The Kingdom and the Towers
There are a few things that should be pointed out about this article. It states that “no hard evidence would emerge that Pakistan had any foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks.” However, there are a couple of reports that say otherwise. Indeed, listen to what Paul Thompson had to say on 7/22/2005.
This article mentions Prince Bandar, but doesn’t mention the allegation that his wife, Princess Haifa bint Faisal, was connected to some of the money sent to the two hijackers in San Diego. It also mentions Lt. General Mahmood Ahmed without mentioning the allegation that he ordered Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh to wire transfer $100k to Mohammad Atta. It should be noted that a “Memorandum For The Record” from the 9/11 Commission was recently discovered that said, “there is absolutely no evidence Atta received a wire a transfer from the Pakistani ISI,” but there are major redactions prior to that statement, and after it. Also, there is no mention of Lt. General Mahmood Ahmed or Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. I have never seen a statement from any official explain why the allegations of the $100k wire transfer are wrong or unsubstantiated. – Jon Gold
For 10 years now, a major question about 9/11 has remained unresolved. It was, as 9/11-commission chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton recalled, “Had the hijackers received any support from foreign governments?” There was information that pointed to the answer, but the commissioners apparently deemed it too disquieting to share in full with the public.
The idea that al-Qaeda had not acted alone was there from the start. “The terrorists do not function in a vacuum,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters the week after 9/11. “I know a lot, and what I have said, as clearly as I know how, is that states are supporting these people.” Pressed to elaborate, Rumsfeld was silent for a long moment. Then, saying it was a sensitive matter, he changed the subject.
Three years later, the commission would consider whether any of three foreign countries in particular might have had a role in the attacks. Two were avowed foes of the United States: Iraq and Iran. The third had long been billed as a close friend: Saudi Arabia.
In its report, the commission stated that it had seen no “evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al-Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
Iran, the commission found, had long had contacts with al-Qaeda and had allowed its operatives—including a number of the future hijackers—to travel freely through its airports. Though there was no evidence that Iran “was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack,” the commissioners called on the government to investigate further.
This year, in late May, attorneys for bereaved 9/11 family members said there was revealing new testimony from three Iranian defectors. Former senior commission counsel Dietrich Snell was quoted as saying in an affidavit that there was now “convincing evidence the government of Iran provided material support to al-Qaeda in the planning and execution of the 9/11 attack.” That evidence, however, has yet to surface.
As for Saudi Arabia, America’s purported friend, you would have thought from the reaction of the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, that the commission had found nothing dubious in his country’s role. “The clear statements by this independent, bipartisan commission,” he declared, “have debunked the myths that have cast fear and doubt over Saudi Arabia.” Yet no finding in the report categorically exonerated Saudi Arabia.
The commission’s decision as to what to say on the subject had been made amid discord and tension. Late one night in 2004, as last-minute changes to the report were being made, investigators who had worked on the Saudi angle received alarming news. Their team leader, Dietrich Snell, was at the office, closeted with executive director Philip Zelikow, making major changes to their material and removing key elements.
The investigators, Michael Jacobson and Rajesh De, hurried to the office to confront Snell. With lawyerly caution, he said he thought there was insufficient substance to their case against the Saudis. They considered the possibility of resigning, then settled for a compromise. Much of the telling information they had collected would survive in the report, but only in tiny print, hidden in the endnotes.
The commissioners did say in the body of the report that the long official friendship of the United States and Saudi Arabia could not be unconditional. The relationship had to be about more than oil, had to include—and this in bold type—“a commitment to fight the violent extremists who foment hatred.”
It had been far from clear, and for the longest time, that the Saudis were thus committed. More than seven years before 9/11, the first secretary at the Saudi mission to the United Nations, Mohammed al-Khilewi, had defected to the United States, bringing with him thousands of pages of documents that, he said, showed the regime’s corruption, abuse of human rights, and support for terrorism. At the same time, he addressed a letter to then crown prince Abdullah, calling for “a move towards democracy.” The Saudi royals, Khilewi said, responded by threatening his life. The U.S. government, for its part, offered him little protection. F.B.I. officials, moreover, declined to accept the documents the defecting diplomat had brought with him.
In support of his claim that Saudi Arabia supported terrorism, Khilewi spoke of an episode relevant to the first, 1993, attempt to bring down the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. “A Saudi citizen carrying a Saudi diplomatic passport,” he said, “gave money to Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the World Trade Center bombing,” when the al-Qaeda terrorist was in the Philippines. The Saudi relationship with Yousef, the defector claimed, “is secret and goes through Saudi intelligence.”
The reference to a Saudi citizen having funded Yousef closely fit the part played by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law Jamal Khalifa. He was active in the Philippines, fronted as a charity organizer at the relevant time, and founded a charity that gave money to Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief al-Qaeda planner of 9/11, during the initial plotting to destroy U.S. airliners.
When Khalifa returned to Saudi Arabia, in 1995—following detention in the United States and subsequent acquittal on terrorism charges in Jordan—he was, according to C.I.A. bin Laden chief Michael Scheuer, met by a limousine and a welcome home from “a high-ranking official.” A Philippine newspaper would suggest that the official had been Prince Sultan, then a deputy prime minister and minister of defense and aviation, today the heir to the Saudi throne.
In June 1996, according to published reports, while in Paris for the biennial international weapons bazaar, a group including a Saudi prince and Saudi financiers gathered at the Royal Monceau hotel, near the Saudi Embassy. The subject was bin Laden and what to do about him. After two recent bombings of American targets in Saudi Arabia, one of them just that month, the fear was that the Saudi elite itself would soon be targeted. At the meeting at the Monceau, French intelligence reportedly learned, it was decided that bin Laden was to be kept at bay by payment of huge sums in protection money.
