'A blueprint for how al Qaeda operated inside the U.S.': Declassified document reveals new details of FBI probe into Saudi links to 9/11 hijackers

·Chief Investigative Correspondent
·8-min read

A declassified FBI document opens a revealing new window into the bureau’s investigation of alleged Saudi complicity in the 9/11 terror attacks, raising fresh questions about whether some kingdom officials may have provided support for the al-Qaida terrorists prior to the hijacking of airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The long-suppressed 2016 document was released late Saturday night, hours after the close of ceremonies commemorating the 20th anniversary of the attacks. It reveals for the first time multiple communications between some Saudi government officials and key al-Qaida figures prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

It also contains new evidence that contradicts the claims by a suspected Saudi intelligence agent that a crucial meeting he had in 2000 with two of the 9/11 hijackers at a Los Angeles restaurant was an unplanned encounter that took place only because he happened to hear them speaking Arabic at a nearby table.

“This is proof of what we’ve been alleging for years,” said Brett Eagleson, a spokesman for the families of 9/11 victims who are suing the Saudi government for providing support to the hijackers. “Why has it taken 20 years for the families to get this document?”

The document in question is a 16-page “electronic communication,” dated April 4, 2016, and written by agents involved in Operation Encore, a long-secret FBI probe into the Saudi role in 9/11 whose existence didn't become publicly known until recent years. The probe was officially shut down this year with no new charges against Saudi operatives.

But President Biden, under pressure from the 9/11 families and members of Congress, recently ordered the Justice Department to review the Operation Encore materials and seek to declassify as much as possible. The release of the 2016 FBI report is the first of what is expected to be a number of 9/11 documents that the Trump administration, at the direction of Attorney General William Barr, had previously labeled a “state secret” whose disclosure would harm national security.

The Saudi Embassy in Washington as recently as last week said any allegations that Saudi Arabia was complicit in 9/11 were “categorically false,” adding that the kingdom welcomed the declassification review ordered by Biden. And the 9/11 Commission said in 2004 that it found “no evidence” the Saudi government as an institution financed al-Qaida, downplaying allegations that officials there provided logistical support for the hijackers while they were planning for the attacks in the United States. (A lawyer for the Saudi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.)

The new release does not contain any “smoking gun” that proves Saudi officials had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. But the document offers potentially significant new circumstantial evidence that lawyers for the 9/11 families clearly believe will be a boon to their lawsuit. At a minimum, Eagleson said, it provides grounds for the families’ lawyers to ask a federal judge to reopen depositions in the case, allowing them to confront key witnesses with the newly revealed phone records and interviews. (As a civil case, the families’ lawsuit needs to establish its case for Saudi complicity only by a “preponderance” of the evidence, a lower standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard needed for criminal prosecutions.)

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden participate in a wreath ceremony on the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks at the Pentagon in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Alex Brandon/AP)
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden at a ceremony at the Pentagon on Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (Alex Brandon/AP)

“The document provides a blueprint for how al Qaeda operated inside the US with the active, knowing support of the Saudi government,” lawyers for the families wrote in an analysis for their clients over the weekend that was obtained by Yahoo News. “Saudi officials exchanged phone calls among themselves and with al Qaeda operatives and then had ‘accidental meetings’ with the 9/11 hijackers and provided them with substantial assistance to get settled, find flight schools and become acclimated to life in the U.S.”

Perhaps the most striking new evidence relates to a meeting at a Los Angeles restaurant between Omar Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi intelligence agent with extremist sympathies, and two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. The meeting took place on Feb. 1, 2000 — just two weeks after the future hijackers flew into Los Angeles after attending an al-Qaida planning summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

As the FBI document notes, neither al-Hazmi nor al-Mihdhar could speak or read English and would likely have needed “substantial assistance” merely to ride a city bus.

Bayoumi, a purported business student, was a prime target of the FBI probe. He was described as a “ghost employee” of a Saudi aviation firm who never showed up for work and was strongly suspected of Saudi intelligence ties. According to one bureau source quoted in the declassified report, Bayoumi had a “very high status” at the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles; according to another source, he spoke about the need for the Islamic community in the United States to take action as well as about his own participation in “jihad.”

