Former senior FBI official: Saudis likely played a 'knowing role' in Sept. 11 attacks

Suzanne Smalley
·Reporter
·4 min read

A former senior FBI intelligence official said he believes that Saudi Arabian government officials played at least an indirect role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States — and potentially a “knowing role” — going further than most in law enforcement have traditionally been willing to say in assessing the Saudi regime’s involvement.

“To think that they [Saudi officials] did not play some knowing role or at least some indirect role in 9/11, I think, would be naiveté,” Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, said in an interview on the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast. “It’s safe to say there are unresolved and undisclosed factors touching on Saudi government knowledge and/or involvement in or with the 9/11 hijackers and plotters.”

Figliuzzi’s comments came the day after Yahoo News reported that the FBI in a recent court filing inadvertently disclosed the name of a former Saudi embassy official who agents had suspected of directing support to two of the 9/11 hijackers who were living in Southern California.

The disclosure has revived questions about the FBI’s investigation into what Saudi officials might have known about the hijackers inside the United States — evidence that the Trump administration has asserted is a “state secret” the disclosure of which could harm national security.

“I don't think the public has had the benefit of understanding the full linkages there,” said Figliuzzi, who served in the assistant director for counterintelligence role between 2010 to 2012. “The Saudi government is a force to be reckoned with in regard to their linkages to radical violent extremism, their funding of operations within the United States to include radical Muslim clerics ... their funding of madrassas or Muslim schools and even clerics that expound radicalism and extremism.”

Figliuzzi said the Saudi regime continues to fund extremist clerics, and called members of the Saudi intelligence service “stone cold killers,” pointing to the killing of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi.

Despite Saudi denials about the kingdom’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks, questions about a possible link have swirled for years. Fifteen of 19 hijackers killed on Sept. 11 were Saudi nationals; many in law enforcement have long suspected the Saudis knew more than they let on about the plot. Osama bin Laden, the now deceased longtime head of al-Qaida, is from a prominent Saudi family with major construction interests and strong ties to the regime.

The new disclosure about the possible role of a Saudi Embassy official emerged in a federal court filing by Jill Sanborn, the bureau’s current assistant director of the counterterrorism division, in response to a lawsuit brought by families of 9/11 victims that accuses the Saudi government of complicity in the terrorist attacks.

FBI seal
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, AP

The declaration was filed weeks ago but was only unsealed late last week and was intended to support an earlier filing by Attorney General William Barr in which he declared the Saudi evidence a “state secret.” Sanborn’s 40-page-declaration argued that revealing the FBI evidence about the Saudis would compromise U.S. intelligence sources and methods and cast a chill on the willingness of foreign governments to share information. Throughout the declaration, the name of the Saudi embassy official was blacked out, except in one instance. A senior U.S. government official confirmed that the inclusion of the name was an error, and after Yahoo News called the Justice Department for comment, Sanborn’s filing was removed from the public record.

It remains unclear just how strong the evidence is against the former Saudi Embassy official. A spokesman for the 9/11 families called the disclosure a major breakthrough in their lawsuit, describing it as the first official confirmation that agents suspected a link between the hijackers and an accredited Saudi diplomat.

Figliuzzi said he isn’t surprised by the accidental disclosure of the embassy official’s name. But he said he is concerned that the disclosure will be seized upon and twisted by conspiracy theorists.

“I can already hear the deep state conspiracy lunatics saying that, ‘Here goes the FBI trying to mess with Trump’s relationship with Saudi. They did this deliberately,’” Figliuzzi, a frequent critic of the president, said of the inadvertent release of the official’s name in court filings. “But I can tell you this, if there’s evidence of Saudi official involvement, under a normal administration, which we are far from right now, you would, of course, see legal action taken against this official if the evidence was there.”

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News

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