New claims from the so-called "20th hijacker" have bolstered the almost-unthinkable scenario that the 9/11 terrorists were directly backed by a Saudi royal family with intimate personal and financial ties to the Bush clan, the U.S. intelligence community, and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News.
Here's everything we know about the increasingly plausible case that the Saudis did 9/11.
The fabled "20th hijacker" says Al Qaeda and the Saudis worked hand-in-glove.
The latest bombshell claims come from Zacarias Moussaoui, a convicted Al Qaeda operative who's currently spending a life sentence in supermax prison in Colorado. Moussaoui was once fingered as a 20th hijacker for the Twin Towers plot, though no solid evidence of a connection between him and the attack has ever been revealed publicly. Moussaoui gave a two-day deposition last October in a civil lawsuit filed against Saudi Arabia by families of 9/11 victims. In his testimony, which only became public this week, Moussaoui claims that he met personally with several of Saudi Arabia's most famous and important leaders on Osama Bin Laden's behalf; that the kingdom's VIPs and its leading religious court backed Bin Laden all the way up to the 2001 attacks with tons of money and coordination; and that a Saudi diplomat based in Washington had even discussed a plan with Moussaoui to down Air Force One with a Stinger missile smuggled through the embassy.
Allegations of Saudi involvement in 9/11 have long been rumored.
The general charges are nothing new; 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi, and had a remarkably easy time traveling through Europe, Africa, Asia, and America. The billion-dollar-plus lawsuit for which Moussaoui testified was first filed in 2002, but has moved slowly through the courts as Saudi representatives have fought it every step of the way. The 9/11 families behind the case have long maintained that Saudi officials "knowingly and directly" aided the terrorists.
Rumors have also swirled for years about 28 missing pages of the U.S. 9/11 Commission's final investigative report on the attacks. Those pages were redacted by order of the Bush administration on the grounds that their release would reveal "sources and methods that would make it harder for us to win the war on terror." But critics and even many members of the 9/11 Commission say there's another reason for the redactions: Those pages delineate Saudi involvement in the terror plot that killed nearly 3,000 people. The Obama administration, perhaps just as concerned as its predecessor about maintaining good U.S.-Saudi relations, has so far declined to release the pages, too.
But new developments suggest the ties are deeper than we ever imagined.
Besides the new Moussaoui allegations, efforts to release the 28 pages have been gathering steam in recent weeks. Former Senators Bob Graham of Florida and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and John Lehman, ex-Navy secretary for Ronald Reagan, have also all filed affidavits in the 9/11 survivors' lawsuit saying that the Saudi terror ties need more scrutiny.
"I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia," Graham—who headed Congress' joint 9/11 inquiry and has seen the pages—wrote in his affidavit, as reported in the New York Times this week. Graham maintains there's a U.S. government "coverup" of the pages because they "point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as the principal financier" of 9/11. "This may seem stale to some but it's as current as the headlines we see today," he told the Daily Beast earlier this month.
The new allegations are all about the money.
Moussaoui says that before 9/11, he was the only Al Qaeda operative who was fluent in English and computer skills and had a business background, which is why he was privy to so much of the organization's sensitive info.
The convict explained in halting English how he helped build Al Qaeda's first computer database of its finances in the late '90s, on a Toshiba computer in Kandahar not far from the Taliban's headquarters. Specifically, the job gave him intimate knowledge of Al Qaeda's donor base: "Shaykh Osama wanted to keep a record who give money because—who give money, who—who is to be listened to or who contribute to—to the jihad."
He insists that Al Qaeda regularly got infusions of cash from the Saudi Binladin Group, the source of the family's wealth, which also did business with American private equity firms like the Carlyle Group—a so-called "ex-president's club" whose partners include a Reagan-era defense secretary and intelligence operative and former Bush Sr. secretary of state James Baker.
Bin Laden's family allegedly lied about ever cutting ties with him.
Some of those Al Qaeda donor names, Moussaoui said, stuck with him. They included Abdullah bin Laden, a half-brother of the Al Qaeda founder who had lived in America, studied at Harvard, and sworn in the weeks after 9/11 that he had "no relationship whatsoever with Osama or any of his activities." Moussaoui adds that many of bin Laden's relatives, including his mother, came to visit him in Afghanistan, and claims by the family that they had severed ties with the jihadi were "a complete lie. An absolute lie." Moussaoui said he met Abdallah bin Laden, a prominent son of Osama, in Afghanistan, and that when Abdallah returned to Saudi Arabia — where he lives today — he made a public but superficial show of cutting ties with his dad: "[T]he Saudi tell him either you fit in publicly or we take your money away."