Detained in the United Kingdom after 9/11, Bayoumi denied radical sympathies and initially told FBI agents and later the 9/11 Commission that he met the hijackers at the Mediterranean Gourmet restaurant on Venice Boulevard purely by chance when he approached them after hearing them speaking Arabic at a nearby table.

Khalid al-Mihdhar (L) and Nawaf al-Hazmi.  (FBI via Reuters)
Khalid al-Mihdhar, left, and Nawaf al-Hazmi. (FBI via Reuters)

Yet the FBI report reveals an interview with an associate who accompanied Bayoumi that day, Caisin Bin Don, who told the FBI’s Operation Encore agents that in fact Bayoumi was waiting for the al-Qaida operatives to arrive all along. Bayoumi “entered the restaurant and positioned himself to be looking out the front window,” Bin Don is quoted as saying. When al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar arrived, Bayoumi approached them and “invited them to his table,” where they spoke for 30 minutes in Arabic.

Bin Don doesn’t speak Arabic, so he was unable to share with the bureau what they talked about. But as the FBI document notes, after the meeting Bayoumi took the al-Qaida operatives in, providing them with “logistic support” that included “translation, travel assistance, lodging and financing. Anomalous money transfers within Bayoumi’s bank accounts coincide with transactions wherein Bayoumi provides assistance” to the hijackers, the report states.

The FBI report also reveals that the restaurant meeting came barely an hour after Bayoumi had a meeting at the nearby Saudi government-funded King Fahad Mosque, whose imam, Fahad al-Thumairy, was an accredited Saudi diplomat. Al-Thumairy was a notorious extremist who, according to newly revealed phone records cited in the FBI document, had multiple contacts with al-Qaida operatives, including several who had been implicated in the so-called millennium plot to blow up Los Angeles airport.

The FBI report reveals that shortly before al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar arrived in the United States after attending the al-Qaida summit in Kuala Lumpur, a phone call from “Malaysia or Indonesia” instructed an individual — whose name remains classified — to “locate Thumairy.” The imam then “tasked” another individual (whose name also remains classified) with assisting al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, describing them as “two very significant people” and instructing that they be brought to the Mediterranean Gourmet restaurant.

The totality of the new evidence shows that the claims that Bayoumi met with the hijackers by chance are “baloney,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who investigated al-Qaida for years and now heads a New York-based national security research firm.

A woman mourns as she visits the 9/11 Memorial on the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, New York, U.S., September 11, 2021.  (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)
A woman at the 9/11 Memorial in New York on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

“This means Bayoumi knows these two individuals were coming and his job was to help them,” said Soufan. “It’s another piece of evidence connecting people who worked for Saudi Arabia to a support network that helped the hijackers. It’s definitely eye-popping."

It is a support network that, the FBI report suggests, was much wider than previously thought and included assistance for the hijackers on the East Coast as the date for the 9/11 attacks approached. While the hijackers were still in San Diego, where Bayoumi had set them up with an apartment, he made five phone calls to another suspected operative, Mutaib al-Sudairy, a Saudi Embassy official who was roommates with a known al-Qaida facilitator who had provided equipment for Osama bin Laden. Sudairy later moved to an address in Falls Church, Va., near where al-Hazmi, al-Mihdhar and another of the hijackers, Hani Hanjour, had established residence.

Yet another Saudi whom Bayoumi was in “almost daily” contact with was Osama Basnan, according to the report. Basnan was another known extremist who had once hosted a party at his house for the so-called blind sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “Multiple sources report Bassnan [sic] expressed enthusiastic support for bin Laden, describing bin Laden as a great authority figure who would change the world for the benefit of Islam,” the report states.

Basnan’s role was first disclosed in a 2002 Newsweek article, which revealed that his wife was receiving regular monthly stipends of $2,000 from the wife of the then Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar. Basnan’s wife then turned over the money to Bayoumi’s wife.

The article reported that Basnan had shown up in Houston in April of that year, when then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah flew there for a meeting with President George W. Bush. While there, Newsweek reported, Basnan met with a high-ranking Saudi prince with responsibilities for intelligence matters and who was known to bring suitcases filled with cash to the United States.

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