By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A mysterious figure at the center of the puzzle about an apparent Sarasota-area support network for 9/11 hijackers is a rich Saudi Arabian businessman with ties to the kingdom’s ruling House of Saud and international and American political leaders.
Esam Abbas Ghazzawi, son of a former Saudi ambassador, stepped from the shadows recently when he posted a website publicizing his extravagant design work for Saudi royalty and details about his background. He did not, however, respond to Florida Bulldog emailed requests for comment.
State records show that Ghazzawi, 66, and his American-born wife, Deborah, owned the home at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota that became the focus of an FBI investigation after neighbors reported that its occupants — Ghazzawi’s daughter Anoud and his son-in-law Abdulaziz al-Hijji — had abruptly moved out and returned with Ghazzawi to Saudi Arabia about two weeks before the terrorist attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings.
Authorities later obtained security records from the gated community and determined that cars driven by 9/11 hijack leader Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures visited the al-Hijjis’ residence. A heavily-censored April 2002 FBI report released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation says FBI agents found “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The FBI, however, kept those findings secret from both Congress and the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.
(The FBI disavowed its 2002 report in 2014, telling the 9/11 Review Commission that the agent who wrote it had no basis to do so. The FBI did not identify the agent or further explain the bizarre turn of events. FBI Director James Comey, fired Tuesday by President Trump, publicly mischaracterized the Review Commission as an independent body when in fact he chose its three members and the FBI paid them.)
A decade passed before the FBI’s Sarasota investigation became public when Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, reported it in September 2011. The FBI soon confirmed the existence of the investigation, but said it found no connection between the Saudi family and the 9/11 plot. Agents also said the Sarasota probe was reported to Congress.
The newly posted information shows that Ghazzawi is a commercial landscape and interior designer whose companies have handled multi-million dollar projects in Saudi Arabia. Until July 2001 he was also an advisor to Prince Fahd Bin Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud (Prince Fahd), an ex-classmate and eldest son of King Salman, who died that month of heart failure.
Bush, Bhutto and John Major
His website, esamghazzawidesigns.com, features photographs of Ghazzawi’s luxurious designs that have “transformed homes into palaces.” Magazine articles from the early 2000s show him meeting world leaders, including former United Kingdom Prime Minister John Major, the late Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and ex-President George H.W. Bush. Bush signed his picture, “To Esam A. Ghazzawi Best Wishes, George Bush.”
An English-language article describes Ghazzawi as a father of five who graduated high school in Saudi Arabia and attended college in the U.S., obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1975 from Chapman College in Orange, CA. “Mr. Ghazzawi maintains residences all over the world – the family’s primary residence (which is a sprawling beach house) is in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf. (He) also has a large city penthouse in Riyadh and other secondary residences” in London, Sarasota and Arlington, VA, says the article in On Design magazine.
Ghazzawi was described as providing turnkey design services “primarily for grand scale residential interiors within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” His clients were said to be “well educated, well-traveled and very affluent. To date, most have been high-ranking government hierarchy in his home country.”
Ghazzawi, through his Esam Arabia Projects Est. and the Luxury Home Collection Ltd., boasted a “full-time staff” of architects, draftsmen, artists and CADD (computer-aided design and drafting) operators. “It is not unusual for Mr. Ghazzawi to have hundreds of workers on site at one time,” the article in On Design says.
An example is Esam Arabia’s 1998-2001work as the principal contractor on a $28-million landscape and lighting project to create a “paradise-setting” at Yamama Palace in Riyadh, the residence of Prince Abdul Azziz bin Fahd, son of then King Fahd. California-based Lee-Wolfe and Associates provided project management. Company co-owner Paul L. Wolfe said he knew Ghazzawi, but declined to be interviewed.
The FBI closely guards its files on Ghazzawi and has steadfastly refused to release even his name – except once in an apparent oversight while processing documents for release to Florida Bulldog.
The documents were a copy of a letter and a list of phone numbers received by the FBI on July 23, 2002. Details about the letter and the list were blanked out, but the “title” of the file into which they were placed – Esam Ghazzawi – was not.
The FBI’s interest in Ghazzawi, while cryptic, is longstanding. In 2003, according to Sarasota attorney Scott McKay, an FBI agent sought to enlist McKay’s help in convincing Ghazzawi to return to Florida to sign legal documents regarding his Sarasota property. The ploy failed.
Ghazzawi on FBI watch list
In 2011, a counter-terrorism agent told author Summers, who with Robbyn Swan wrote the 9/11 history The Eleventh Day, that Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on an FBI watch list and that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds was interested in both men even before 9/11.
The government’s pre-9/11 interest in Ghazzawi likely included his ties to the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI), or as it came to be known by law enforcement, the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals.” Ghazzawi had three accounts at BCCI’s London branch worth about $400,000, according to a 1996 appeals court ruling published in The Times of London.
Bank liquidators contended Ghazzawi was a nominee owner of the funds and that the true owner was his employer at the time, Prince Fahd. The liquidators had claimed the funds pursuant to a guarantee the prince had given regarding an overdrawn account.
Ghazzawi is today a member of the board of directors of the London subsidiary of EIRAD, a Saudi company that sponsors multinational companies in Saudi Arabia, including United Parcel Service (UPS).
The investigative website Who.What.Why. has reported that Ghazzawi’s brother, Mamdouh, is the executive managing director the parent firm, EIRAD Holding Co. Ltd.
