20 years after 9/11, lawsuit against Saudis reaches milestone

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WASHINGTON (AP) – As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaches, relatives of the victims are lobbying the courts to respond to what they see as lingering questions about the Saudi government’s role in the attacks.

A trial that accuses Saudi Arabia of being an accomplice has taken a big step forward this year with the sworn interrogation of former Saudi officials, but those depositions remain under seal and the United States has withheld a mine of other documents as too sensitive to release. The information vacuum infuriated families who for years tried to argue that the Saudi government facilitated the attacks. Previous investigations have highlighted links between Saudi nationals and some of the hijackers, but have not established that the government was directly involved.

“The legal team and the FBI, the investigative agencies, may know the details of the deaths of my father and thousands of other family members, but the people for whom it is most important not to know, “said Brett Eagleson, whose father, Bruce, was among the World Trade Center casualties. “It’s adding salt to an open sore for everyone in the 9/11 family.”

Lawyers for the victims plan to ask a judge to lift a protection order so their clients can access secret government documents as well as testimony from key subjects interviewed over the past year. While lawyers for the plaintiffs are unable to discuss what they have learned from the depositions, they insist that the information they have gathered advances their premise of Saudi complicity.

“We are in a situation where only now, thanks to the documents that we have obtained and what our investigators have discovered and the testimonies that we have collected, it is only now that this iceberg has been under water.” floats on the surface, lawyer James Kreindler said.

The Saudi government has denied any connection to the attacks. But the issue has long upset investigators and is at the heart of a long-running Manhattan trial on behalf of thousands of victims. The problem escalated not only because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi – as was Osama bin Laden, the mastermind – but also because of the suspicion that they should have had help navigating. in Western society given their minimal experience in the United States.

Public documents published over the past two decades, including by the 9/11 Commission, detailed numerous Saudi entanglements but failed to prove government complicity.

They show how the first hijackers to arrive in the United States, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, were greeted and helped by a Saudi national in 2000. This man, Omar al-Bayoumi, who helped them to find and rent an apartment in San Diego, had ties to the Saudi government and had drawn the attention of the FBI, investigators said. Among Bayoumi’s contacts was Fahad al-Thumairy, at the time a diplomat accredited to the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles who, according to investigators, led an extremist faction in his mosque. Bayoumi and Thumairy left the United States a few weeks before the attacks.

The September 11 Commission, which compiled the most important accounts of the period preceding the attacks, detailed these connections but found Bayoumi an “unlikely candidate for clandestine involvement” with Islamic extremists. He said it made sense to view Thumairy as a possible contact for the hijackers, but investigators found no evidence that he actually helped them. He denied it.

More generally, the commission said in 2004 that it found no evidence that the Saudi government or senior Saudi officials funded al-Qaida, although it noted that Saudi-linked charities reportedly could divert money to the group.

In 2016, the last chapter of a Congress report on the attacks has been declassified. The document named people who knew the hijackers after they arrived in the United States and helped them secure apartments, open bank accounts and connect with mosques. He said some of the hijackers had ties to and received support from people who could be linked to the Saudi government. The document says information from FBI sources suggests that at least two people who aided the hijackers could be Saudi intelligence agents.

But he failed to come to a conclusion on the complicity, saying that it was possible that the interactions could reveal evidence of the Saudi government’s support for terrorism, but that there were also perhaps more innocuous explanations for associations.

The FBI conducted its own investigation, Operation Encore, with some agents establishing a closer connection.

A former agent, Stephen Moore, said in a 2017 statement that al-Qaida would not have sent Hazmi and Mihdhar to the United States “without a support structure in place.” He said the FBI believed Bayoumi was an “underground agent” and that Thumairy knew the hijackers “were on a complex pre-planned mission.” He said he concluded that Saudi diplomatic and intelligence personnel knowingly supported two of the hijackers.

Families of 9/11 victims hope to prove similar allegations. They believe the full story has not been revealed due to the US government’s reluctance to full accounting. Any new evidence they could reveal could be politically explosive given Saudi Arabia’s role as a partner in the Middle East.

A spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not return a message seeking comment. Saudi government lawyers declined to comment.

Andrew Maloney, another of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said that in addition to getting compensation for the families, they hope Saudi Arabia will accept responsibility and commit to eradicating terrorism.

“If they did these three things it would be a huge victory,” he said.

The lawsuit gained momentum with a 2018 judge ruling allowing plaintiffs’ lawyers to conduct a limited investigation to establish the facts.

Bayoumi and Thumairy have been questioned in recent weeks, as have Musaed al Jarrah, a former Saudi embassy official whose name, according to Yahoo News, was inadvertently revealed in an FBI file last year suggesting he was believed to have supported the hijackers.

The Department of Justice, meanwhile, handed the lawyers documents that were once secret but under a protection order. Some information remains entirely withheld after the ministry invoked a “state secrets” privilege to block items deemed potentially threatening to national security.

“Sooner or later this lawsuit is going to become mainstream, and there is going to be tremendous pressure from the public, and they can’t keep it a secret forever,” Eagleson said.

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