In sworn statements after 9/11, former Taliban intelligence chief Mohammed Khaksar said that in 1998 Prince Turki, chief of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Department (G.I.D.), sealed a deal under which bin Laden agreed not to attack Saudi targets. In return, Saudi Arabia would provide funds and material assistance to the Taliban, not demand bin Laden’s extradition, and not bring pressure to close down al-Qaeda training camps. Saudi businesses, meanwhile, would ensure that money also flowed directly to bin Laden.
After 9/11, Prince Turki would deny that any such deal was done with bin Laden. Other Saudi royals, however, may have been involved in payoff arrangements. A former Clinton administration official has claimed—and U.S. intelligence sources concurred—that at least two Saudi princes had been paying, on behalf of the kingdom, what amounted to protection money since 1995. The former official added, “The deal was, they would turn a blind eye to what he was doing elsewhere. ‘You don’t conduct operations here, and we won’t disrupt them elsewhere.’ ”
American and British official sources, speaking later with Simon Henderson, Baker Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, named the two princes in question. They were, Henderson told the authors, Prince Naif, the interior minister, and Prince Sultan. The money involved in the alleged payments, according to Henderson’s sources, had amounted to “hundreds of millions of dollars.” It had been “Saudi official money—not their own.”
Before 9/11, American officials visiting Riyadh usually discovered that it was futile to ask the Saudis for help in fighting terrorism. George Tenet, who became C.I.A. director during Bill Clinton’s second term, vividly recalled an audience he was granted by Prince Naif, the crown prince’s brother. Naif, who oversaw domestic intelligence, began the exchange with “an interminable soliloquy recounting the history of the U.S.-Saudi ‘special’ relationship, including how the Saudis would never, ever keep security-related information from their U.S. allies.”
There came a moment when Tenet had had enough. Breaching royal etiquette, he placed his hand on the prince’s knee and said, “Your Royal Highness, what do you think it will look like if someday I have to tell the Washington Post that you held out data that might have helped us track down al-Qaeda murderers?” Naif’s reaction, Tenet thought, was what looked “like a prolonged state of shock.”
On a flight home from Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s, F.B.I. director Louis Freeh told counterterrorism chief John O’Neill that he thought the Saudi officials they had met during the trip had been helpful. “You’ve got to be kidding,” retorted O’Neill, a New Jersey native who never minced his words. “They didn’t give us anything. They were just shining sunshine up your ass.”
Several years later, in two long conversations with Jean-Charles Brisard, author of a study on terrorist financing for a French intelligence agency, O’Neill was still venting his frustration. “All the answers, all the clues that could enable us to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization,” he said, “are in Saudi Arabia.” The answers and the clues, however, remained out of reach, in part, O’Neill told Brisard, because U.S. dependence on Saudi oil meant that Saudi Arabia had “much more leverage on us than we have on the kingdom.” And, he added, because “high-ranking personalities and families in the Saudi kingdom” had close ties to bin Laden.
These conversations took place in June and late July of 2001.
At his residence outside Washington on the morning of September 11, Prince Bandar rushed out an embassy statement. The kingdom, it read, “condemned the regrettable and inhuman bombings and acts which took place today. . . . Saudi Arabia strongly condemns such acts, which contravene all religious values and human civilized concepts; and extends sincere condolences.”
Behind the political scenery, and on the festering subject of Israel, relations between Riyadh and Washington had recently become unprecedentedly shaky. Crown Prince Abdullah had long fumed about America’s apparent complacency over the plight of the Palestinians. That spring he had pointedly declined an invitation to the White House. Three weeks before 9/11, enraged by television footage of an Israeli soldier putting his boot on the head of a Palestinian woman, he had snapped. Bandar, the crown prince’s nephew, was told to deliver an uncompromising message to President Bush.
“I reject this extraordinary, un-American bias whereby the blood of an Israeli child is more expensive and holy than the blood of a Palestinian child. . . . A time comes when peoples and nations part. . . . Starting today, you go your way and we will go our way. From now on, we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America’s interests lie in the region.” There was more, much more, and it rocked the Bush administration. The president responded with a placatory letter that seemed to go far toward the Saudi position of endorsing the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Then came the shattering events of Tuesday the 11th. In Riyadh within 24 hours—himself now in turn placatory—Abdullah pulled the lever that gave his nation its only real power, the economic sword it could draw or sheathe at will. He ordered that nine million barrels of oil be dispatched to the United States over the next two weeks. The certainty of supply had the effect, it is said, of averting what had otherwise been a possibility at that time—an oil shortage that would have pushed prices through the roof and caused, on top of the economic effects of the 9/11 calamity, a major financial crisis.
Into the mix, on Wednesday the 12th, came troubling news. In a phone call that night, a C.I.A. official told Ambassador Bandar that 15 of the hijackers had been Saudis. As Bandar recalled it, he felt the world collapsing around him. “That was a disaster,” Crown Prince Abdullah’s foreign-affairs adviser Adel al-Jubeir has said, “because bin Laden, at that moment, had made in the minds of Americans Saudi Arabia into an enemy.”
Royal and rich Saudis scrambled to get out of the United States and return home. Seventy-five royals and their entourage, ensconced at Caesars Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas, decamped within hours of the attacks to the Four Seasons. They felt “extremely concerned for their personal safety,” they explained to the local F.B.I. field office, and bodyguards apparently deemed the Four Seasons more secure.