According to The House of Saud in Commerce, a detailed study of Saudi royal entrepreneurship published in 2001 prior to 9/11, EIRAD was headed by Prince Fahd until his death later that year.
EIRAD had ties to the U.S. intelligence community. “In June 1995, the U.S. government approved a business venture between Orbital Imaging Corp. of the USA and EIRAD International for the supply of satellite images to the government and commercial customers in the Middle East,” the book says.
Orbital Imaging, later known as GeoEye, had contracts to provide reconnaissance for the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The company is now owned by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe.
Business ties to Bin Laden family
The book says Prince Fahd’s other business interests included Saudi Ceramics Co., whose “prominent Saudi partners” included the Bin Laden family. Today, EIRAD’s chairman is another son of King Salman, Prince Sultan bin Salman Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the former pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force who in 1985 was an astronaut payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Court papers filed last month by attorneys representing Florida Bulldog in its FOIA litigation argue that it “is now clear that substantial evidence exists that Esam Ghazzawi was not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Saudi citizen, but rather was (and is) an uber-wealthy Saudi whose father, Abbas Ghazzawi, had been a Saudi ambassador and close associate of at least three Saudi kings.” Photographs of Abbas Ghazzawi in an article posted on his son’s website reportedly depict him with Saudi Kings Saud, Faisal and Fahd.
Abbas Faiq Ghazzawi, 84, is a Saudi diplomat who served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, as recently as a decade ago, was ambassador to Germany, according to Who’s Who in the Arab World. Declassified diplomatic cables posted by the State Department show that in 1979 Ghazzawi, was political counsel for the Ministry for Eastern Affairs, represented Saudi Arabia in sensitive discussions with U.S. diplomats regarding Soviet military units in Afghanistan, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and terrorist incidents inside Saudi Arabia.
Esam Ghazzawi’s son, Adel Ghazzawi, 46, is also prominent. He is a prior board member at the East-West Institute, the New York think tank whose board members include ex-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. Adel Ghazzawi is the founder of Conektas, a company based in the United Arab Emirates that helps foreign companies establish businesses in the Middle East.
According to Relationship Science, which bills itself as the world’s “most powerful database of decision makers,” Adel Ghazzawi is on the board of directors of Arabtec Saudi Arabia LLC. Arabtec Construction, one of the world’s largest construction companies, set up its Saudi subsidiary in 2009 as a joint venture with CPC Services (Construction Products Holding Company), a member of the Saudi Bin Laden Group, and Prime International Group Services.
At the time, Emirates Business quoted an Adel Ghazzawi, whom it identified as Prime International’s chief executive officer. Ghazzawi told the news service that he began discussions with Arabtec. “We initiated discussions two months ago and have been working very closely with Arabtec Holdings on moving their business into Saudi along with the Bin Laden Group.”
Adel Ghazzawi could not be located for comment.
Curiously, Prime International surfaced last year in the Panama Papers case, the trove of 11.5 million leaked documents detailing private financial information about hundreds of thousands of offshore entities. Such entities are legal, but have been used to commit fraud, tax evasion and other crimes.
The website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identifies Prime International Group Services Ltd. as having been established in 2004 in the British Virgin Islands, and as being beneficially owned by Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman, the former astronaut. Its intermediary is listed as the Fahad Al-Nabet law office in Riyadh, and its overseas agent as the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. That firm’s founders, Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonesca, were arrested in February on money-laundering charges.
About two years after the al-Hijjis moved out their Sarasota home, Adel Ghazzawi tried to get a homeowner’s association lien removed so the house could be sold. The discussions proved to be contentious, according to then-property manager Jone Weist.
The Sarasota Herald Tribune has reported that while the al-Hijjis lived in the Prestancia development, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi were frequent visitors to the home they shared with their small children. Florida Bulldog recently has learned that in the summer of 2001 Anoud al-Hijji’s 18-year-old brother, Salman Ghazzawi, also lived at the home.
In 2013, the newspaper interviewed Carla DiBello, who knew the al-Hijjis and met Esam Ghazzawi several times. “I remember him being very eccentric. He loved going to big dinners and always had a lot of security,” DiBello said.
Florida Bulldog’s court papers contend that evidence of contacts between Ghazzawi’s family and 9/11 hijackers provide “additional evidence…of possible Saudi support for the 9/11 attacks…and should have triggered a full-scale and thorough investigation by the FBI.” Instead, the FBI “deliberately concealed” those contacts from congressional investigators to protect the Ghazzawis or “negligently failed to conduct a proper investigation of the possibility of complicity of Ghazzawi family members in the 9/11 attacks,” the court papers say.
FBI records that have been released indicate that as of 2004, the FBI apparently had not interviewed Ghazzawi about what happened in Sarasota.
Florida Bulldog’s attorneys Thomas Julin, Raymond Miller, Kyle Teal and Anaili Cure of the Gunster law firm argued the FBI is today “improperly” withholding records “not because those records would harm national security” or otherwise cause harm, but “rather because disclosure…would result in valid, important public criticism of the actions that the FBI took in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.”
The lawyers asked Miami U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga to set the case for trial “to determine whether the FBI has conducted an adequate search and whether it has properly withheld and redacted responsive records.”
The government, however, has asked the judge to rule on those issues without a public trial, which would likely include testimony by former Sen. Graham, who has accused the FBI of covering up for the Saudis.