Soon after the 9/11 attacks two decades ago, the FBI quietly launched an investigation into a seemingly obscure Saudi Arabian government bureaucrat in Southern California.
The man claimed to be nothing more than a Saudi aviation official who innocently happened to befriend two Islamic jihadists in the months before they carried out the 9/11 attacks.
That story now appears to be false. The alleged aviation official was really a Saudi spy who reported directly to a Saudi prince who happened to be the kingdom’s influential ambassador in Washington and a close friend of President George W. Bush and other top U.S. government officials.
The FBI concluded five years ago that there was a “50/50 chance” that this Saudi spy knew ahead of time that the two Islamists he befriended were about to join the plot to hijack commercial jetliners and crash them into buildings in what turned out to be America’s deadliest terrorist attack. But the FBI refused to go public with its findings — until now.
The story of the spy and the ambassador-prince emerged in recent days as the centerpiece of a startling series of revelations in a newly declassified FBI report that could shed light on a perplexing mystery that has long shadowed the 9/11 investigation:
While heavily redacted, the report offers the most direct link yet between the Saudi government, its secretive royal family and the team of 19 operatives of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network who hijacked four jetliners on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorists crashed two jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon in Northern Virginia and a fourth, which was reportedly headed to the U.S. Capitol, into a farm field in Pennsylvania.
Nearly 3,000 people died in that mass murder-suicide scheme. But for two decades, a major question has shadowed the inquiry into how a band of 19 Islamic extremists pulled it off: Did the Saudi government offer assistance to the terrorists?
Saudi spy connections detailed
A 510-page secret FBI report, written in 2017 and declassified last week without any fanfare by the FBI or Justice Department, concludes that the California-based Saudi spy, Omar al Bayoumi, not only helped several 9/11 hijackers to find housing in San Diego, but that there was a “50/50 chance” he “had advanced knowledge” of their deadly plans.
For years, top FBI leaders and Justice Department officials kept this potentially explosive information secret, refusing to tell Congressional investigators, the 9/11 Commission and the more than 10,000 American citizens who had signed on to a massive federal lawsuit that seeks to link Saudi officials to 9/11.
The findings in the FBI report are coming to light just as the Biden administration is reportedly reaching out to several oil producing nations — including Saudi Arabia — to increase production and help curtail rising gas prices across the United States. Whether the FBI’s report will impact negotiations with Saudi oil officials remains to be seen. But for decades, critics have pointed to Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and their importance to the economies of many western nations as a reason the U.S. has not pushed harder for more information on alleged Saudi links to 9/11 and other Islamist-based terrorist attacks.
Before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI report says, Bayoumi was on the payroll of Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the kingdom’s influential U.S. ambassador who was so close to the Bush administration and visited the White House so often that he was nicknamed “Bandar Bush.”
The FBI concluded that Bayoumi regularly passed intelligence findings to Bandar. But the report does not say whether Bayoumi told Bandar that he had met with two members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network who had flown to California in early 2000 to begin preparations for attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Bayoumi helped the two find an apartment in San Diego. He also introduced them to several members of a Saudi-financed mosque in Los Angeles.
The two al-Qaeda operatives later made their way to northern New Jersey, where they met with other 9/11 conspirators, rented cars, opened bank accounts and postal boxes, exercised at a local gym and hung out at Macy’s and other stores at the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne.
The FBI report does not say whether Bayoumi knew they left California — or, if he did, whether he offered them advice on how to travel to New Jersey. Nor does the report say whether Bayoumi ever told Prince Bandar whether he knew about the 9/11 attacks before they took place.
Compiled after years of outspoken concerns and criticism from 9/11 victims about a possible Saudi connection to the plot, the report and its findings were kept secret by FBI and Justice Department officials until late last week. The report was released as part of an ongoing executive order by President Joe Biden last September to declassify the FBI’s trove of 9/11 investigative files.