In Washington, Saudis who wished to leave included members of the bin Laden family. One of Osama’s brothers, never named publicly, had hastily called the Saudi Embassy wanting to know where he could best go to be safe. He was installed in a room at the Watergate Hotel and told to stay there until advised that transportation was available. Across the country, more than 20 bin Laden family members and staff were getting ready to leave.
In Lexington, Kentucky, the mecca of Thoroughbred racing in America, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a nephew of King Fahd’s, had been attending the annual yearling sales. After the attacks, Ahmed quickly began to round up members of his family for a return to Saudi Arabia. He ordered his son and a couple of friends, who were in Florida, to charter a plane and get themselves to Lexington to connect with the plane he was taking home. They managed it, one of them told the security man hired for the flight, because “his father or his uncle was good friends with George Bush Sr.”
Late on the night of the 13th, Prince Bandar’s assistant called the F.B.I.’s assistant director for counterterrorism, Dale Watson. He needed help, the assistant said, in getting bin Laden “family members” out of the country. Watson said Saudi officials should call the White House or the State Department. The request found its way to counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, who has acknowledged that he gave the go-ahead for the flights. He has said he has “no recollection” of having cleared it with anyone more senior in the administration.
An F.B.I. memo written two years after the exodus appears to acknowledge that some of the departing Saudis may have had information pertinent to the investigation. Asked on CNN the same year whether he could say unequivocally that no one on the evacuation flights had been involved in 9/11, Saudi Embassy information officer Nail al-Jubeir responded by saying he was sure of only two things, that “there is the existence of God, and then we will die at the end of the world. Everything else, we don’t know.”
Saudis in Denial
In spite of the fact that it had almost immediately become known that 15 of those implicated in the attacks had been Saudis, President George W. Bush did not hold Saudi Arabia’s official representative in Washington at arm’s length. As early as the evening of September 13, he kept a scheduled appointment to receive Prince Bandar at the White House. The two men had known each other for years. They reportedly greeted each other with a friendly embrace, smoked cigars on the Truman Balcony, and conversed with Vice President Dick Cheney and National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
There is a photograph of the meeting, which has been published in the past. This year, however, when the authors asked the George W. Bush presidential library for a copy, the library responded in an e-mail that the former president’s office was “not inclined to release the image from the balcony at this time.”
It would soon become evident that, far from confronting the Saudis, the Bush administration wanted rapprochement. The president would invite Crown Prince Abdullah to visit the United States, press him to come when he hesitated, and—when he accepted—welcome him to his Texas ranch in early 2002. Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice were there, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell and First Lady Laura Bush.
It seems that 9/11 barely came up during the discussions. Speaking with the press afterward, the president cut off one reporter when he began to raise the subject.
Official Saudi Arabia was tortoise-slow in acknowledging even the fact that almost all of the hijackers had been Saudi citizens. Two days after Bandar was given that information, his spokesman said the terrorists had probably used stolen identities.
“There is no proof or evidence,” claimed Sheikh Saleh al-Sheikh, minister of Islamic affairs, “that Saudis carried out these attacks.” Prince Sultan doubted whether only bin Laden and his followers were responsible, and hinted that “another power with advanced technical expertise” must have been behind 9/11. As of December 2001, Prince Naif was saying he still did not believe 15 hijackers had been Saudis.
Not until February 2002 did Naif acknowledge the truth. “The names we have got confirmed [it],” he then conceded. “Their families have been notified. . . . I believe they were taken advantage of in the name of religion, and regarding certain issues pertaining to the Arab nation, especially the issue of Palestine.”
Even after that admission, Sultan and Naif were not done. They began pointing to a familiar enemy. “It is enough to see a number of [U.S.] congressmen wearing Jewish yarmulkes,” Sultan said, “to explain the allegations against us.” In late 2002, Naif blamed the “Zionists,” saying, “We put big question marks and ask who committed the events of September 11 and who benefited from them I think [the Zionists] are behind these events.”
As the months passed, leading Saudis would suggest publicly that their nation had been entirely open with the United States on the security front all along—even claim that they had alerted Washington in advance to possible calamity.
A year after 9/11, Prince Turki expounded at length on the relationship the G.I.D. had had with the C.I.A. From about 1996, he wrote, “at the instruction of the senior Saudi leadership, I shared all the intelligence we had collected on bin Laden and al-Qaeda with the C.I.A. And in 1997 the Saudi minister of defense, Prince Sultan, established a joint intelligence committee with the United States to share information on terrorism in general and on bin Laden (and al-Qaeda) in particular.”
There was a core of truth to this. The G.I.D. and U.S. services had had a long, if uneasy, understanding on sharing intelligence. Other Saudi claims were far more startling.
Bandar had hinted right after 9/11 that both the U.S. and Saudi intelligence services had known more about the hijackers in advance than they were publicly admitting. In 2007, however, by which time he had risen to become national-security adviser to former crown prince—now king—Abdullah, Bandar produced a bombshell. “Saudi security,” he asserted, “had been actively following the movements of most of the terrorists with precision. . . . If U.S. security authorities had engaged their Saudi counterparts in a serious and credible manner, in my opinion, we would have avoided what happened.”
Though there was no official U.S. reaction to that claim, Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden unit, later dismissed it in his book Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq as a “fabrication.”
Prince Turki had long since come out with an allegation similar to Bandar’s, but far more specific. He said that in late 1999 and early 2000—just before the first two future 9/11 hijackers reached the United States—his staff had informed the C.I.A. that both men were terrorists. “What we told them,” he said, “was these people were on our watch list from previous activities of al-Qaeda, in both the [East Africa] embassy bombings and attempts to smuggle arms into the Kingdom in 1997.”
