Hijackers' time in California at center of allegations of Saudi government involvement in 9/11

With Congress opening the way for Sept. 11 families to sue Saudi Arabia, victims’ families are focusing on an unproven theory that a Saudi consular official in Los Angeles and a Saudi intelligence operative in San Diego directly assisted two of the 19 hijackers.

The alleged Southern California connection is the key to showing that Saudi Arabia financed Muslim extremists who played a direct role in supporting some of the hijackers, according to lawyers for the families of those killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The families contend that lower-level Saudi operatives in Southern California helped find housing for the two hijackers, both Saudi citizens, months before they muscled their way into the cockpit of an American Airlines passenger jet that smashed into the north side of the Pentagon.

If a pending lawsuit is allowed to proceed, the families hope to find the evidence in thousands of classified FBI, CIA and Treasury Department documents that could be made public as part of discovery in federal court. 

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any direct or indirect support for Al Qaeda, the terrorist group that carried out the attacks, or any foreknowledge or involvement in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

FBI and CIA reviews concluded that no senior Saudi officials were aware of the plot. The 9/11 Commission found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually” funded Al Qaeda but left open the possibility that lower-ranking officials may have played a role.

California is “an important part of the story,” former Sen. Bob Graham (D–Fla.), who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee and helped lead a 2002 congressional inquiry into the attacks, said. Graham has supported the families’ lawsuit.

“I hope that during the course of the case we will learn much more about the Saudi role,” he said.

Graham said he wants to find out how far the 9/11 Commission went to chase down speculation and leads from FBI investigators about alleged assistance from Saudi officials to the two hijackers in California.

The issue was revived after Congress passed a bill that allows the victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia for damages if it played any role in the plot. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.

On Wednesday, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to override a veto by President Obama despite his warning that the law could put U.S. military and intelligence officials at risk overseas. Officials worry that Americans could be dragged into foreign courts to answer for U.S. drone strikes and other counter-terrorism operations.

The California connection involves Nawaf Hazmi and Khalid Mihdhar, two Al Qaeda veterans of conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan. They flew into Los Angeles International Airport as students in January 2000 and prayed at a Culver City, Calif., mosque built by the Saudi royal family and frequented by a Saudi consular official.

They later moved to San Diego where they tried to improve their English and took flying lessons at the Sorbi Flying Club.

Their move to San Diego later drew the interest of FBI agents searching for any evidence of Saudi support for the attacks, according to the 9/11 Commission report and to recently declassified material from the congressional inquiry.

While eating at a halal restaurant on Venice Boulevard in Culver City, near the blue-tiled dome of the King Fahad Mosque, the two men’s Gulf Arabic drew the attention of a Saudi named Omar Bayoumi, who had a no-show job with a Saudi defense contractor in San Diego, investigators found.

Bayoumi offered to let the newcomers stay in his apartment in San Diego for a few days and later helped them pay the deposit for an apartment.

The FBI suspected that Bayoumi, who bureau informants considered a Saudi intelligence operative, was sent to meet the pair by a Saudi consular official named Fahad Thumairy, who also led prayers at the Saudi-funded mosque.

When retracing Bayoumi’s steps, FBI agents found that he had visited the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and saw Thumairy on the same day he met Hazmi and Mihdhar.

Whether those meetings were coincidence or a link that proves official Saudi complicity in the plot is key to the families’ claims against the kingdom.

“No one ever said Bayoumi or Thumairy were senior government officials, but a government is responsible for lower level officials who cause death or injury to people under the cause of their employ,” said Jack Quinn, one of the lawyers for more than 2,000 family members of Sept. 11 victims. 

Despite the circumstantial evidence, FBI investigators concluded that Saudi officials were not aware of a terrorist plot or the two men’s ties to Al Qaeda. The CIA had tracked the pair overseas but didn’t alert the FBI when they flew to Los Angeles.

Eric Lewis, a lawyer for two Saudi charities that are also defendants in the lawsuit, said allegations that Saudi authorities supported Al Qaeda and the 2001 attacks “strikes me as ridiculous” since the terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden previously had targeted the kingdom.

Either way, resolution of the lawsuit isn’t expected any time soon.

The case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York City. But passage of the new law, called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, could send it back to the Southern District of New York in lower Manhattan, where the lawyers may end up battling for years over release of classified material.

If the lawsuit prevails, U.S. courts could order the seizure of Saudi assets in the United States to pay the families. Saudi officials have warned they might need to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. holdings in response.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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