Was Saudi Arabia involved?


By Paul Church

At 9:37 Eastern Daylight Time on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing all 59 passengers and 125 others in the building. News of the crash went global within minutes; yet another symbol of American power was ablaze. For the few still struggling to believe that the United States was under attack, doubt evaporated like the bodies of the many dead.

Conspiracists have puzzled for a decade over the failure to intercept the aircraft - or indeed, take even the elementary step of phoning the Pentagon to warn them of the approach. But only recently has wider attention been paid to the failure of the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) Bin Laden unit to tell anyone that "muscle" hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were in the country.

The chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Keane, is now on record [1] as calling this "one of the most troubling aspects of our entire report". How is it that, despite having known for several months about al-Midhar and al-Hazmi, nobody at Alec Station saw fit to mention them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the counter-terrorism policy board in Washington, Immigration or the Defense Department?

The Bin Laden Issue Station - codenamed Alec by insiders such as US Army Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer - was the CIA unit dedicated to reporting on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and militants in Afghanistan. It was this unit that had called on authorities in Malaysia to monitor the Kuala Lumpur "terror summit" at which plans for 9/11 were probably finalized. Both al-Midhar and al-Hazmi were at that meeting.

Accounts differ as to exactly when the CIA became aware of the hijackers' presence in America. But specific orders were issued not to share the information: Doug Miller, an FBI agent loaned to the Bin Laden unit, was among those who received the instructions. In his book Pretext for War, author James Bamford quotes another FBI agent loaned to Alec: "[T]hey didn't want the bureau meddling in their business - that's why they didn't tell ... that's why September 11 happened."

Author Lawrence Wright has speculated that, so desperate was the CIA to get a source inside al-Qaeda, the agency shielded the aspiring terrorists while it tried to recruit them. In his book The Looming Tower, Wright also suggests a more serious possibility: lacking any domestic jurisdiction, the agency colluded with Saudi Arabian intelligence to keep their own fingerprints off events. According to Wright, this was the view of a team of FBI investigators known as Squad I-49.

In an interview for the documentary Who Is Richard Blee?, former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke was another insider to hint at possible Saudi involvement. Sensationally, Clarke also accused Central Intelligence Department head George Tenet of personally withholding evidence from Washington.

Filmmakers John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski managed to identify two key analysts involved in burying the evidence. Despite legal threats from the agency [2], the film is now available as a podcast.

Backtrack to January 2001: Prince Bandar bin Sultan is head of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Bandar was the man at the center of the al-Yammah arms deal, a corruption scandal involving the exchange of arms for crude oil with Britain. A White House insider since he arrived in Washington nearly two decades before, Bandar's close ties with the Bush family are common knowledge. Less widely known is that in January 2001, the Saudi Prince sat with vice president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers discussing US strategy for the invasion of Iraq.

In his book Plan of Attack, investigative journalist Bob Woodward claimed that when Bandar was handed a map labeled "Top Secret Noforn" in the vice president's office, not even the secretary of state had been informed that his country would be at war. Colin Powell has denied this, but the incident serves to illustrate the prince's extraordinary access to the inner workings of government.

All the more shocking, then, that between 1998 and 2002, up to US$73,000 in cashier cheques was funneled by Bandar, via his wife Haifa - who once described the elder Bushes as like "my mother and father" - to two Californian families known to have bankrolled al-Midhar and al-Hazmi. The very same would-be terrorists protected by the CIA.

Princess Haifa sent regular monthly payments of between $2,000 and $3,500 to Majeda Dweikat, wife of Osama Basnan, believed by various investigators to be a spy for the Saudi government. Many of the cheques were signed over to Manal Bajadr, wife of Omar al-Bayoumi, himself suspected of covertly working for the kingdom.

The Basnans, the al-Bayoumis and the two 9/11 hijackers once shared the same apartment block in San Diego. It was al-Bayoumi who greeted the killers when they first arrived in America, and provided them, among other assistance, with an apartment and social security cards. He even helped the men enroll at flight schools in Florida.

When al-Bayoumi moved to England just days before the attacks, his apartment was raided by Scotland Yard. Beneath the floorboards were discovered the phone numbers of several officials at the Saudi Embassy.

Bandar and his wife deny any links to terrorism, but both former co-chairs of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby and Bob Graham, think otherwise. They claim the FBI refused to allow the committee to interview investigators who had followed the money from the embassy. Other sources allege that the 9/11 Commission similarly failed to fully investigate leads, partly because commissioner Phillip Zelikow removed or relegated to footnotes any findings which cast doubt on the Saudis. A 28-page section of the report exploring possible foreign government involvement remains classified.

Then there is the suppressed testimony of Special Agent Steven Butler, described by officials familiar with his account as "explosive". [3] Butler had been monitoring a flow of Saudi money to the would-be hijackers. After he testified, staff director for the 9/11 Committee Eleanor Hill sent a memo to the Justice Department detailing Butler's allegations. When reporters quizzed the Justice Department about the content of Butler's testimony, they were told it was classified.

If possible Saudi Arabian involvement in 9/11 raised eyebrows at the Justice Department, what would they have made of mysterious but little publicized meetings between the Saudi ambassador and George Tenet? In his book State of War, author James Risen recounts how Tenet "set the tone for the CIA's Saudi relationship by relying heavily on developing close relationships with top Saudi officials, including Prince Bandar bin Sultan ..."

Around once a month, Tenet would slip away to Bandar's estate in McLean, Virginia, for talks so secretive he refused to tell officers working under him what they were discussing. Colleagues would complain that it was difficult for them to tell what deals were being made with the Saudis. Were al-Midhar or al-Hazmi ever mentioned?

"Bandar and Tenet had a very close relationship," confirmed one CIA officer.

The frantic rush to get Saudi Arabian nationals - including members of the Bin Laden family - out of America in the days after the 2001 attacks led to public outrage, and was featured in Michael Moore's seminal but flawed documentary, Fahrenheit 911. Less was made of a return trip by Crown Prince Abdullah, then de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, in 2002. The Crown Prince, Prince Saud al-Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan were scheduled to meet president George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice at the president's ranch in Texas.

No fewer than eight airliners arrived from Saudi Arabia, and as the planes landed, US intelligence learned that two members of the royal entourage were on a terrorist watchlist. The next day, Osama Basnan reported his passport stolen to Houston police - proving he was in Texas the same day as the crown prince. Were the wanted men on the planes Basnan and al-Bayoumi?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI planned to "storm the plane and pull those guys off" until, evidently fearing an international incident, the State Department intervened.

1. Insiders voice doubts about CIA's 9/11 story Salon, October 14, 2011.
2. See CIA's Maneuver: A Case of Bluffing? Buying Time? Or Something More? September 13, 2011.
3. The road to Riyadh US News, November 29, 2002.