But the Saudi princes were stalwart patrons.
Moussaoui remembered other donors, though, because they "were known within the circle of the mujahideen, some of them extremely famous, like... Waleed bin Talal... Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud... Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, Prince Mohammed Al Faisal Al Saud, and Haifa Al Faisal Al Saud."
Those men include some of the most influential princes in Saudi Arabia's government, with deep ties to its intelligence service, and to America through tons of businesses and diplomatic posts:
- Prince Turki Al Faisal recently served as Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and Great Britain, but before that, he led the Saudi intelligence services for 14 years—resigning on September 1, 2001, just days before the 9/11 attacks.
- Prince Bandar bin Sultan served as a telegenic Saudi ambassador to the U.S. for more than two decades until stepping aside for Prince Turki and taking control of the kingdom's National Security Council. Bandar is especially close to George W. Bush and is widely considered as a member of the Bush family—a relationship explored in the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11.
- Waleed bin Talal, another Saudi royal, is widely considered one of the most influential businessmen in the world, at one time the largest shareholder in Citicorp and the second-largest shareholder in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. In fact, his holdings in the parent corporation of Fox News—one of the biggest media beneficiaries of the post-9/11 war on terror—came under scrutiny in 2010, when it was revealed he'd given financial support to the imam of the proposed "ground zero mosque" while that proposed religious center was being blasted on Fox News. Worth at least $23.5 billion, he spent last year dumping nearly all of his News Corp stock—$188 million worth—in a move that was publicly acknowledged just this Wednesday, a day after the New York Times published Moussaoui's allegations. However, he still holds 6.6 percent of 21st Century Fox—which owns Fox News—so he still has a stake in the war-loving, terrorist-hating network's popularity.
Moussaoui also claims he traveled from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia twice for face-to-face meetings with Prince Turki on bin Laden's behalf. Moussaoui—who says he was picked because he was one of the few non-Saudis in Al Qaeda at the time, and less likely to be pressured by the princes—provided Turki and other Saudi VIPs with sealed letters from bin Laden. The trips, by private plane, had been arranged in the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, Moussaoui says.
The courier says he didn't know what was in the letters, but he suspected they pertained to the line of Saudi succession after the eventual death of King Fahd—a public enemy of Bin Laden's who was ill at the time. The meetings with Turki included many other Saudi princes, Moussaoui says: "there was Abdullah and there was Sultan, Bandar, and there was Waleed bin Talal, and Salman." On completion of the trips, Mouassaoui says, he received letters from Turki to deliver back to bin Laden in Afghanistan.
It wasn't just the playboys; it was the "priests," too.
Moussaoui also claims that Al Qaeda's donors included all of the men on Saudi Arabia's Majlis ash-Shura ulema—the religious council that promulgates and reviews all of the Kingdom's laws. Moussaoui says Osama bin Laden took a position "of complete reverence and obedience" to the ulema, likening it to a Catholic's obedience toward the pope.
Moussaoui says that in everything bin Laden did, he "was doing it with the express advice and consent and directive of the ulema." The implication is clear: Al Qaeda would not have risen as a terrorist organization, and 9/11 would not have happened, without the blessing of Saudi Arabia's political and religious leadership.
Saudi officials gave material support for terror and actively discussed terror plans.
The Saudis have had plenty of practice supporting jihad; in the 1980s, they helped Ronald Reagan's CIA funnel cash and weapons to mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan—mujaheddin who included bin Laden and his future Al Qaeda partners. Moussaoui says his travel to Chechnya and the flow of fighters to Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan was made possible with Saudi dollars and work done through Islamic charities and other front organizations. Saudi government money bought bin Laden tanks, Kalashnikovs, bulldozers, salaries for fighters and their families—"everything," Moussaoui says.
The inmate recounts practicing with explosives and several terror plots that never came to anything, but his most sensational claim is "that he discussed a plan to shoot down Air Force One with a Stinger missile with a staff member at the Saudi Embassy in Washington," according to the Times. Moussaoui said he'd met with the diplomat and discussed scouting locations "suitable to launch a Stinger attack and, then, after, be able to escape." His contact also discussed the possibility of Moussaoui smuggling the Stinger into the U.S. through the Saudi embassy. But "my plan was not to launch the attack," he says, "it was only to see the feasibility of the attack."