C.I.A. spokesman Bill Harlow dismissed Turki’s claim as being supported by “not a shred of evidence.” Harlow said information on the two hijackers-to-be had been passed on only a month after the attacks. What the 9/11 commission thought of Turki’s assertion has not been made public. The National Archives told the authors that it was not permissible even to say whether commission files contain a record of an interview with the former head of the G.I.D. Information on the intelligence background to 9/11 apparently remains highly sensitive.
The Hijackers’ Helpers
Saudi Arabia long remained a black hole for American official investigators probing 9/11. They were not, for example, allowed access to the families of those believed to have carried out the attacks. “We’re getting zero cooperation,” former C.I.A. counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro said a month after the attacks.
Within the United States, however, the probe proceeded intensively and over several years. And some of the most significant information gleaned, it turned out, concerned the same two terrorists to whom Prince Turki had alluded. They are said to have been handpicked by Osama bin Laden to be first to enter the United States, and they would eventually be part of the group that seized American Airlines flight 77, the plane used in the strike against the Pentagon.
They were Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both Saudis, both experienced jihadis—holy warriors—though still in their mid-20s. They entered the country through Los Angeles International Airport as early as January 15, 2000, with scant knowledge of the English language and zero experience of life in the West. The 9/11-commission report declared it “unlikely” that the pair “would have come to the United States without arranging to receive assistance from one or more individuals informed in advance of their arrival.”
The investigation identified individuals who helped or may have helped Mihdhar and Hazmi following their arrival in California—whether by happenstance or because of foreknowledge.
An imam named Fahad al-Thumairy, an accredited diplomat appointed by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs to liaise with the huge nearby mosque, served at the time at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles. According to one witness, Thumairy had at the relevant time arranged for two men—whom the witness first identified from photographs as having been the two terrorists—to be given a tour of the area by car.
A fellow Saudi, a San Diego resident named Omar al-Bayoumi, said by individuals interviewed to have had frequent contact with Thumairy, acknowledged that he met Mihdhar and Hazmi during a visit to Los Angeles on February 1, two weeks after their arrival.
According to a person interviewed by the F.B.I., Bayoumi said before the trip that he was going to “pick up visitors.” What is agreed by all is that he made the journey by car, accompanied by an American Muslim named Caysan bin Don. On the way, bin Don said, Bayoumi mentioned that he was accustomed to going to the consulate to obtain religious materials. They did stop at the consulate, where, according to bin Don, a man in a Western business suit, with a full beard, greeted Bayoumi and took him off to talk in an office. Bayoumi emerged some time later, carrying a box of Korans. He would describe the encounter differently, saying he was “uncertain” with whom he had met and “didn’t really know people in [the Saudi ministry of] Islamic Affairs.”
Both men agreed, however, that they proceeded to a restaurant and while there—this is the crucial moment in their story—met and talked with future hijackers Mihdhar and Hazmi, who had just arrived in the country. Bayoumi and bin Don were to tell the F.B.I. the encounter occurred merely by chance.
Bayoumi urged Mihdhar and Hazmi to come south to San Diego, assisted them in finding accommodations, and stayed in touch. On the day the two terrorists moved into the apartment they first used, next door to Bayoumi’s, there were four calls between his phone and that of the local imam, New Mexico-born Anwar Aulaqi—later to be characterized in the congressional report on 9/11 as having served as “spiritual adviser” to Mihdhar and Hazmi.
Bayoumi’s income, which was paid by Ercan, a subsidiary of a contractor for the Saudi Civil Aviation Administration—though, according to a fellow employee, he did no known work—reportedly increased hugely following the future hijackers’ arrival. Another Saudi living in San Diego, Osama Basnan, was also of interest to 9/11 investigators probing the money flow.
A three-page section of Congress’s Joint Inquiry report (the product of joint hearings on the 9/11 attacks by the House and Senate intelligence committees), containing more lines withheld than released, tells us only that Basnan was a close associate of Bayoumi in San Diego. According to former U.S. senator Bob Graham, co-chair of the inquiry, and to press reports, regular checks flowed in 2000 from Basnan to Bayoumi’s wife. The payments, ostensibly made to help cover medical treatment, had originated with the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
There are separate reasons to question the activity of Thumairy, Bayoumi, and Basnan. Thumairy, who had a reputation as a fundamentalist, was later refused re-entry into the United States—well after 9/11—on the ground that he “might be connected with terrorist activity.” Bayoumi had first attracted the interest of the F.B.I. years earlier, and the bureau later learned he had “connections to terrorist elements.” He left the country two months before the attacks.
As for Basnan, his name had come up in a counterterrorism inquiry a decade earlier. He had reportedly hosted a party for Omar Abdel Rahman—today notorious as the “Blind Sheikh,” serving life for his part in plotting to blow up the World Trade Center and other New York City landmarks in 1993—when he visited the United States, and had once claimed he did more for Islam than Bayoumi ever did. A partially censored commission document suggests that—after Mihdhar, Hazmi, and fellow future 9/11 terrorists arrived in the United States to learn to fly—a Basnan associate was in e-mail and phone contact with accused key 9/11 conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh. A year after 9/11, Basnan was arrested for visa fraud and deported.
