Former Saudi officials to be questioned about alleged links to 9/11 attackers

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Heesoon Yim/AP</span>
Photograph: Heesoon Yim/AP

Former Saudi officials will be questioned about their alleged links to the 9/11 attacks in court depositions this month by lawyers acting for families of the victims, who view it as a breakthrough in efforts to prove a link between Riyadh and the hijackers.

The families are seeking to prove that Saudi nationals helped support two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, in southern California in the months leading up to the attacks – and that support was coordinated by a diplomat in the Saudi embassy in Washington.

The contents of this month’s depositions are being kept secret, but as the 20th anniversary of the attacks approaches, the families are mounting a renewed push to to make the US government remove the gag on evidence in the court case against Riyadh and release the results of an investigation, codenamed Operation Encore, into Saudi complicity in the attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals.

Related: Saudi officials were 'supporting' 9/11 hijackers, commission member says

The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment, but has denied any role in the attacks.

The three Saudis questioned are Omar al-Bayoumi, Fahad al Thumairy and Musaed al-Jarrah.

Bayoumi is a former civil servant working in civil aviation who was officially a student in California. The lawsuit alleges he was acting as a Saudi agent in 2000 and 2001, receiving large stipends from the Saudi government for “ghost jobs” that he did not perform. Soon after the attacks he moved to the UK, where he was questioned by British police on behalf of the FBI.

Bayoumi claimed he had only a passing acquaintance with Mihdhar and Hazmi, who were part of the team that flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The lawsuit before the federal court in the southern district of New York alleges he spent significant amounts of time with them. The US authorities revoked his visa after the 9/11 attacks, on grounds of “quasi-terrorist activities”.

Thumairy was a Saudi consular official in Los Angeles and the imam of the King Fahad mosque there. Bayoumi is said to have visited him before meeting Mihdhar and Hazmi. Thumairy has claimed never to have met the hijackers but witnesses told FBI agents that they had seen him in their company. After the 9/11 attacks, his diplomatic visa was withdrawn on suspicion he could be linked to terrorist activity.

Jarrah’s identity was not publicly known until May 2020 when the FBI deputy director, Jill Sanborn, accidentally disclosed it in a court filing. The name had been redacted out of the text except in one paragraph, where it was spotted by the Yahoo investigative reporter Michael Isikoff.

Jarrah was a mid-level diplomat at the Washington embassy in 1999 and 2000, overseeing Islamic affairs ministry employees at mosques and cultural centres around the US.

It is unclear how strong the evidence is linking Jarrah with Bayoumi and Thumairy, but Sanborn’s declaration appeared to confirm he had been under FBI investigation.

Bayoumi was questioned from 9 to 11 June. Jarrah’s deposition took place last week, and Thumairy’s will be carried out next week. All the depositions are being performed via Zoom, by the families’ legal team, who are not allowed to share the results with their clients.

Brett Eagleson, who was 15 when his father, Bruce, was killed in New York’s Twin Towers, said the depositions represent a crucial moment in the families’ long legal case against the Saudi government, as he believes it will expose the inconsistencies in official Saudi accounts.

“These depositions are a major part of the lawsuit, and it’s questions that our government never answered and our government never addressed with these individuals,” Eagleson told the Guardian.

“I think what’s most significant here is that the 19 hijackers came to the United States, with no knowledge of our culture, with no knowledge of English, with no money and no idea how to fly a plane,” Eagleson said. “It’s been told to me by former intelligence officials that, were it not for the Saudi support network that was in place and established here prior to 9/11, these individuals wouldn’t even know how to find the way out of the airport.”

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