The CIA's current head was pals with the Saudi princes while all of this went on.
John Brennan, tapped to be the CIA director by President Obama two years ago, has special expertise with the Saudi royals implicated in Moussaoui's testimony: the Arabic-fluent Brennan operated for the CIA in Saudi Arabia for years. In 1998, then-CIA director George Tenet appointed Brennan to be the agency's chief of station—its top spy and "liaison," as Tenet later put it—in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Brennan's counterpart in Saudi intelligence, with whom he met often, was Prince Turki al-Faisal—the same royal Moussaoui claims to have worked with on bin Laden's behalf.
Those facts lead to some uncomfortable questions: Was the CIA's top man in Saudia Arabia—and the current head of American intelligence-gathering efforts—so bad at his job that he was working with Al Qaeda supporters without knowing it? Or worse: Did he have an idea of the royals' pro-bin Laden activities, and not sound an alarm?
Moussaoui's testimony, while damning, deserves ample scrutiny.
But it's unclear just how reliable the convicted terrorist really is. He's lied before—as when, after years of denying any involvement in 9/11, he claimed in a 2006 cross-examination that he and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid were supposed to crash a plane into the White House in the 2001 attacks. (Most experts discount that claim and say Moussaoui may have been angling for a death sentence to complete his martyrdom.) And a defense expert testified at Moussaoui's trial that he was mentally ill, diagnosing him as a paranoid schizophrenic with grand delusions, though the court found him fit to stand trial.
Ultimately, almost a decade and a half have passed since 9/11, plenty of time to embellish a narrative Moussaoui had never before revealed—a tidy narrative that names all of Saudi Arabia's most rich and famous players.
His story runs counter to the narrative that Bin Laden and Saudi Arabia hated each other.
One reason to question Moussaoui's account is that from the days immediately after 9/11 to the present, the prevailing theory has been that Osama bin Laden always hated the Saudi regime for cooperating with America, and he would never have done business with U.S.-friendly princes who publicly declared him an enemy in Saudi Arabia.
Moussaoui maintains that while bin Laden might have battled publicly with some of Saudi Arabia's ruling family members, including then-King Fahd, Osama enjoyed some of the family's support and never crossed the country's religious authorities: "Osama bin Laden went against Al Saud, but not all of Al Saud, he went against Fahd."
The royals who supported Al Qaeda did it for many reasons, Moussaoui said. It inoculated them against the anger that many jihadis felt toward King Fahd. It also kept the jihadis busy in far-flung, dangerous climes, preventing them from focusing on Saudi Arabia as a target. And it kept the donors in good standing with the religious authorities of the ulema, who could have condemned them for the country's "widespread homosexuality," financial practices, and embrace of American troops. The point, Moussaoui said, was to be able to say: "Look, see, we are not against Islam or the jihad, we finance bin Laden…You don't finance jihad if you don't believe in Allah."
Saudi Arabia says it's in the clear. Other insiders say that's bunk.
The Times says Saudi Arabia's embassy in the U.S. sent the paper a press release on Monday insisting "the national Sept. 11 commission had rejected allegations that the Saudi government or Saudi officials had funded Al Qaeda." The Saudis also have called Moussaoui a lying lunatic and lobbied for the release of the infamous 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report, eager to prove they don't incriminate the government.
Their case is supported by the 9/11 Commission's former executive director, Philip Zelikow, who insists there's nothing more to investigate, and the 9/11-Saudi ties are nothing but rumor. "[W]hat we found is reflected in the commission report," he told the Times Thursday. (It's important to note, however, that some 9/11 families had questioned the appointment of Zelikow to the 9/11 Commission, since he had been a George W. Bush supporter who helped the president pick his cabinet—the very same officers whose relationships and job performance were supposed to be scrutinized by the 9/11 Commission.)
Other respected bipartisans who served on that commission and Congress' joint panel disagree with Saudi Arabia—and, by implication, with Zelikow. Lehman and Kerrey have leveled fresh accusations against the Saudis. And then, of course, there is Graham.
The Saudis "have continued, maybe accelerated their support for the most extreme form of Islam," Graham told the Daily Beast recently. Al Qaeda? ISIS? Ideologically and logistically, he said they were all "a creation of Saudi Arabia."
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]