Available information suggests that two of the trio were employed by or had links to the Saudi regime—Thumairy through his accreditation by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Bayoumi through his employment by the company linked to the Saudi Civil Aviation Authority. At least five people told the F.B.I. they considered Bayoumi to be some sort of government agent. The C.I.A., Bob Graham has said, thought Basnan was also an agent. Graham also cited an agency memo that referred to “incontrovertible evidence” of support for the terrorists within the Saudi government.
In 2003 and 2004, but only following a high-level request from the White House, 9/11-commission staff were able to make two visits to Saudi Arabia to interview Thumairy, Bayoumi, and Basnan.
The questioners, a recently released commission memo notes, believed Thumairy “was deceptive during both interviews. . . . His answers were either inconsistent or at times in direct conflict with information we have from other sources.” Most significantly, he denied knowing Bayoumi, let alone Mihdhar and Hazmi. Shown a photograph of Bayoumi, he did not budge. He knew no one of that name, he said. Then, prompted by a whispered interjection from one of the Saudi officials present, he said he had heard of Bayoumi—but only from 9/11 news coverage.
At a second interview, told by commission staff that witnesses had spoken of seeing him with Bayoumi, Thumairy said perhaps they had taken someone else for him. Told that telephone records showed numerous calls between his phones and Bayoumi’s phones, just before the arrival of Mihdhar and Hazmi in the United States, Thumairy was stumped. Perhaps, he ventured, his phone number had been assigned to somebody else after he had it? Perhaps the calls had been made by someone else using Bayoumi’s phone? Everything Thumairy came up with, his questioners noted, was “implausible.”
Bayoumi, interviewed earlier, made a more favorable impression. He stuck to his story about having met Mihdhar and Hazmi by chance. He said that he had rarely seen them after they came to San Diego, that they had been his neighbors for only a few days. Bayoumi said he had then decided he did not want to have much to do with them. Philip Zelikow, who was present during the interview, did not think Bayoumi had been a Saudi agent.
The commission report, however, was to note that Bayoumi’s passport contained a distinguishing mark that may be acquired by “especially devout Muslims”—or be associated with “adherence to al-Qaeda.” Investigators had also turned up something else. Bayoumi’s salary had been approved by a Saudi official whose son’s photograph was later found on a computer disk in Pakistan that also contained photographs of three of the hijackers. The son, Saud al-Rashid, was produced for an interview in Saudi Arabia. He admitted having been in Afghanistan and having “cleansed” his passport of the evidence that he had traveled there. He said, though, that he had known nothing of the 9/11 plot. Commission staff who questioned Rashid thought he had been “deceptive.”
Finally, there was Basnan. The commission’s interview with him, Dietrich Snell wrote afterward, established only “the witness’ utter lack of credibility on virtually every material subject.” His demeanor “engendered a combination of confrontation, evasiveness, and speechmaking … his repudiation of statements made by him on prior occasions,” and the “inherent incredibility of many of his assertions when viewed in light of the totality of the available evidence.”
Two men did not face questioning by commission investigators. One of them, a Saudi religious official named Saleh al-Hussayen, certainly should have, although his name does not appear in the commission report. Hussayen, who was involved in the administration of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, had been in the States for some three weeks before 9/11. For four days before the attacks, he had stayed at a hotel in Virginia.
Then, on September 10, he had made an unexplained move. With his wife, he checked into the Marriott Residence Inn in Herndon, Virginia—the hotel at which 9/11 hijackers Mihdhar and Hazmi were spending their last night alive.
Commission memos state that F.B.I. agents arrived at Hussayen’s room at the Marriott after midnight on the 11th. The Saudi official began “muttering and drooping his head,” sweating and drooling. Then he fell out of his chair and appeared to lose consciousness for a few moments. Paramedics summoned to the room were puzzled. Could the patient be “faking”?, they asked the agents. Doctors who examined Hussayen at a local hospital, moreover, found nothing wrong with him. An F.B.I. agent said later that the interview had been cut short because—the agent suggested—Hussayen “feigned a seizure.”
Asked by an F.B.I. agent why they had moved to the Marriott, Hussayen’s wife said it was because they had wanted a room with a kitchenette. There was no sign, however, that the kitchenette in the room had been used. Asked whether she thought her husband could have been involved in the 9/11 attacks in any way, she replied, “I don’t know.” Agents never did obtain an adequate interview with Saleh al-Hussayen. Instead of continuing with his tour of the United States, he flew back to Saudi Arabia—and went on to head the administration of the two holy mosques. It remains unknown whether he had contact with Mihdhar and Hazmi on the eve of 9/11, or whether his presence at the Marriott that night was, as Bayoumi claimed of his meeting with the two terrorists, just a matter of chance.
As Hussayen left Virginia for home, other F.B.I. agents in the state were interviewing former San Diego-area imam Anwar Aulaqi. He did not deny having had contact with Mihdhar and Hazmi in California and later—with Hazmi—in Virginia. He could not deny that he had transferred from San Diego to the East Coast in a time frame that paralleled theirs. He made nothing of it, however, and U.S. authorities apparently pursued the matter no further.
Aulaqi had reportedly preached in the precincts of the U.S. Capitol shortly before 9/11. Not long afterward, he lunched at the Pentagon—in an area undamaged by the strike in which his acquaintances Mihdhar and Hazmi had played such a leading role. The reason for the lunch? An outreach effort to ease tensions between Muslim Americans and non-Muslims.
Though American-born, Aulaqi is the son of a former minister of agriculture in Yemen. He remained on and off in the United States after 9/11, apparently unimpeded, before departing first for Britain and eventually for Yemen. Suspicion that he may have had foreknowledge of the 9/11 plot is fueled by the fact that the phone number of his Virginia mosque turned up among items found in an apartment used by accused conspirator Ramzi Binalshibh, who now languishes in Guantánamo.
