an advocate for maintaining a tough stance with Tehran. Pompeo and Hook, too, are known to favor exerting both economic, political, and possibly military pressure on Tehran. Trump has long said he does not seek war with Iran, but has not said definitively what he envisions as the best way to move forward.
The strikes on the Saudi infrastructure have set off a sense of chaos inside the White House and in the halls of the Pentagon as officials draw up proposals for the president on how to respond.
Despite the 9/11 rhetoric, the kingdom isn’t matching the apparent behind-the-scenes alarm with a similar tone in public. On Monday, the Saudi foreign ministry said it would invite experts from the United Nations to investigate the site of the attack.
“I think there is a clear argument to be made that Iran’s attack was an act of war. But, at least in public, Saudi Arabia has been very cautious, going out of their way to involve the international community and buy time,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The Daily Beast. “I can imagine there are many war decision-makers in the kingdom concerned the air strikes won’t solve their problem and just escalate things further.”
The light touch in public appears to be a stalling move, according to Dr. Afshon Ostovar, a scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School. “Riyadh's somewhat muted statements so far seem designed to to give it time and space to think through its options, both military and diplomatic,” Ostovar said. “A military engagement with Iran would inexorably lead to more insecurity, a weak response would embolden the culprits. That’s the heart of the Saudi's dilemma. In some sense, that's also the dilemma for Washington.”
The attack on Saudi oil facilities comes as the kingdom increasingly finds itself surrounded by Iranian missile capabilities. To the south, since the Saudi-led military coalition first intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015, Iran has equipped Houthi rebels with short-range ballistic missiles, which the insurgents have used to rocket Saudi territory as far away as the capital in Riyadh. To the north, Shia militias reportedly launched Iranian drones from southern Iraq in attacks against Saudi oil infrastructure back in May and a number of reports have pointed to Iranian ballistic missiles stored in Iraq.
And to the east, Iran has continued to develop both its ballistic and cruise missile capabilities despite the “maximum pressure” campaign to squeeze Tehran launched in May of 2018.
Houthi officials claimed that the group had carried out the attack on the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field using 10 drones along with help from an unnamed source of “cooperation from inside the kingdom.”
But a number of reports, along with photos of apparent missile wreckage at the scene of the attacks, point to the use of cruise missiles for the attack with Iran, and not Houthi rebels, as the attackers.
On Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attack and tweeted that Iran was responsible and that there was “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen”—a point echoed by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in a speech on Monday.
Satellite imagery released by the Trump administration also appears to contradict the Houthi account of a 10-drone attack. The photos show at least 17 different impact points at the oil facilities struck over the weekend.
Experts also say wreckage found in Saudi Arabia points to a cruise missile attack potentially leveraging Iranian technology. “We have broad reason to suspect that the pictures of debris in the Saudi desert show a Quds 1,” says Fabian Hinz, an expert on Iranian missiles at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “The Quds 1, a potentially Iranian-designed cruise missile was first seen with the Houthis and likely does not have the range to reach Abqaiq from Yemen.”
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng