Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Jul. 27, 2016, 9:45am

The long-awaited declassification of the 28 pages of a 2002 congressional report describing the potential ties between the government of Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 hijackers has left much to be desired. While Washington and Riyadh have celebrated the release of the 28 pages and fully dismissed the idea of Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks, the report, albeit limited in its scope, raises questions over Saudi counterterrorism cooperation, U.S. internal intelligence sharing, and the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks. While independent analyses of the released report have largely sided with the shared U.S. and Saudi Arabian stance in denying Saudi involvement in the attacks, many details of the hijackers’ preparations and support remain unclear 15 years later.

Classified by the Bush Administration in 2002, the 28 page report was deemed to contain sensitive information that may harm the important U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship during the early stages of the War on Terror. However, refusal to release the report despite over a decade of legal pressure and anticipation led many to believe that the 28 pages contained the ‘smoking gun’ for Saudi Arabia’s role in the attacks. For those that anticipated conclusiveness or 28 pages of damning evidence against Saudi Arabia, the report will be largely disappointing. Not only is a direct tie of guilt to Saudi Arabia’s government missing from the pages, but the report is also limited in its implications. Completed before the 9/11 Commission started its investigation in late 2002, many of the report’s lingering questions about Saudi involvement in 9/11 were later investigated by the Commission and addressed in its 2004 report.

While the report may not live up to the conspiratorial buzz preceding its release, it does contain alarming information that should not be overlooked. The report suggests there were potential ties between several of the 9/11 hijackers and people with connections to the Saudi government. Among these people, the 28 pages highlight two Saudi nationals living in San Diego in the early 2000s, Osama Bassnan and Omar al-Bayoumi. The report indicates that Bassnan was a neighbor of hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi and provided them with financial assistance. Bassnan, a former employee of the Saudi Arabian Education Mission, had close ties to longtime Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Bandar bin Sultan and may have even received a fake passport from Saudi Government officials. Bassnan reportedly received regular checks from Bandar and his wife, Haifa al-Faisal.

Omar al-Bayoumi, an associate of Bassnan’s in San Diego, was repeatedly described to the FBI as a possible Saudi intelligence “from individuals in the Muslim community.” Seemingly in support of these claims, the report points out that al-Bayoumi was on the payroll of an aviation company linked to the Saudi Ministry of Defense although he did not work there. Al-Bayoumi was reportedly in close contact with al-Hazmi and al-Midhar, provided them with financial assistance and even helped the hijackers find an apartment in San Diego. A man with “extensive contact with Saudi Government establishments in the United States”, al-Bayoumi was on the receiving end of financial assistance from a Saudi-linked company and met with the hijackers shortly after meeting with a Saudi consulate employee, a sequence of events that “may not have been accidental.”

Despite the anticipation surrounding the release of the report, the controversial details mentioned above and the information in the rest of the report do not provide evidence of a direct relationship between the Saudi Arabian government and the al-Qaeda terrorists. In fact, the 9/11 Commission report describes al-Bayoumi as having met the hijackers after overhearing them speak Arabic with familiar Gulf accents. According to the 9/11 Commission story, al-Bayoumi, a close friend of Bassnan and an “unlikely candidate for clandestine involvement with Islamic extremists”, befriended the hijackers unaware of their intentions. Thus, not only have many of the questions of the 28 pages been covered in previously released documents on the 9/11 investigation, such as the 9/11 Commission report and the 2005 joint FBI-CIA study, but the contents do not indicate a direct relationship between Riyadh and the 9/11 attackers.

While the information in the 28 pages does not prove Saudi guilt in perpetrating the attacks, the kingdom’s shaky response to the attacks as revealed in the report represents the most damaging information to the government of Saudi Arabia. According to the report, a number of FBI agents and CIA officers complained of Saudi noncompliance in investigating terrorism both before and after the 9/11 attacks. Considering the emergence of the newly released information on suspicious potential Saudi ties and the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals, a lack of counterterrorism cooperation from Riyadh does not help Saudi Arabia’s claim to be a vital partner in U.S. counterterrorism intelligence efforts.

While the government of Saudi Arabia will likely face heat for its lack of counterterrorism cooperation and its role in the information contained in the 28 pages, the report also backs the claim that the pre-9/11 U.S. government system for intelligence sharing was inadequate. According to the report, the U.S. Government did not investigate Saudi nationals in the United States prior to 9/11 and had not received reporting “from any member of the Intelligence Community” that there was a (redacted words) presence in the United States. However, an investigation by the CIA Inspector General revealed that 50 to 60 CIA personnel were aware of the presence of the 9/11 hijackers in the U.S. but did not alert the FBI or White House. This failure of communication has led some, including former National Security Council coordinator for counterterrorism Richard Clarke, to believe alternate motives were at play that prevented the CIA from communicating the whereabouts of the suspicious Saudi nationals.

Interpretations of the substance of the 28 pages and the level of Saudi involvement will invariably differ according to the reader. Despite growing pressure, the contents of the lightly redacted report, which had adopted a somewhat conspiratorial nature following over a decade of speculation of its contents, is unlikely to trigger major changes in the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship. While most independent analysts, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. have declared the controversial debate over Saudi involvement in 9/11 to be officially over, the report also introduces new questions regarding a lack of Saudi counterterrorism cooperation, U.S. intelligence sharing, and the presence of Saudi nationals in communication with the 9/11 hijackers in the U.S.

More News