- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s grass roots of Muslim clerics, mosquegoers and wealthy oilmen funded al Qaeda’s $30 million annual budget at the time a Saudi-dominated platoon of terrorists carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.

Yet the kingdom and its Islamic rulers had nothing to do with the plot, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

End of story.

That was what the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States said more than a decade ago.

On Wednesday, as President Obama visited Saudi Arabia, that conclusion was under attack more than ever before.

What had been an undercurrent of protests from survivors and pundits is now an out-in-the-open political movement to find out whether the Saudi royal family and its aides supported the 19 al Qaeda hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals.

On the campaign trail, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump says the “real story” of 9/11 has yet to be told. He and some members of Congress want the Obama administration to release 28 pages withheld from the final 2002 Joint Congressional Inquiry report that predated the national commission’s inquiry. The pages are said to implicate a number of Saudis in helping the attackers. Mr. Trump said that as president he will declassify them.

Meanwhile, another Saudi-related 9/11 issue has hit the presidential campaign trail.

Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders have split with the Obama administration. They now support a bipartisan bill that would allow families of victims to sue foreign governments that sponsored terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

A prime target of the bill is Saudi Arabia, which presumedly would be compelled in court to provide its own information about 9/11. Riyadh has vowed to retaliate by pulling billions of dollars of assets from U.S. financial markets.

Mr. Obama opposes the bill, which he says will lead to lawsuits against Washington.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill, said: “In light of his upcoming trip this week, it appears that the Obama administration is pulling out all the stops to keep this bill from moving forward before the president’s visit to Riyadh. I wish the president and his aides would spend as much time and energy working with us in a bipartisan manner as they have working against us, trying to prevent victims of terrorism from receiving the justice that they deserve.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill, which also is sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

The other debate on Capitol Hill: those withheld 28 pages.

On Wednesday, Rep Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, reiterated that those pages should be released. But Mr. Schiff, who has read those pages, indicated that there is no smoking gun.

“Releasing the redacted 28 pages of this earlier report, with any redactions necessary to protect intelligence sources and methods, would help address speculation that these 28 pages contain proof of official Saudi government or senior Saudi official involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” Mr. Schiff said. “The 9/11 Commission investigated these claims and was never able to find sufficient evidence to support them. The release of these pages will not end debate over the issue, but it will quiet rumors over their contents — as is often the case, the reality is less damaging than the uncertainty.”

The George W. Bush administration withheld those pages, and the Obama administration has concurred.

‘Visible connections’

A few former intelligence officials have come forward to say there are secret documents that would tell a broader story of Saudi involvement but never were provided by the George W. Bush administration, such as National Security Agency reports of communication intercepts.

John R. Schindler, a former counterterrorism analyst at the National Security Agency, wrote this week in The Observer that the national commission “was not allowed to see some important evidence.”

“As the 28 pages make clear, Saudi officials had contacts with some of the 9/11 hijackers that can charitably be termed odd,” Mr. Schindler wrote. “To any counterintelligence professional, these connections — combined with the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals — raise enormous red flags, particularly because there were visible connections between some of the hijackers and Saudi intelligence agents in the United States.”

As a Democratic senator from Florida, Bob Graham co-chaired the joint committee that wrote those 28 pages. He is one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the commission’s Saudi conclusion and is convinced there is a direct link between the hijackers and Saudi officials.

His interest focuses on several figures, including Omar al Bayoumi, who assisted hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid Almihdhar after they arrived in Southern California in January 2000. Al-Hazmi and Almihdhar were sent to California by plot leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to learn English, then how to pilot an airliner for what he called the “Planes Operation.”

Mr. Graham also concluded that Saudi diplomat Fahad al Thumairy, an official of the Islamic and Cultural Affairs section of the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Los Angeles, also helped the hijackers.

The U.S. pulled Mr. Thumairy’s visa and banned him from the U.S.

