WASHINGTON – With Congress opening the way for the families of Sept. 11, 2001, victims to sue Saudi Arabia, families are focusing on an unproven theory that a Saudi consular official in Los Angeles and a Saudi intelligence operative in San Diego directly aided two of the 19 hijackers.
The alleged Southern California connection is the key to showing that Saudi Arabia financed Muslim extremists who played a direct role in supporting some of the hijackers, lawyers for the families said.
The families contend that lower-level Saudi operatives in Southern California helped find housing for the two hijackers, both Saudi citizens, months before they muscled their way into the cockpit of an American Airlines passenger jet that smashed into the north side of the Pentagon.
If a pending lawsuit is allowed to proceed, the families hope to find the evidence in thousands of classified FBI, CIA and Treasury Department documents that could be made public in federal court.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any direct or indirect support for Al-Qaida, the terrorist group that carried out the attacks, or any foreknowledge or involvement in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
FBI and CIA reviews concluded that no senior Saudi officials were aware of the plot. The commission that studied the attacks found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually” funded Al-Qaida but left open the possibility that lower-ranking officials may have played a role.
‘Important part of the story’
California is “an important part of the story,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who chaired the Intelligence Committee and helped lead a 2002 inquiry into the attacks.
Graham said that he wants to find out how far the commission went to chase down speculation and leads from FBI investigators about alleged assistance from Saudi officials.
The issue was revived after Congress overrode President Obama’s veto and passed a bill last week that allows the victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia for damages if it played any role in the plot. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Obama had warned that the law could put U.S. military and intelligence officials at risk overseas. Officials worry that Americans could be dragged into foreign courts to answer for U.S. drone strikes.
The California connection involves Nawaf Hazmi and Khalid Mihdhar, two Al-Qaida veterans of conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan. They flew into Los Angeles International Airport as students in January 2000 and prayed at a Culver City mosque built by the Saudi royal family and frequented by a Saudi consular official.
They later moved to San Diego, where they took flying lessons. Their move later drew the interest of FBI agents.
While eating at a halal restaurant in Culver City, the two men’s Gulf Arabic drew the attention of a Saudi named Omar Bayoumi, who had a no-show job with a Saudi defense contractor in San Diego.
Bayoumi offered to let the newcomers stay in his apartment in San Diego for a few days and later helped them pay the deposit for an apartment.
Sent by a Saudi official?
The FBI suspected that Bayoumi, whom bureau informants considered a Saudi intelligence operative, was sent to meet the two by a Saudi consular official named Fahad Thumairy.
When retracing Bayoumi’s steps, FBI agents found that he had visited the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and saw Thumairy on the same day that he met Hazmi and Mihdhar.
Whether those meetings were coincidence or a link that proves official Saudi complicity is key to the families’ claims.
“No one ever said Bayoumi or Thumairy were senior government officials, but a government is responsible for lower level officials who cause death or injury to people under the cause of their employ,” said Jack Quinn, a lawyer for some Sept. 11 families.
Despite the circumstantial evidence, FBI investigators concluded that Saudi officials were not aware of a terrorist plot or the two men’s ties to Al-Qaida. The CIA had tracked the pair overseas but didn’t alert the FBI when they flew to Los Angeles.
The case is before the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. But passage of the new law could send it back to the Southern District of New York, where the lawyers may battle for years over release of classified material.
If the lawsuit prevails, U.S. courts could order the seizure of Saudi assets in the United States to pay the families.