by Thomas W. Lippman
From the perspective of the Saudi Arabian government, no news was really good news. The long-withheld 28 pages of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, released on Friday, provided scant evidence, and no incontrovertible proof, of government responsibility or involvement. Saudi officials celebrated as if their country had just been acquitted of a crime, as in a sense it had.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia welcomes the release of the redacted pages from the 2002 Congressional Joint Inquiry,” Ambassador Abdullah bin Faisal said in a statement. “Since 2002, the 9/11 Commission and several government agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, have investigated the contents of the ‘28 pages’ and have confirmed that neither the Saudi government, nor senior Saudi officials, nor any person acting on behalf of the Saudi government, provided any support or encouragement for these attacks.”
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia cannot respond to blank pages,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference in Washington. Noting that Saudi Arabia had long sought release of the 28 pages to validate its assertions that the government was in no way responsible for 9/11, he said that “the matter is now finished,” adding his hope that “the aspersions that have been cast on Saudi Arabia for the last 14 years” will end.
They won’t end, of course. The fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi by birth is etched in the American national consciousness, like Pearl Harbor. Families of 9/11 victims who are trying to sue the Saudi government in New York are unlikely to back off because of the release of the document, and Saudi Arabia’s many vocal critics in Congress are unlikely to relent. As with so many other issues in American public life today, those who hold firmly to some conviction are usually not persuadable by facts, as the “Obama is a Muslim” crowd has demonstrated.
As the Saudi ambassador said, multiple inquiries into the 9/11 attacks, including the extensive report of the official 9/11 commission, have found no direct involvement of the Saudi government or senior Saudi officials. But even the official “Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” while it absolved the Saudi government of allegations that it financed the hijackers, noted that al-Qaeda “found fertile fund-raising ground in Saudi Arabia, where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was both essential to the culture and subject to very limited oversight.” As recently as 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a diplomatic message to Middle East posts that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
The congressional staff members who wrote the 28 pages made clear that they were offering clues and raising questions that merited further investigation, not reaching conclusions. The key paragraph says,
It should be clear that this joint inquiry has made no final determination as to the reliability or sufficiency of the information regarding these issues that we found contained in FBI and CIA documents. It was not the task of this joint inquiry to conduct the kind of extensive investigation that would be required to determine the true significance of any such alleged connections to the Saudi Government. On the one hand, it is possible that these kinds of connections could suggest, as one document did, “‘incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists within the Saudi Government.” On the other hand, it is also possible that further investigation of these allegations could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanation for these associations.
As that passage suggests, it is easy to find flaws with the assessments and preliminary analyses, and with specific facts, in the 28 pages. For example, the document makes reference to “Saudi Crown Prince Abdul Aziz.” Saudi Arabia has never had a crown prince by that name. And it makes much of payments made by check from some Saudi officials and diplomats to suspect characters, but it notes elsewhere that money delivered for nefarious purposes was in the form of cash, not easily traceable checks. It is replete with phrases such as “it is alleged by some,” without substantiation.
Moreover, the declassified pages present little new information and introduce few names that were not already known publicly and much discussed. But in some ways the document resembles the July 5 statement by FBI Director James B. Comey saying that the agency did not recommend prosecution of Hillary Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state. Comey did not exactly exonerate Clinton. He said that she and her staff were “reckless” and that their actions may have compromised national security, but there was not enough evidence of criminal intent to justify an indictment. The 28 pages offer multiple points on which the Saudi government could have been more vigilant, more careful about whom it sent to the United States, and more willing to recognize the consequences of the ideology they had spread around the Muslim world. The Riyadh regime emerges as not guilty in a legal sense, but as at least somewhat culpable in a political and organizational sense.
In particular, the document strongly suggests that the Riyadh government failed, deliberately or otherwise, to scrutinize connections between Saudi citizens it was supporting in the United States and Osama bin Laden.
