At a time when the world’s attention is almost entirely fixated on the COVID-19 pandemic and the fast-eroding Sino-US relationship, it was easy to miss a relatively innocuous news article regarding the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Responding to a lawsuit brought by the families of 9/11 victims, who accuse the Saudi Government of at least negligence, if not outright complicity, in the attacks, the FBI filed a new declaration in the Federal Court. The declaration was filed by Jill Sanborn, the Assistant Director of the FBI’s counter-terrorism division. The declaration, like its precedents, argued that the full public disclosure of the FBI’s files on the 9/11 attacks could compromise national security because it would entail intelligence sources and information collection methods, thereby compromising the willingness of foreign governments to work with the FBI if required.
Unlike its precedents, however, this declaration inadvertently revealed the name of a Saudi official who worked at the kingdom’s embassy in Washington DC. Whereas, in previous court filings, the official’s name was redacted, this declaration revealed him to be Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, who was assigned to the embassy in Washington in 1999 and 2000.
Al-Jarrah’s duties at the embassy included, among other things, the oversight and co-ordination of employees of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs at Saudi-funded mosques in the US. Al-Jarrah, interestingly, is believed to have reported to the Saudi Ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is described as the architect of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Prince Bandar would go on to later become the head of Saudi Arabian intelligence and the kingdom’s National Security Council. He was first assigned to the Washington embassy in 1982 as the military attaché and was appointed as ambassador in 1983. As the website notes:
During Bandar’s time in office as the King’s personal envoy to Washington and Ambassador, the Prince rubbed shoulders with five US Presidents, ten secretaries of state, [and] eleven national security advisors, according the Prince extensive influence in the United States foreign policy.
The disclosure of al-Jarrah’s name and his association with Prince Bandar is, for the lawyers of the families of the 9/11 victims, clear confirmation that the hijackers were connected, albeit still obscurely, to the Saudi Government. That disclosure also reveals the determination of the Bush (Jr.), Obama and Trump Administrations to keep that information secret. President Obama, in fact, vetoed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which would have allowed the families of the 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in US courts. The president’s veto was overruled by Congress in 2016. The disclosure of al-Jarrah’s name begs the question, furthermore, what other information regarding links to the House of Saud has the FBI chosen to keep secret? Riyadh has denied that it had any connection to the 9/11 attacks.
It has been known for some time, despite those denials, that the FBI was investigating possible links between the Saudi hijackers and officials at the Saudi embassy in Washington. A heavily-redacted summary of a secret 2012 FBI report (so secret, in fact, that even its title is redacted), notes:
[Redacted] is an investigation into individuals known to have provided substantial assistance to 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar during their time in California.
The report notes three individuals of interest to the FBI in its investigation. The first, Fahad al-Thumairy, was a diplomat who also acted as an imam at the King Fahd mosque in Los Angeles. The report notes that al-Thumairy ‘immediately assigned an individual to take care of [the two hijackers, who spoke no English] during their time in Los Angeles’. The second individual, Omar al-Bayoumi, the report notes, ‘was living in San Diego on a student visa, despite not attending classes, and receiving a salary from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for job duties he never performed.’ The FBI suspected al-Bayoumi was a Saudi intelligence agent. Al-Bayoumi maintained that he met the two hijackers by accident at a restaurant. The report, noting that the third individual was relatively highly-placed, says:
There is evidence that [redacted] and tasked al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi with assisting the hijackers.
It notes, further, that the three individuals:
… provided [or directed others to provide] the hijackers with assistance in daily activities, including procuring living quarters, financial assistance, and assistance in obtaining flight lessons and driver’s licences. [Redacted] seeks to prove these subjects provided such assistance with the knowledge that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were here to commit an act of terrorism.
If the third individual was indeed al-Jarrah, the link between the Saudi embassy (and likely the Saudi Government), and the hijackers becomes very evident. Or does it? Could it be that there were elements in the embassy who were working with the hijackers without the knowledge of Prince Bandar and other embassy staff?
In the absence of evidence, one way or another, that elements in the Saudi embassy in Washington had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, one must resort to a degree of speculation. On 28 March 2002, acting on intelligence, Pakistani and US security personnel stormed a house in Faisalabad, in Pakistan. Their target was Abu Zubaydah, the al-Qaeda operations commander, who was responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole. They succeeded in capturing Abu Zubaydah, who was shot three times during the raid.
According to Gerald Posner, the CIA, which subsequently interrogated Abu Zubaydah, first administered thiopental sodium, better known as sodium pentothal, into his drip without his knowledge and then used two teams of two agents each to debrief him. One team consisted of Caucasian Americans and the other Arab Americans who acted as Saudi intelligence operatives. It was believed that if the Caucasian-looking agents acted as the “good cops” in the “good cop-bad cop” routine, Abu Zubaydah, fearing the harsh treatment of al-Qaeda personnel by the Saudis, would be more receptive and more open to them.
To their surprise, Abu Zubaydah turned to the Arab-looking agents, confiding in them that he feared that the Americans would torture him. He asked the “Arab” agents to call a senior member of the House of Saud and gave them a home telephone number and a mobile number that he recited from memory. The name that he gave the agents was Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the third son of King Salman. Prince Ahmed was so westernised and well-known in horse-racing and publishing circles that the immediate assumption was that Abu Zubaydah was feeding them disinformation. He informed his debriefers that, two years earlier, the House of Saud had struck a bargain with al-Qaeda: they would support the Taliban in Afghanistan if al-Qaeda did not attack Saudi Arabia. As part of that arrangement, Abu Zubaydah claimed, he dealt with Prince Ahmed and two other intermediaries: Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud and Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir. According to Abu Zubaydah, Prince Ahmed knew that an attack would occur on 9/11.
The CIA conducted an investigation into those claims but the result was inconclusive. So they approached Saudi intelligence officials to ask if he could possibly have been an al-Qaeda contact. The answer was a firm no. Some time later, Prince Ahmed flew to Saudi Arabia to settle some family issues. While there, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was forty-three years old.
The next day, his cousin, Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, was killed in a single-car accident while travelling to Prince Ahmed’s funeral. A week later, Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir was found dead in the desert, apparently having died of thirst.
It is entirely possible that those deaths were coincidental. They resulted, nevertheless, in the FBI losing any chance of questioning the princes to ascertain if they had any role in the 9/11 attacks. Al-Jarrah moved on to other diplomatic postings in Malaysia and Morocco. That leaves the questions, did al-Jarrah know about the 9/11 attacks beforehand? Did he inform Prince Bandar of the attacks before they occurred, or was the prince kept in the dark by elements within the embassy? For that matter, were the FBI’s suspicions about al-Jarrah realistic or not?
Unless the FBI releases more information, or makes another mistake, those questions will remain unanswered.