Only seven years later, starting in 2009, did Aulaqi begin to gain world notoriety. His name has been associated with: the multiple shootings by a U.S. Army major at Fort Hood, the almost successful attempt to explode a bomb on an airliner en route to Detroit, the major car-bomb scare in Times Square, and the last-minute discovery of concealed explosives aboard cargo planes destined for the United States.
When Aulaqi’s name began to feature in the Western press, Yemen’s foreign minister cautioned that, pending real evidence, he should be considered not a terrorist but a preacher. President Obama took a different view. By early 2010 he had authorized the C.I.A. and the U.S. military to seek out, capture, or kill the Yemeni—assigning Aulaqi essentially the same status as that assigned at the time to Osama bin Laden. Aulaqi remains, as Zelikow noted when his name finally hit the headlines, “a 9/11 loose end.”
Taken together, the roles and activities of Thumairy, Bayoumi, Basnan, Hussayen, and Aulaqi—and the dubious accounts some of them have given of themselves—heightened suspicion that the perpetrators of 9/11 had support and sponsorship from backers never clearly identified.
Trouble on the Home Front
Congress’s Joint Inquiry, its co-chair Bob Graham told the authors, had found evidence “that the Saudis were facilitating, assisting, some of the hijackers. And my suspicion is that they were providing some assistance to most if not all of the hijackers. . . . It’s my opinion that 9/11 could not have occurred but for the existence of an infrastructure of support within the United States. By ‘the Saudis,’ I mean the Saudi government and individual Saudis who are for some purposes dependent on the government—which includes all of the elite in the country.”
Those involved, in Graham’s view, “included the royal family” and “some groups that were close to the royal family.” Was it credible that members of the Saudi royal family would knowingly have facilitated the 9/11 operation? “I think,” the former senator said, “that they did in fact take actions that were complicit with the hijackers.”
At page 396 of the Joint Inquiry’s report, in the final section of the body of the report, a yawning gap appears. All 28 pages of Part Four, entitled “Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters,” have been redacted. The pages are there, but—with the rare exception of an occasional surviving word or fragmentary, meaningless clause—they are entirely blank. The decision to censor that entire section caused a furor in 2003.
Inquiries established that, while the withholdings were technically the responsibility of the C.I.A., the agency would not have obstructed release of most of the pages. The order that they must remain secret had come from President Bush.
Bob Graham and his Republican co-chairman, former senator Richard Shelby, felt strongly that the bulk of the withheld material could and should have been made public. So did Representative Nancy Pelosi, the ranking Democrat in the House. Shelby said, “My judgment is that 95 percent of that information should be declassified, become uncensored, so the American people would know.”
Know what? “I can’t tell you what’s in those pages,” the Joint Inquiry’s staff director, Eleanor Hill, said. “I can tell you that the chapter deals with information that our committee found in the F.B.I. and C.I.A. files that was very disturbing. It had to do with sources of foreign support for the hijackers.” The focus of the material, leaks to the press soon established, had been Saudi Arabia.
There were, sources said, additional details about Bayoumi, who had helped Mihdhar and Hazmi in California, and about his associate Basnan. The censored portion of the report had stated that Anwar Aulaqi, the San Diego imam, had been a “central figure” in a support network for the future hijackers.
A U.S. official who had read the censored section told the Los Angeles Times that it described “very direct, very specific links” with Saudi officials, links that “cannot be passed off as rogue, isolated or coincidental.” The New York Times journalist Philip Shenon has written that Senator Graham and his investigators became “convinced that a number of sympathetic Saudi officials, possibly within the sprawling Islamic Affairs Ministry, had known that al-Qaeda terrorists were entering the United States beginning in 2000 in preparation for some sort of attack. Graham believed the Saudi officials had directed spies operating in the United States to assist them.”
Most serious of all, Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff reported that the information uncovered by the investigation had drawn “apparent connections between high-level Saudi princes and associates of the hijackers.” Absent release of the censored pages, one can only surmise what the connections may have been.
There may be a clue, however, in the first corroboration—arising from the authors’ interview with a former C.I.A. officer—of an allegation relating to the capture in Pakistan, while the Joint Inquiry was at work, of senior bin Laden aide Abu Zubaydah. Many months of interrogation followed, including, from about June or July 2002, no fewer than 83 sessions of waterboarding. Zubaydah was the first al-Qaeda prisoner on whom that controversial “enhanced technique” was used.
John Kiriakou, then a C.I.A. operative serving in Pakistan, had played a leading part in the operation that led to the capture of Zubaydah—gravely wounded—in late March that year. Back in Washington early that fall, Kiriakou informed the authors, he was told by colleagues that cables on the interrogation reported that Zubaydah had come up with the names of several Saudi princes. He “raised their names in sort of a mocking fashion, [indicating] he had the support of the Saudi government.” The C.I.A. followed up by running name traces, Kiriakou said.
Zubaydah had named three princes, but by late July all three had died—within a week of one another. First to go was Prince Ahmed bin Salman, the leading figure in the international horse-racing community who was mentioned earlier, in our account of Saudis hastening to get out of the United States after 9/11. Ahmed, a nephew of both King Fahd’s and Prince Sultan’s, died of a heart attack following abdominal surgery at the age of 43, according to the Saudis.
Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah al-Saud, also a nephew of King Fahd’s and Prince Sultan’s, reportedly died in a car accident. A third prince, Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, whose father was a cousin of Fahd’s and Sultan’s, was said to have died “of thirst.”