In the days leading up to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks last September, Biden had been under intense pressure by 9/11 victims and their relatives, along with several key members of Congress, to release the FBI’s secret investigative files. Some victims and relatives even threatened to stage protests or boycotts at 9/11 anniversary ceremonies if Biden showed up without ordering the FBI to open its files.
Since Biden’s executive order, the FBI has declassified a steady trickle of files. But few of the documents offered much insight into the long-rumored Saudi link to the 9/11 plot — until last week.
Clear evidence of a conspiracy between bin Laden’s jihadists and Saudi officials has long been scarce. These latest revelations could change that, advocates say. And, if nothing else, this latest report offers one of the most startling glimpses yet into the shadow world of spies and terrorists — and Saudi royalty.
“It’s exactly what we’ve been saying,” said James Kreindler, one of the lead attorneys in a lawsuit by more than 10,000 9/11 victims and relatives against the Saudi government. “Saudi government officials at a high level were integral to the 9/11 attacks.”
The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington — and their American attorneys in the lawsuit — did not respond to requests for comment. The White House did not respond either. The FBI’s media office in Washington said in an email: “We have no comment on the documents.”
Prince Bander, 73 who is now retired after moving from his U.S. ambassadorship to the head of the Saudi intelligence service and the Saudi National Security Council, and Bayoumi, 63, both live in Saudi Arabia. They could not be reached for comment.
Victims’ families, former agent angered
The revelations about Bandar and Bayoumi drew an angry response, not just from 9/11 victims and their relatives, but from a former FBI agent who tried to sound an alarm during the summer of 2001 after he found evidence that al-Qaeda operatives had secretly entered the United States.
“This latest report just shows what we have known all along, but disgustingly has taken 20 years to finally be disclosed,” said Mark Rossini, an FBI counter-terror expert assigned in 2001 to the CIA’s Alec Station team, which was tracking several al-Qaeda operatives but deliberately did not alert the FBI when a terrorist team entered the U.S.
Rossini, who was reached at his home in Spain where he has lived since leaving the FBI in 2008 after pleading guilty to illegally accessing files on a case unrelated to 9/11, claims he was ordered by CIA officials and threatened with federal charges if he bucked orders and told the FBI about the presence of al-Qaeda terrorists on U.S. soil.
Neither the CIA nor the FBI has ever explained why they did not cooperate on what now seems to be such a basic piece of an important counter-terror investigation — and, therefore, may have prevented the 9/11 attacks.
Brett Eagleson of Middletown, Connecticut, who lost his father in the collapse of the Trade Center’s twin towers in lower Manhattan, said the new evidence is a major step forward in the long legal and public relations battle to not only draw attention to Saudi Arabia’s possible links to 9/11 but hold the kingdom’s royal family and other officials accountable.
“For 20 years we’ve seen a helluva lot of smoke,” said Eagleson, who has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of Saudi Arabia among the 9/11 victims and relatives in their lawsuit against the kingdom. “I think we’ve just found the fire.”
Names of sources and other identifying details in the FBI report are blacked out. Many of the 510 pages consist mostly of lines drawn through entire sentences and even paragraphs. But enough information remains to outline the seemingly strange connection between the spy (Bayoumi), the prince (Bandar) and two rag-tag Saudi-born members of al-Qaeda’s terrorist network, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi.
Mihdhar and Hazmi were well known al-Qaeda operatives long before they joined the team of 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 plot. In 2000, the CIA tracked Mihdhar and Hazmi from the Middle East to an apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where they met with other members of bin Laden’s network.
What the CIA did not know at the time was that the initial plans were hatched in that meeting to hijack commercial jetliners in America and crash them into buildings — the essential ingredients of the massive attack on Sept. 11, 2001 that caught America by surprise and transformed U.S. foreign policy.
After leaving the Kuala Lumpur apartment gathering, Mihdhar and Hazmi flew to Bangkok, Thailand. With U.S. travel visas in hand, both caught a flight to Los Angeles — not knowing that CIA agents were tailing them.
