By Ravi Joshi*
The US government, despite stern warnings and threats (of dumping billions of US dollar bonds on the American market) from the Saudi Government, has finally declassified and released the now famous ’28 pages’ of the 9/11 Inquiry Commission Report that was originally published in 2004. They are available on the official website of the US House Intelligence Committee.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir, in a very prompt response to the revelations said, “the surprise in the 28 pages is that there is no surprise.” Is that really so? The fact that 15 of the 19 attackers came from Saudi Arabia, and that President Bush had personally intervened to permit airlifting of all the important members of the Saudi royalty and family members of Osama Bin Laden (OBL) living in the US, two days after 9/11 when there was a blanket ban on all aircraft movements across the US, that was a real surprise to the world. But that’s history.
A brief reminder. The first hijackers to arrive in the US were Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who settled in the San Diego area in January 2000. They were followed by three hijacker-pilots, Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehi and Ziad Jarrah in mid-2000 to undertake flight training in South Florida. The fourth hijacker-pilot, Hani Hanjour arrived in San Diego in December 2000. The rest of the ‘muscle hijackers’ arrived in early and mid-2001. They had already taken lessons in flying airplanes in their own country.
The present revelation revolves around the following facts:
- Two Saudi nationals, Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, both suspected to be Saudi Intelligence Officers provided substantial assistance to two ‘would be hijackers’ Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihadhar after they arrived in San Diego in February 2000. During the same time frame, al-Bayoumi had extensive contacts with Saudi government establishments in the US and received financial support from a Saudi company affiliated with the Saudi Ministry of Defence. According to FBI files, al-Bayoumi received a monthly salary and this increased substantially in April 2000, two months after the hijackers arrived in San Diego. That company reportedly had ties to OBL and al-Qaida.
- According to a CIA Memo, Bassnan reportedly received funding and possibly a fake passport from Saudi government officials. He and his wife have received financial support from Saudi Ambassador to the US. A CIA report also indicates that Bassnan travelled to Houston in 2002 and met with an individual (blanked out by the Committee), and during that trip, a member of the Saudi Royal family provided Bassnan with a significant amount of cash. FBI report indicates that Bassnan is an extremist and supporter of OBL and has been connected to the Eritrean Islamic Jehad and the Blind Sheikh (Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman — responsible for the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing).
- The two hijackers, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, according to FBI and CIA documents, may have been in contact with Shaykh al-Thumairy, an accredited diplomat at the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles and one of the ‘Imams’ at the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City, California. (An ‘Imam’ being sent as an accredited diplomat — that’s a surprise.) According to FBI documents, the Mosque was built in 1998 from funding provided by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdulaziz. The Mosque is reportedly attended by members of the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles and is widely recognised for its ant-Western views.
- In September 2001 (a few days before the attack), Saleh al-Hussayen, reportedly a Saudi Interior Ministry official, stayed at the same hotel in Herndon, Virginia where al-Hazmi was staying. While al-Hussayen claimed after September 11, not to know the hijackers, FBI agents believed he was being deceptive. He was able to depart the US despite FBI efforts to locate and re-interview him.
- Abdullah bin Laden claims to work for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC, as an Administrative Officer. He is identified by the FBI as OBL’s half- brother. He is a close friend of Mohammed Quadir-Harunani, a possible associate of Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehi (two other hijackers), prior to September 11.
The Joint Inquiry also found other indications that individuals connected to the Saudi Government have ties to terrorist networks, including:
i. Both CIA and FBI have identified the Ibn Tamiyah Mosque in Culver city, California as a site of extremist-related activity. The Mosque is known to have ‘laundered money’ to non-profit organisations overseas affiliated with OBL. An FBI agent told the Committee that he believed that Saudi Government money was being laundered through the mosque.
ii. Another Saudi national with close ties to the Saudi Royal family is the subject of FBI Counter Terrorism investigations and reportedly was checking security at the US’ southwest border in 1999 and discussing the possibility of infiltrating individuals into the US.
iii. According to FBI documents, one of the phone numbers found in the phone book of Abu Zubaida, a senior al-Qaida operative captured in Pakistan in March 2002, was linked to the ASPCOL Corporation, located in Aspen, Colorado that manages the affairs of the Colorado residence of Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan.
The details are far more elaborate and damning to the Saudi embassy and its consulate officials in the US. It is hard to believe that they were receiving funds and were taking care of hijackers without clearance from their Ministry in Riyadh.
It must be emphasised that no intelligence agency can actually confirm some of its observations ‘from an independent agency or a third party source.’ Only those in the business know who a normal diplomat is and who an ‘intelligence official’ in the embassy or a consulate. And most of the ‘intelligence inputs’ here are corroborated with evidence of bank transfers, money receipts, statements of witnesses and at times interviews with suspects. It’s hard to dismiss their findings.
But having noted all these ‘findings’ the Joint Inquiry Committee 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 we found contained in FBI and CIA documents.” That’s where the real surprise is. If anyone reads these 28 pages in conjunction with Chapters 5 to 7 of the Main Report published in 2004, the role of the helpers to the hijackers becomes critically important. The hijackers who were total strangers to the US, who spoke no English and had come here specifically to join a flight training school could not have survived a week without an infrastructure of support being already in place. That crucial gap was filled by the staff in the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in LA and the various mosques in California funded by the Saudi government and its Royal families.
The Committee also notes that “Prior to September 11, the FBI apparently did not focus investigative.. (blanked out).. Saudi nationals in the US due to Saudi Arabia’s status as an American “ally”. A representative of the FBI’s.. (blanked out) testified in a closed hearing prior to September 11, the FBI received “no reporting from any member of the Intelligence Community” that there is a.. (blanked out) presence in the US.
The blanked out words could not be referring to ‘al-Qaida’ because the Counter Terrorism cell of the NSC headed by Richard Clarke had been warning of al-Qaida attacks on US interests and directly on America since January 2001 and that the Daily Presidential Briefings given by the CIA Director George Tenet to President Bush had mentioned of an imminent attack by OBL at least 40 times between February to September 2001.
Though the “System was blinking Red”, in the words of George Tenet, from July 4 onwards, no agency had focussed a torchlight on the Saudi Arabian embassy and its consular officials nor on the activities of Saudi royal families or its nationals in a coordinated manner. Had they done so, they would have probably collected a lot more specific intelligence, particularly when the hijackers started to come and join the flight training schools in different parts of California and South Florida.
These 28 pages reveal far more of Saudi involvement in assisting the hijackers than was known before. To say that — “there are no surprises” — is being less than ingenious. In this season of elections in America, both parties and their candidates have had little time to talk of it but this is not going to die so easily. There will be many who would like to resurrect it later.
*The author is Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and a retired senior official of the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.