Former C.I.A. officer Kiriakou later said his colleagues had told him they believed that what Zubaydah had told them about the princes was true. “We had known for years,” he told the authors, “that Saudi royals—I should say elements of the royal family—were funding al-Qaeda.”
In 2003, during the brouhaha about the redacted chapter in the Joint Inquiry report, Crown Prince Abdullah’s spokesman, Adel al-Jubeir, made a cryptic comment that has never been further explained. The Saudi regime’s own probe, he said, had uncovered “wrongdoing by some.” He noted, though, that the royal family had thousands of members, and insisted that the regime itself had no connection to the 9/11 plot.
More than 40 U.S. senators clamored for the release of the censored section of the report. They included John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Charles Schumer, Sam Brownback, Olympia Snowe, and Pat Roberts.
Bob Graham, with his long experience in the field as a member and chair not only of the Joint Inquiry but also of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has continued to voice his anger over the censorship even in retirement. President Bush, he wrote in his book Intelligence Matters in 2004, had “engaged in a cover-up . . . to protect not only the agencies that failed but also America’s relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. . . . He has done so by misclassifying information on national security data. While the information may be embarrassing or politically damaging, its revelation would not damage national security.” Richard Shelby concluded independently that virtually all the censored pages were “being kept secret for reasons other than national security.”
“It was,” Graham wrote, “as if the president’s loyalty lay more with Saudi Arabia than with America’s safety.” In Graham’s view, Bush’s role in suppressing important information about 9/11, along with other transgressions, should have led to his impeachment and removal from office.
Within weeks of his inauguration, in 2009, Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, made a point of receiving relatives of those bereaved on 9/11. The widow of one of those who died at the World Trade Center, Kristen Breitweiser, has said that she brought the new president’s attention to the infamous censored section of the Joint Inquiry report. Obama told her, she said afterward, that he was willing to get the suppressed material released. Two years later, the chapter remains classified—and the White House will not say why. “If the 28 pages were to be made public,” said one of the officials who was privy to them before President Bush ordered their removal, “I have no question that the entire relationship with Saudi Arabia would change overnight.”
Blame It on Iraq
The 9/11-commission report certainly blurred the truth about the Saudi role. By the time it was published, in July 2004, more than a year had passed since the invasion of Iraq, a country that—the report said—had nothing to do with 9/11.
In the 18 months before the invasion, however, the Bush administration had persistently seeded the notion that there was an Iraqi connection to 9/11. While never alleging a direct Iraqi role, President Bush had linked Saddam Hussein’s name to that of Osama bin Laden. Vice President Cheney had gone further, suggesting repeatedly that there had been Iraqi involvement in the attacks.
Polls suggest that the publicity about Iraq’s supposed involvement affected the degree to which the U.S. public came to view Iraq as an enemy deserving retribution. Before the invasion, a Pew Research poll found that 57 percent of those polled believed Hussein had helped the 9/11 terrorists. Forty-four percent of respondents to a Knight-Ridder poll had gained the impression that “most” or “some” of the hijackers had been Iraqi. In fact, none were. In the wake of the invasion, a Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of Americans believed it likely that Saddam Hussein had been personally involved in 9/11.
None of the speculative leads suggesting an Iraqi link to the attacks proved out. “We went back 10 years,” said Michael Scheuer, who looked into the matter at the request of director Tenet. “We examined about 20,000 documents, probably something along the lines of 75,000 pages of information, and there was no connection between [al-Qaeda] and Saddam.”
What About Pakistan?
In the years during which the conflict in Iraq had the world’s attention, the real evidence that linked other nations to Osama bin Laden and 9/11 faded from the public consciousness. This was in part the fault of the 9/11 commission, which failed to highlight and fully detail the evidence. It was, ironically, a former deputy homeland-security adviser to President Bush, Richard Falkenrath, who loudly expressed that uncomfortable truth. The commission’s report, Falkenrath wrote, had produced only superficial coverage of the fact that al-Qaeda was “led and financed largely by Saudis, with extensive support from Pakistani intelligence.”
Pakistan has a strong Islamic-fundamentalist movement. It was, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, one of only three nations that recognized the Taliban. Osama bin Laden had operated there as early as 1979, with the blessing of Saudi intelligence, in the first phase of the struggle to oust the Soviets from neighboring Afghanistan. The contacts he made were durable.
What bin Laden himself had said about Pakistan two years before 9/11 seemed to speak volumes. “Pakistani people have great love for Islam,” he observed in 1998 after the late-summer U.S. missile attack on his camps, in which seven Pakistanis were killed. “And they always have offered sacrifices for the cause of religion.” Later, in another interview, he explained how he himself had managed to avoid the attack. “We found a sympathetic and generous people in Pakistan … receive[d] information from our beloved ones and helpers of jihad.”
Pakistan sees Afghanistan as strategically crucial, not least on account of an issue of which many members of the public in the West have minimal knowledge or none at all. Pakistan and India have fought three wars in the past half-century over Kashmir, a large, disputed territory over which each nation has claims and which each partially controls, and where there is also a homegrown insurgency. Having leverage over Afghanistan, given its geographical position, enabled Pakistan to recruit Afghan and Arab volunteers to join the Kashmir insurgency—and tie down a large part of the Indian army.