Mr. Graham said in a sworn affidavit on Jan. 28, 2015, in a civil case: “Al Bayoumi met al Hazmi and al Mihdhar at a restaurant in Los Angeles in late January 2000, immediately following a meeting between al Bayoumi and al Thumairy at the Saudi consulate. Shortly thereafter, the two hijackers traveled to San Diego, where al Bayoumi held a dinner in their honor, helped them find an apartment, fronted the initial payments of that apartment, and provided them continuing financial assistance going forward. During the period that he supported the hijackers, al Bayoumi’s allowances from a ghost job with a Saudi private firm and contractor to the Saudi government increased eightfold. During that same period, al Bayoumi had an unusual number of telephone conversations with Saudi government officials in both Los Angeles and Washington.”

Mr. Graham concluded: “I am convinced that there was direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia.”

The 9/11 Commission

Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican, cited Mr. Graham’s affidavit in urging the House to back the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, the legislation to allow victims’ families to sue foreign nations backing terrorism.

“It’s disgraceful that victims’ families cannot get into court to prove what senior intelligence officials believe to be true,” said Mr. Buchanan. “Our government should never put Saudi Arabia’s interests ahead of the American people.”

The 9/11 Commission’s final report was damning of Saudi society, which practices a hard-line Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, puts religious police on the streets to enforce strict Muslim custom and beheads petty criminals.

Al Qaeda appears to have relied on a core group of financial facilitators who raised money from a variety of donors and other fund-raisers, primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia,” the commission said. “Some individual donors surely knew, and others did not, the ultimate destination of their donations. Al Qaeda and its friends took advantage of Islam’s strong calls for charitable giving, zakat. These financial facilitators also appeared to rely heavily on certain imams at mosques who were willing to divert zakat donations to al Qaeda’s cause.”

The report also said: “Al Qaeda found fertile fund-raising ground in Saudi Arabia, where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was both essential to the culture and subject to very limited oversight. Al Qaeda also sought money from wealthy donors in other Gulf states.”

The commission, headed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat, saw the same information as Mr. Graham’s joint inquiry. It knew of the Saudi contacts in Los Angeles.

The commission said Mr. Thumairy was the leader of an extremist branch at the King Fahd mosque in Culver City, but it did not adopt Mr. Graham’s conclusion that he “likely played some role in the support network” for the attack.

“The circumstantial evidence makes Thumairy a logical person to consider as a possible contact for Hazmi and Mihdhar,” the commission said. “Yet, after exploring the available leads, we have not found evidence that Thumairy provided assistance to the two operatives.”

Drawing conclusions

Likewise, the commission differed with Mr. Graham on the role of Mr. Bayoumi, who was interviewed by staff and now lives in Saudi Arabia.

“Bayoumi is a devout Muslim, obliging and gregarious,” the commission report said. “He spent much of his spare time involved in religious study and helping run a mosque in El Cajon, about 15 miles from San Diego. It is certainly possible that he has dissembled about some aspects of his story, perhaps to counter suspicion. On the other hand, we have seen no credible evidence that he believed in violent extremism or knowingly aided extremist groups. Our investigators who have dealt directly with him and studied his background find him to be an unlikely candidate for clandestine involvement with Islamist extremists.”

In the end, the commission made a matter-of-fact statement that the kingdom itself was not involved in 9/11.

Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization,” the commission said. “This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.”

In 2003, the commission may not have known about FBI records made public three years ago under a Freedom of Information Act request by BrowardBulldog.org. Mr. Graham said the documents show ties between two other hijackers and Saudi nationals in Florida who fled the country right before Sept. 11.

Mr. Graham called the commission’s conclusion on Riyadh an “ambiguous statement” and said there is far more evidence linking official Saudi Arabia to the attack than those famous 28 pages.

In 2010, Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton collaborated on a book about the commission. They concluded: “We thought we were set up to fail” because they were not given enough time, enough money, and they and their colleagues were appointed by “the most partisan people in Washington.”

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