When two of the Sept. 11 hijackers moved to San Diego in February 2000, they found a friend in fellow Saudi national Omar al Bayoumi.
Bayoumi, suspected by the FBI of being a Saudi intelligence officer, let his two compatriots crash at his apartment, co-signed the lease when they moved into their own flat and paid the security deposit on it. Bayoumi threw a welcome party for them, then introduced them to an associate who helped them get driver licenses – and search for flight schools.
That web of tantalizing relationships is described in a long-withheld 28-page section of what was the first U.S. report on the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The section was declared classified for national security reasons and withheld when the original report was released in June 2003.
On Friday, Congress finally released it after years of pressure from relatives of some of the almost 3,000 people killed on that tragic day.
What that suppressed chapter spelled out was a series of possible links between the hijackers and Saudi officials that the congressional investigators said believed deserved more attention.
It also described what the investigators said was an “unacceptable” lack of awareness by both the CIA and the FBI on Saudi activities inside the United States. It blamed that lack of awareness on the FBI’s part prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on “Saudi Arabia’s status as an American ‘ally.’ ”
“Only recently, and at least in part due to the Joint Inquiry’s focus on this issue, did the FBI and CIA establish a working group to address the Saudi issue,” the investigators wrote. “The Intelligence Community needs to address this area of concern as aggressively and as quickly as possible.”
Sen. Bob Graham, a Miami Lakes Democrat who chaired the inquiry as the then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a long proponent of the release of the 28 pages, welcomed their release. But he said the FBI continues to hold back the results of its investigations of 9/11 hijackers who lived in and around Sarasota, Florida.
“This (newly released chapter) will accelerate the time when we have the full facts of what happened before and on 9/11,” the former Florida governor told McClatchy “It will give us more information to form a judgment as to who our friends are and who are enemies are.”
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers, all of whom died in the attacks, were Saudis who’d lived in Florida, California, Virginia and New Jersey before carrying out the terrorist plot.
Most of the newly released section focuses on three Saudi hijackers and two alleged Saudi officials who lived in San Diego.
Bayoumi, the suspected intelligence officer, was on the payroll of a company backed by the Saudi government, according to the newly released section. Even though he never showed up for work, he drew a salary and received a raise around the time that two of the future hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, arrived in California.
The FBI believed that Bayoumi had “extensive ties to the Saudi government,” at one point receiving $20,000 from the Finance Ministry in Riyadh, the report found.
A second suspected Saudi official, Osama Bassman, was a friend of Bayoumi. Bassman had “many ties to the Saudi government,” and he got money and possibly a fake passport from Saudi officials, the newly released section said.
Al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, whose government later exiled him for fomenting radical Islamic activities.
Bassman and his wife received financial support from the Saudi ambassador to the United States, including “a significant amount of cash” from a member of the Saudi royal family during a trip to Houston in 2002.
Bassman, who other Muslims told the FBI might also be a Saudi intelligence agent, lived across the street from the two hijackers and boasted to an FBI undercover agent that he’d done more than Bayoumi to help them, according to the newly released document.
The FBI considered Bassman an Islamic extremist who’d shown support for al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and other high-profile militants.
There is, however, no “smoking gun” in the 28 pages tying the hijackers directly to the Saudi government. Instead, the section urged more thorough investigation, while pointing out that the information it contained had been gleaned from FBI and CIA files.
Saudi Arabia, in a preemptive rebuttal of the release, said it was absurd to accuse the kingdom of links to terrorism when it has suffered dozens of major terror attacks in recent decades and has rounded up hundreds of suspects and taken other measures to condemn extremist violence and shut down 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 statement, distributed by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said.
“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,” it said.
Saudi Arabia said there’s “zero evidence” to support those links.
Despite its shortcomings, Graham said the newly released section places heavy suspicion on at least some elements of the Saudi government.
“There’s a tremendous amount of hard information in there about connections between Saudis, including some in the Saudi royal family, and the 9/11 hijackers,” Graham told McClatchy. “There are other areas that call for further investigation.”
15 The number of 9/11 hijackers, among 19 in all, who were Saudi nationals
After Congress released the missing section, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper distributed a statement Friday noting that the joint probe, by its own admission, had not found definitive links between the Saudi government and the 9/11 plot.
The statement from Clapper’s office said: “The (Joint) Committee itself highlighted that it ‘has made no final determinations as to the reliability or sufficiency of the information regarding these issues . . . [and that 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 such alleged support to the hijackers’ ”
Why the 28 pages were suppressed has never been fully explained. Officials have said in the past that they did not want to besmirch the Saudi government, a longtime ally, with unfounded gossip. A broader inquiry found no direct, high-level link between Saudi Arabia and the 19 hijackers, they’ve said.
But an official report raising questions about a Saudi role in the 9/11 hijackings would have also come at an uncomfortable time for the Bush administration, which had only three months earlier invaded Iraq, claiming, among other things, that Saddam Hussein had worked with terrorists.
In the newly released section, investigators said they were “particularly concerned about the serious nature of allegations” of financial connections among some of the hijackers, Saudi government officials and members of the Saudi royal family.
For more than a decade, lawmakers and activists have pushed for the release of the pages; even the Saudis advocated for their release so as to end the speculation.
Family members of 9/11 victims have been eager to see the documents, hoping for a smoking gun to bolster a joint lawsuit against the Saudi government that argues officials provided financial support to al Qaida.
Congress has tried to help the families sue Saudi Arabia by introducing the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act which, if passed, would limit the sovereign immunity of other nations and clear the way for lawsuits. Saudi officials have warned that they’d sell off billions of dollars in U.S. assets if the proposal becomes law.
Bill Doyle, who lost his son in the Sept. 11 attacks, expressed mixed feelings about the Saudi section’s release after so long.
“We’ve moved at a snail’s pace,” he told McClatchy. Now, he said, “people’s eyes will be opened.”
At the same time, Doyle criticized the government.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that our U.S. government for 15 years has been protecting a foreign government and individuals who work for that government,” he said.
Interest in the pages has been heightened since a CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired a report on them in April. The House Intelligence Committee, which oversees access, had received 72 requests from members of Congress to read the pages during the current legislative session, which began in January 2015. That’s nearly triple the requests made in 2013 and 2014, according to a report in The Hill newspaper.
Obama administration officials had tried to blunt the importance of the pages since the “60 Minutes” report, with CIA Director John Brennan, who was once the agency’s station chief in Saudi Arabia, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the unvetted information could lead to a “very, very inaccurate” conclusion about a Saudi connection to the 9/11 attacks.
Ahead of the release, Saudi Arabia also launched a public relations blitz to ensure that journalists, lawmakers and researchers had their side of the story, offering detailed refutations of the most contentious claims.
Hannah Allam: 202-383--6186; Twitter: @HannahAllam
James Rosen: 202-383-6157; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose