Law Review: City firm keeps making case against Saudis and 9/11

Chris Mondics, Inquirer Staff Writer
Last updated: Wednesday, October 1, 2014, 1:08 AM
Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2014, 8:44 PM

Was it all merely a coincidence?

One of the most salient and disturbing facts to emerge within hours of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was that 15 of the 19 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia.

Without once mentioning Saudi Arabia, President Obama spoke at length last Wednesday before the United Nations about the need to crack down on extremist ideologies emanating from the Middle East.

But 13 years after the attacks, evidence continues to point not only to the involvement of Saudi extremists and terrorism financiers in the 9/11 attacks, but also perhaps to elements of the Saudi government itself.

This point is made chillingly clear in a new filing by Center City lawyers suing the government of Saudi Arabia for the attacks on behalf of the victims, insurers, and others who suffered grievous losses that day.

The lawsuit by Cozen O'Connor has been discounted repeatedly by the Saudis' American lawyers, and by U.S. officials who have sought to quash it or otherwise frustrate efforts by the plaintiffs' lawyers. For years, the administrations of President George W. Bush and Obama have blocked release of a report by Congress that details evidence of involvement in the plot by Saudi government employees.

But the Cozen lawsuit and the latest filing two weeks ago, based on newly acquired information through discovery and Freedom of Information Act requests, are unlikely to go away.

In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan reinstated Saudi Arabia, a country where convicted criminals are beheaded and women have no right to vote or drive, as a defendant after it had been removed by a trial judge. A trial is beginning to seem more likely in federal district court in Manhattan, which is overseeing the Cozen claim and several other lawsuits seeking compensation for the attacks.

The heart of the new filing, essentially an amended complaint reflecting Saudi Arabia's reinstatement, is the argument that the Saudi royal family, in a bid to retain power, ceded ever greater authority to radical clerics in the early 1980s.

That strategy followed an armed revolt by religious fanatics who briefly took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. The attack made clear that the royal family was on thin ice. To compensate, the family gave fundamentalists broad access to government ministries, Islamist charities, and diplomatic missions, enabling them to spread a virulent form of Islam.

One of those diplomatic missions was the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, where the complaint alleges that a cell of al-Qaeda operatives made preparations for the 9/11 attacks. At the center of this group was a Saudi government employee named Omar al-Bayoumi, who helped two of the hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, get settled in Southern California after they arrived there in early 2000.

Bayoumi claimed after the World Trade Center attacks that his meeting the hijackers was coincidental. But it is one of a chain of events that appear too improbable to be random.

The key facts unfold on the morning of Feb. 1, 2000, when Bayoumi says he traveled from his home in San Diego to the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles to meet with an official of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs named Fahad al-Thumairy.

A few hours later, Bayoumi claims to have met Hazmi and Mihdhar by chance at a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant. Three days later, Bayoumi offered to resettle Hazmi and Mihdhar in San Diego, where he helped them find an apartment and open a bank account.

That same day, Bayoumi made four phone calls to Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda recruiter and operative, whose radical preaching had served as inspiration for Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, according to an FBI memorandum acquired by the Cozen firm.

Awlaki's inglorious career as a top-level terrorist ended on Sept. 30, 2011, when he was killed in a strike by two U.S. Predator drones in Yemen. Bayoumi had earlier returned to Saudi Arabia. Former Sen. Bob Graham (D., Fla.), the cochair of the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an affidavit filed in the Cozen lawsuit that Bayoumi likely was a Saudi agent and that both he and Thumairy, who was banned from the United States by the State Department in 2003, were working with the hijackers.

"Just as a matter of coincidence, you would have less of a chance running into that many people with links to terrorism in Afghanistan on Sept. 10, 2001," said Sean Carter, the lead Cozen litigator on the case.

A similar scenario played out at the Saudi embassy in Berlin, where a diplomat with alleged terrorist ties to Mohammed Fakihi was spotted meeting with 9/11 leader Mohamed Atta and other members of his hijacking team in advance of the attacks, according to the complaint. Fakihi later left the country after German authorities raised questions about his links to terrorist groups.

The Cozen filing makes clear that there is a lot that the American public doesn't yet know about the 9/11 attacks.

Maybe the most important unanswered question is: Will the U.S. and Saudi governments ever fill in the blanks?