April 19, 2012
Welcome news for us this week. Our 9/11 book, The Eleventh Day, is one of three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in History. The committee cites our “painstaking look at the catastrophic attacks and the nagging questions that have swirled around it.”
Foremost, for us, of those remaining questions is: Was there foreign support for the 9/11 hijackers?
That subject was blurred in the 9/11 Commission Report and hidden from the public by President Bush’s censorship of a key 28-page section of Congress’ earlier Joint Inquiry. We continue to pursue indications that elements of one Middle Eastern regime may have given the terrorists real assistance – a Saudi Arabia.
In The Eleventh Day, we raised some of the questions surrounding a San Diego-based Saudi named Omar al-Bayoumi. Bayoumi assisted future hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar in early 2000, within days of their arrival in the United States. Bayoumi claimed to investigators that he became involved with the terrorists only because he heard them speaking Arabic in a Los Angeles-area restaurant. But did they really meet by chance? The Los Angeles Times has reported that the men began conversing after Bayoumi – like someone in a bad spy novel – dropped a newspaper on the floor and bent to retrieve it.
The Bayoumi episode is shot through with oddities. The witness who said that, before the supposedly chance meeting, Bayoumi said he was on his way “to pick up visitors”; the phone records that indicate frequent contact between Bayoumi and a Saudi diplomat – said to have arranged for the two future hijackers to take a car tour of the city; other phone records showing that the pair used Bayoumi’s cell phone for weeks; information indicating that Bayoumi’s salary – paid by a subsidiary of a contractor for the Saudi Civil Aviation Authority – was approved by the father of a man whose photo was found in a raid on a terrorist safe house in Afghanistan; a mark in Bayoumi’s passport that investigators associated with possible al Qaeda affiliation.
Omar al-Bayoumi left theUnited Statestwo months before the 9/11 attacks. He stuck to his “chance encounter” claim when, in 2003 and 2004, 9/11 Commission staff were allowed to interview him in Saudi Arabia – under the watchful eye of Saudi interior ministry officials. Commission memos show that staff who questioned Bayoumi and others linked to him – also under Saudi supervision – emerged from the interrogation sessions filled with suspicion. Fahad al-Thumairy, the Saudi diplomat in Los Angeles with whom Bayoumi was in touch, was thought to have been “deceptive in both interviews.” Osama Basnan, a close Bayoumi associate who at one point lived across the street from the two al Qaeda operatives, was held to have shown an “utter lack of credibility.”
As recently reported in the Daily Beast, former Sen. Bob Graham has described California as “ground zero in terms of the connections between the terrorists and the Saudi government.”
Though Graham was generous with his help while we were researching our book, it was clear that there were areas that he could not discuss freely. One appeared to concern a man named Dr Abdusattar Shaikh, in whose San Diego home both the first two terrorists to arrive lived after their early encounter with Bayoumi. Shaikh is not mentioned at all in published parts of either of the official reports on 9/11, and is identified in an internal Commission memo only as Dr. Xxxxxxxxxxx Xxxxxx. Keeping him unidentified was deemed important, it seems, because – astonishingly – Shaikh had all along been an FBI informant.
In recent months we have further pursued information at which we could only hint in The Eleventh Day. With our colleague Dan Christensen of the Broward Bulldog, we have reported on it for the London Daily Telegraph and in a series of articles for MSNBC, (here, here, & here) and it further calls into question the behavior of the FBI. These latest developments link the hijackers to a Saudi family based in Sarasota, Florida and to purported al Qaeda operative Adnan Shukrijumah, in the months before the 9/11 attacks.
The FBI has claimed that it investigated these alleged links and passed on its findings to both Congress’ Joint Inquiry and to the 9/11 Commission. Graham, who as a two-time Florida governor has a special interest, maintains that the information never reached either him or his 9/11 Commission counterparts. A search of 9/11 Commission files this past month located no relevant FBI records.
Many more strands go to a putative Saudi connection to 9/11 – some so far flimsy, some highly disquieting. The recollection of a Miami immigration inspector that further supports the notion that the hijackers were in contact with suspect Shukrijumah. She thinks Atta was accompanied by Shukrijumah when he came to her office to discuss a visa problem; the interview with a former CIA officer who says a captured bin Laden aide, himself involved in 9/11, said – naming three princes – that he had official Saudi support; and hard evidence that, the very night before the attacks, a senior Saudi religious official stayed at the same Virginia hotel as Bayoumi’s two hijacker associates. An FBI attempt to interview the official, Saleh al-Hussayen, was cut short when – in the view of a Bureau agent – he “feigned a seizure.”
We report in The Eleventh Day – naming names – claims that millions in Saudi official money flowed to Osama bin Laden over a period of years before 9/11. During the preceding half-century, oil-richSaudi Arabia had enjoyed a mutually beneficial friendship with theUnited States. What reason, then for powerful Saudis to make contributions that fueled bin Laden’s terrorist feud with America? Is the explanation that Saudi royals, fearing overthrow by bin Laden-inspired extremists, saw help for bin Laden before 9/11 as an insurance tactic, self-preservation. In the West, we call this paying protection money.
The censored 28-page section of Congress’ Joint Inquiry Report is still withheld, in spite of an outcry from senators and a decade-long effort to get it released. Graham, and others who were privy to the suppressed material when it was written have revealed that it concerns Saudi Arabia. President Obama was quoted as having said soon after taking office that he was prepared to have the material released. Even so, it still remains withheld. A National Security Council spokesperson, asked by a colleague of ours last year about the censored pages, came back with a novel response. “I have been asked to convey to you, off the record, that we decline comment.”
There is a limit, one would like to think, to how long Americans are prepared to wait for their government to come clean about possible foreign involvement in 9/11 – facts gathered by their elected representatives but withheld from them by order of former President Bush. President Obama should move promptly to release those 28 redacted pages – and to insist that the FBI makes public everything it learned about links between the terrorists and Saudi citizens in California and Florida.