And the document notes that the Saudis were, at least initially, reluctant to cooperate with U.S. investigators. “A number of FBI agents and CIA officers complained to this Joint Inquiry about a lack of Saudi cooperation in terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks. For example, a veteran New York FBI agent stated that from his point of view the Saudis have been useless and obstructionist for years,” the redacted report says.
By now that is no longer news. Saudi reluctance to scrutinize their own society or let U.S. investigators do so is so well known that it was the subject of the 2007 Jamie Foxx movie, The Kingdom, which one cable TV channel helpfully showed the night the 28 pages were declassified.
The 28 pages are is devoid of the social context that was later well recognized by the 9/11 commission. In reporting that Person A had lunch with Person B or went to a party with Person C, the commission fails to take into account that expatriates everywhere tend to congregate with people of the same background, regardless of their political ideas. Americans do it, as in Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Greeks do it, Russians do it, and Arabs do it, too.
For example, the document says that
FBI files suggest that Bayoumi provided substantial assistance to hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi after they arrived in San Diego in February 2000. Al-Bayoumi met the hijackers at a public place shortly after his meeting with an individual at the Saudi consulate and there are indications in the files that his encounter with the hijackers may not have been accidental.
The 9/11 Commission report, issued nearly two years later after countless hours of interviews and investigations, presents this episode in a much more benign light. It says that Omar al-Bayoumi and a man named Caysan bin Don met the two future hijackers in Los Angeles before, not after, their arrival in San Diego. Bayoumi and bin Don drove from San Diego to Los Angeles “so that Bayoumi could address a visa issue and collect some papers from the Saudi Consulate.” They went to lunch at a halal restaurant, where “Bayoumi heard Hazmi and Mihdhar speaking in public what he recognized to be Gulf Arabic and struck up a conversation.” When the two future hijackers said that they “did not like Los Angeles and were having a hard time, especially because they did not know anyone, Bayoumi told them how pleasant San Diego was and offered to help them settle there. The two pairs then left the restaurant and went their separate ways.”
Investigators for the 9-11 Commission interviewed Bayoumi about that lunch “many times,” the report said. They found him to be “a devout Muslim, obliging and gregarious,” and thus naturally inclined to help two young men from his home country. “He did work for the Saudi Civil Aviation Authority for over 20 years,” a direct link to the Saudi government, they reported, but “We have seen no credible evidence that he believed in violent extremism or knowingly aided extremist groups. Our investigators who have dealt directly with him and studied his background find him to be an unlikely candidate for clandestine involvement with Islamic extremists.” The commission did not directly address statements in the 28 pages that Bayoumi’s government stipend as a student in the United States increased substantially after he met Hazmi and Mihdhar, or an FBI report that Bayoumi “is providing guidance to young Muslims and some of his writings can be interpreted as jihadist.”
On the day the 28 pages were released, Saudi Arabia’s public relations agency in Washington re-issued a document from May titled “Data and detailed refutation of accusations that the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States,” which declares that
Saudi Arabia has endured dozens of major terror attacks against our citizens and servicemen over the last ten years and a surge of attacks by Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIL) against us over the past two years. In response, the government has rounded up hundreds of terror suspects, our top clerics have unleashed a torrent of public condemnation of extremist violence, we have installed electronic surveillance systems in our mosques and closed independent money-transfer networks. Yet despite these and many other profound changes, our government and our people are still subjects of speculation, accusation and conspiracy thinking about the 9/11 attack. The Kingdom has been convicted in a rump court of public opinion despite more than a decade of investigation that has produced no evidence to support such charges.
All that is true, but there remains the question of Saudi Arabia’s propagation of its xenophobic, uncompromising brand of Islam. Ever since radical Sunni Muslim extremists attacked the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979, Saudi Arabia has spent uncounted billions to spread those teachings around the world. The ideology is fundamental to Saudi society and government. A wave of terrorist bombings in Riyadh in 2003 showed the Saudis the potential for blowback from their own ideology and teachings, and they have labored to control it. But they are the ones who let that genie out of the bottle.
Photo courtesy of 9/11 Photos via Flickr.