After Mihdhar and Hazmi landed in Los Angeles, they were soon met by Bayoumi, who helped them find an apartment and introduced them to a handful of Saudis also living in Southern California.
The CIA had no legal authority to continue tracking the two terrorists inside the United States. By law, the CIA is strictly confined to overseas spy operations. Critics have long claimed the CIA should have called in the FBI and its domestic counter-terror squads. But the CIA remained silent and has never explained why it did not immediately summon the FBI.
During the summer of 2001, Mihdhar and Hazmi moved to northern New Jersey, settling into the Congress Inn motel on Route 46 in South Hackensack and other area motels and apartments. From there, they met with other 9/11 hijackers, including the ringleader, Mohamed Atta, who lived for various periods at motels in Wayne, New Jersey.
A few weeks before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA finally told the FBI that al-Qaeda operatives were on the loose inside America. By then, it was too late to stop them, however. Mihdhar and Hazmi had disappeared with other members of the 9/11 plot.
After the 9/11 attacks, FBI investigators focused attention on Bayoumi and other Saudis in Southern California. But none was ever arrested.
Bayoumi left the United States and returned to Saudi Arabia not long after the 9/11 attacks. While in America, he was described in the FBI report as a “co-optee of the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency” who was paid an undisclosed “monthly stipend” by Prince Bandar. The FBI report, however, does not say whether Bayoumi ever spoke directly with Prince Bandar or communicated by email.
But the report also offers this glimpse on Bayoumi’s role as a spy and his connection to Prince Bandar: “The information AlBayoumi (sic) obtained on persons of interest in the Saudi community in Los Angeles and San Diego and other issues, which met certain GIP intelligence requirements, would be forwarded to Bandar. Bander would then inform GIP of items of interest to the GIP for further investigation/vetting or follow up.”
The 9/11 Commission investigated Bayoumi’s links to Mihdhar and Hazmi before releasing its best-selling report 2004. But neither Saudi officials nor the FBI and the CIA ever spelled out to Commission investigators the extent of Bayoumi’s work as a spy or his connection to Prince Bandar.
Reached this week, the Commission’s chairman, Tom Kean, the former New Jersey governor, said his investigators never learned that Bayoumi was a spy.
“If that’s true I’d be upset by it,” Kean said in a telephone interview, adding, “The FBI said it wasn’t withholding anything and we believed them.”
But Kean also cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the extent of Saudi involvement in the 9/11 plot.
“I think you have to take a look at the evidence,” he said.
The FBI report also does not explain when it formally concluded that Bayoumi was, in fact, a spy. In the years after the 9/11 attacks, a number of media reports speculated that Bayoumi might have worked for the Saudi intelligence service. But there was no formal declaration of Bayoumi’s role until now.
“This is scary,” said Jerry S. Goldman, a New York-based attorney who represents 500 victims in the federal lawsuit against Saudi Arabia. “According to the allegation in the FBI report, the Saudi ambassador is dealing with a guy who dealt with terrorists?”
Tim Frolich, who grew up in Little Falls, New Jersey, and escaped from the 80th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center after it was struck by a hijacked jetliner, said the latest revelations confirmed long suspicions about Saudi links to terrorism. But Frolich, who worked as an accountant for Fuji Bank in the South Tower, also harshly criticized the FBI for withholding the details about Bayoumi for so many years.
“This information obviously should have been out to the family members and to the American public long before now,” said Frolich who lives in Brooklyn. “Certainly the FBI knew a whole lot more than what they said.
Sharon Premoli, who moved to Vermont from her home in Jersey City after escaping from the 80th floor of the North Tower where she worked as a vice president for a financial marketing firm, said she has long suspected that the FBI knew much more than it was telling about the Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks.
“Knowing what we already know,” she said, “how is it possible that we continue to nurture this relationship with Saudi Arabia?”
As for the FBI and its decision to hold back for years what it knew about the spy and the prince and the terrorists, Premoli said: “We feel abandoned.”
* Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @mikekellycolumn
Published at eu.northjersey.com
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