The insurgents inserted into Kashmir have been by and large mujahideen, committed to a cause they see as holy. Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, who in 1989 headed the ISI—the Pakistani equivalent of the C.I.A.—himself saw the conflict as jihad. Bin Laden, for his part, made common cause with Gul and, in the years that followed, with like-minded figures in the ISI. Many ISI recruits for the fight in Kashmir were trained in bin Laden camps. He would still be saying, as late as 2000, “Whatever Pakistan does in the matter of Kashmir, we support it.”
So powerful was the ISI in Afghanistan, former U.S. special envoy Peter Tomsen told the 9/11 commission, that the Taliban “actually were the junior partners in an unholy alliance” of ISI, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. As it grew in influence, the ISI liaised closely with Saudi intelligence, and the Saudis reportedly lined the pockets of senior Pakistani officers with cash. The ISI over the years achieved not only military muscle but massive political influence within Pakistan, so much so that some came to characterize it as “the most influential body in Pakistan,” a “shadow government.”
While no hard evidence would emerge that Pakistan had any foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, two days later Washington issued a blunt warning as it prepared to retaliate against the bin Laden organization and its hosts in Afghanistan. It was then—according to ISI director Mahmoud Ahmed, who was visiting Washington at the time—that U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said the U.S. would bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” should it fail to go along with American demands for assistance. (Armitage has denied having used that extreme language.)
The former C.I.A. station chief in Islamabad Robert Grenier recently confirmed that Pakistani cooperation against al-Qaeda did improve vastly after 9/11. The arrests of three of the best-known top al-Qaeda operatives—Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—were, it seems, made by Pakistani intelligence agents and police, in some if not all cases working in collaboration with the C.I.A.
From the time America routed al-Qaeda, however, incoming information indicated that the ISI continued to remain in touch with bin Laden or was aware of his location. ISI officials, Peter Tomsen told the 9/11 commission, were “still visiting [bin Laden] as late as December 2001”—and continued to know his location thereafter. In 2007, Kathleen McFarland, a former senior Defense Department official, spoke of bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan as a fact. “I’m convinced,” military historian Stephen Tanner told CNN in 2010, “that he is protected by the ISI. I just think it’s impossible after all this time to not know where he is.”
Obama had vowed during his campaign for the presidency, “We will kill bin Laden. . . . That has to be our biggest national-security priority.” In office, he made no such public statements. The hunt for bin Laden, meanwhile, seemed to be getting nowhere—and not to be a high priority. Looking back, though, there was a trickle of fresh information that suggested otherwise.
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was asked on Meet the Press in 2010 whether it was now less necessary to capture bin Laden. “I think,” he replied, “capturing or killing Osama bin Laden is still a very, very important task for all of those who are engaged in counterterrorism around the world.”
For those who doubted that bin Laden was still alive, late fall 2010 brought two new bin Laden audio messages. There had been intercepts of al-Qaeda communications, U.S. officials told The New York Times, indicating that he still shaped strategy. Then, within weeks, CNN quoted a “senior NATO official” as saying bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, were believed to be hiding not far from each other in northwestern Pakistan, and not “in a cave.” The same day, the New York Daily News cited a source with “access to all reporting on bin Laden” as having spoken of two “sightings considered credible” in recent years—even “a grainy photo of bin Laden inside a truck.”
The End of bin Laden
Then, at 11:35 p.m. on the night of Sunday, May 1, President Obama appeared on television screens across the globe to say: “Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”
Killed he was, and in Pakistan. It looked to many as though Pakistan had been knowingly harboring him. For the world’s most wanted terrorist had been living—by all accounts for years, comfortably housed and well protected—in not just any Pakistani city, but in the pleasant town of Abbottabad, where many serving and retired military officers live, and within shouting distance of the nation’s most prestigious military academy, the equivalent of America’s West Point. The ISI also has a presence there.
Officials in Washington were scathingly critical when these facts became public. The Pakistanis, C.I.A. director Leon Panetta reportedly told lawmakers, had been either “involved or incompetent.” The president’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, thought it “inconceivable” that bin Laden had not had a “support system” in Abbottabad. On 60 Minutes, Obama himself speculated “whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government [supporting bin Laden], and that’s something we have to investigate, and more importantly the Pakistani government has to investigate.”
Bin Laden had been tracked to Abbottabad, U.S. sources later revealed, thanks to information on his use of couriers to hand-carry messages to his fellow terrorists. Unmentioned were facts about the link between Abbottabad and al-Qaeda that former president Pervez Musharraf had made public in his 2006 memoir. Pakistan’s 2005 capture and transfer to U.S. custody of another very senior bin Laden aide—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libbi—Musharraf had written, had been achieved after a prolonged pursuit by Pakistani investigators. In the course of the hunt, according to Musharraf, the investigators discovered that Libbi used no less than three safe houses—all in Abbottabad. Far from being a place where one would not expect to find a top terrorist hiding, it turns out, Abbottabad has a track record for being exactly that.
A week after the strike against bin Laden, the correspondent for The Guardian in Islamabad reported that a decade ago—after 9/11—President Bush struck a deal with Musharraf: should bin Laden be located inside Pakistan’s borders, the U.S. would be permitted unilaterally to conduct a raid. “There was an agreement,” a former senior U.S. official was quoted as saying, “that if we knew where Osama was, we were going to come and get him. The Pakistanis would put up a hue and cry, but they wouldn’t stop us.” Musharraf has denied that such a deal was made. According to The Guardian, however, an unnamed Pakistani official offered corroboration for the story. “As far as our American friends are concerned,” he said, “they have just implemented the agreement.”
We cannot yet know the full background to how the U.S. tracked down bin Laden. We do have a better sense, a decade on, as to whether powerful players in foreign nations had a hand in 9/11.
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