On the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a federal judge directed the Saudi Arabian government to make as many as 24 current and former officials available for depositions about their possible knowledge of events leading up to the airplane attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which killed almost 3,000 Americans. Those officials include Prince Bandar, the former ambassador to the United States, and his longtime chief of staff.
The order was immediately hailed by families of the 9/11 victims as a milestone in their years-long effort to prove that some Saudi officials were either complicit in the attacks or aware of the kingdom’s support for some of the hijackers in the months before they hijacked four American airliners and crashed three of them into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.
A fourth plane, whose presumed target was the U.S. Capitol, was commandeered by passengers and crashed in Shanksville, Pa., where President Trump and possibly Joe Biden are expected at memorial ceremonies Friday .
“This is a game changer,” Brett Eagleson, whose father was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Towers and who serves as a spokesman for the families, said of the ruling by Federal Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn in New York. “This is the most significant ruling we’ve had to date in this lawsuit. And to have this on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, you couldn’t script this any better. The families are elated.”
The effect of the ruling may depend on the willingness of the Saudi government to make its citizens available for testimony — especially since it includes some high-ranking figures who no longer hold official positions and therefore cannot be compelled to testify. But any open defiance of the court ruling by the Saudis, or resistance from some of the figures named, could further exacerbate a relationship that has already been strained by the 2018 Saudi assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi — an act the CIA has concluded was likely ordered by the country’s de factor ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The question is especially fraught for Bandar, a member of the Saudi royal family who for years maintained a close relationship with senior U.S. government officials (earning him the nickname “Bandar Bush” because of his ties to the Bush family) and whose daughter, Princess Reema bint Bandar, serves as the current Saudi ambassador in Washington. “If he chooses to thumb his nose at a U.S. court, you better believe there will be political fallout from that,” said Eagleson.
A lawyer for the Saudis did not respond to a request for comment Thursday night, and no evidence has surfaced in the case that establishes Bandar had personal knowledge of what the Saudi hijackers were up to. But during his tenure in Washington, from 1983 to 2005, he oversaw a sprawling embassy staff including some, especially those with responsibilities for Islamic affairs, who have been identified in recently surfaced FBI documents as suspects who may have helped provide support for the hijackers in the United States.
The question of possible involvement in the 9/11 attacks by Saudi officials has been a subject of intense debate for years, dividing officials within the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community. The Saudis have consistently denied any connection to the 9/11 hijackers, telling the New York Times and ProPublica in January: “Saudi Arabia is and has always been a close and critical ally of the U.S. in the fight against terrorism.”
But lawyers for the families of the 9/11 victims have been conducting a painstaking investigation that has developed a circumstantial case that two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, received financial and other support from individuals associated with the Saudi government after they arrived in the U.S. after attending an al-Qaida planning summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
As reported by Yahoo News last May, previously undisclosed FBI documents show that a foreign ministry official within the Saudi Embassy, Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah, who had duties overseeing the activities of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, had repeated contacts with two figures at the heart of the case and was even suspected of directing them to assist the hijackers. One was Fahad al-Thumairy, a Saudi Islamic Affairs official and radical cleric who served as the imam of the King Fahd Mosque in Los Angeles and met with the two hijackers there. The other was Omar al-Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi intelligence agent who directly helped the hijackers, finding them an apartment, lending them money and setting them up with bank accounts, after they flew into Los Angeles airport on Jan. 15, 2000.
Al-Jarrah, who until last year served in the Saudi Embassy in Morocco, is among the current and former officials named in the order by Netburn, directing the Saudis to make available for testimony. Al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi were also cited.
But significantly, the list includes other high-ranking royals who still serve in the government, including Saleh bin Abdulaziz, who served as Minister of Islamic Affairs at the time and, according to the judge’s ruling, extended al-Thuimairy’s time in the United States and promoted him.
In her discussion of Bandar, Judge Netburn noted that lawyers for the Saudi government had persuasively argued that no documents show that he directly oversaw the work of al-Jarrah and al-Thumairy in the United States. But, she added, court documents obtained during the course of discovery — much of which remain under seal — “indicates that Prince Bandar likely has firsthand knowledge … [of] the role that al-Thumairy was assigned by the Kingdom and the diplomatic cover” provided to him.
The judge also authorized the deposition of Ahmed al-Qattan, Bandar’s longtime chief of staff, noting that court documents show that he “likely has unique firsthand knowledge of al-Jarrah and al-Thumairy’s relevant pre-9/11 activity and any post-9/11 ratification of their conduct.”
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