Answers begin to emerge about secret FBI probe of Saudi government complicity in 9/11

A security camera captured the explosion as American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon after being hijacked by Nawaf al-Hazmi, Khalid al-Mihdhar and three other Saudi men on September 11, 2001.

By Dan Christensen,

Piece by piece, the puzzle of the heavily censored FBI 2012 Summary Report about Operation Encore, the bureau’s once-hush-hush probe of Saudi government involvement in 9/11, appears to be giving up its secrets.

On the vast, often-underground docket of the enormous New York civil case that pits 9/11 victims against Saudi Arabia, court records recently have appeared like answers floating to the surface of an upended Magic 8-Ball.

For the first time, witnesses cited in the 2012 report as having had contact with the suicide hijackers during their early days in the U.S. have been publicly identified. Named, too, is an apparent target of a federal grand jury the report says was then investigating a suspected U.S. support network for the hijackers.

The records also reveal the grand jury was shut down abruptly in 2016 while actively hearing testimony from witnesses.

The four-page report, released to Florida Bulldog in late 2016 amid Freedom of Information litigation, was the first confirmation of an active FBI investigation into questions of Saudi government involvement in the attacks since the 9/11 Commission closed down in 2004. The report was so thickly redacted that even the investigation’s code name, Operation Encore, was blanked out.

The U.S. government has taken extraordinary steps to keep a lid on what else is in that FBI report and related records. In 2019 and again last year, Attorney General William Barr blocked release of additional “classified national security information” in the report by personally asserting the state secrets privilege in the case. The Biden Administration has been asked to reconsider that assertion.

Focus on Saudi hijackers in Southern California

Many of the new details are contained in two similar sworn declarations made by former FBI Special Agent Catherine M. Hunt in 2018 and again last year. Hunt, of Lakeland, is a veteran foreign counterintelligence and anti-terrorism agent who resigned in 2006 after a 12-year FBI career. Her last 17 months were spent in Iraq. She now works as a consultant for a New York law firm that’s helping to spearhead the 9/11 lawsuit.

Saudi Arabia and fahad al thumairy and omar al bayoumi
Suspected Saudi agent and friend to two 9/11 hijackers Omar al-Bayoumi, right, and former Saudi diplomat and former Los Angeles Imam Fahad al-Thumairy

Previously, the presiding judge in the case sharply curtailed the plaintiffs’ efforts to investigate what happened in advance of the Sept. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. So while significant events occurred in more than a half-dozen states, including Florida, the court has only authorized discovery on the limited question of whether two Saudi men, Fahad al-Thumairy and Omar al Bayoumi, knowingly assisted 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar in Southern California after their arrival in January 2000.

Hazmi and Mihdhar were among five Saudis who seized control of American Airlines Flight 77 and crashed it into the west wall of the Pentagon. A total of 184 people were killed, not counting the hijackers, including 59 passengers and crew aboard the jetliner and 125 men and women on the ground.

Thumairy was a Saudi diplomat and religious leader at a Los Angeles-area mosque. Bayoumi was an apparent Saudi intelligence agent who has acknowledged innocently befriending the two hijackers after chancing to meet them at a Mediterranean restaurant.

According to Hunt’s declarations, she focused her investigation on events in Southern California and relied heavily on the limited declassified information disclosed in the FBI 2012 Summary Report.

She notes that the report states that Thumairy was a Saudi diplomat and the Imam at the King Fahd Mosque near Los Angeles when the two hijackers first arrived in the U.S. and that “Thumairy immediately assigned an individual to take care of them.” That person’s name was blanked out, but Hunt wrote that in August 2018 she identified a Cincinnati, Ohio man, Mohamed Johar, as possibly that person.

‘I’m not hiding’

In a meeting at which Johar’s attorney was present, Johar “told me that he had been interviewed by the FBI on multiple occasions in 2007, 2010 and 2016. He told me that in 2007, the FBI flew him to Los Angeles to point out specific locations of interest, such as the restaurant where al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar met with al-Bayoumi. During the interview Mr. Johar’s attorney stated, ‘surely you have access to the interviews’ and ‘you can get this information from the FBI.’ Mr. Johar stated, ‘I’m not hiding … I told the FBI.’ ”

Johar told Hunt that he frequently attended the King Fahd Mosque and “confirmed that in January 2000, he met al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar and personally witnessed al-Thumairy have contact” and conversations with them at the mosque.

Ex-FBI Special Agent Catherine M. Hunt

“Johar assisted the hijackers with regard to their lodging during the first two weeks they were in Los Angeles. Johar admitted that he took the hijackers to the Mediterranean restaurant which was located down the street and around the corner from his home, where the hijackers had their ‘chance meeting’ with al-Bayoumi,” Hunt wrote in her April 2020 declaration filed in court earlier this year.

Johar told Hunt he was subpoenaed by a New York grand jury and was scheduled “to appear in February 2016. But at a meeting one month before, an assistant U.S. Attorney told Johar’s attorney “that Johar did not need to appear before the grand jury…The meeting ended and neither Johar nor his attorney heard anything further from the government regarding Johar’s contact with the hijackers.”

A source has told Florida Bulldog that the grand jury assisting Operation Encore was dissolved in early 2016. The New York Times and Pro Publica jointly have reported that Operation Encore, which caused an internal schism at the FBI, was shut down about the same time.

Hunt’s 2018 declaration contains additional information that is not mentioned in her 2020 declaration. She wrote then that “the grand jury subpoena involved the 9/11 related investigation of an employee of Saudi Arabia working at its Los Angeles Consulate named Smail Mana aka Ismail Mana,” who “regularly spoke at the mosque.”

“You can get the information from the prosecution of Smail Mana – those documents are public information – surely you must have them,” Johar’s unidentified attorney told Hunt.

A grand jury subpoena

Hunt located and met with Mana in September 2018. “He immediately referred me to his lawyer. I had a telephone conversation with Mr. Mana’s lawyer…who confirmed that Mr. Mana had been served with a Grand Jury subpoena.”

The October 2012 FBI report states that two months earlier, a lead was sent to the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force seeking confirmation of two possible addresses for “REDACTED individual who was known to have extremist views and was identified as having met with Omar al Bayoumi in private on the same day as Bayoumi’s alleged ‘chance’ first meeting with 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar.”

U.S. visas of al Qaeda members Khalid al Mihdhar, left, and Nawaf al Hazmi. Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 determined they were obtained at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in April 1999.

The paragraph further says the FBI planned to interview REDACTED regarding his role “aiding Bayoumi in facilitating the hijacker’s arrival and settlement in California, for which REDACTED has never provided an adequate explanation.”

Hunt concluded, “I believe Smail Mana is the individual referenced in the paragraph and that the FBI has evidence that he met with al-Bayoumi at Saudi Arabia’s Los Angeles Consulate on February 1, 2000, just prior to the meeting of al-Bayoumi with the hijackers.”

Hunt’s declarations say Johar identified two other men as having had contact with the hijackers. The name of one, Mohdar Abdullah, was not redacted from the 2012 FBI report. The second is new: Yemeni native Akram Alzamari. “Johar stated that Akram Alzamari had a closer relationship with the hijackers than he did,” Hunt said.

Alzamari, a California resident, told Hunt he had previously spoken to the FBI and other government officials. “You must have seen the write-ups of my interviews,” Hunt wrote.

“Alzamari confirmed that Johar introduced him to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar but took issue with Johar’s statements that he provided ‘assistance’ to the hijackers, saying this was not true,” Hunt’s declaration says. Alzamari declined to elaborate, saying “he was very uncomfortable discussing the topic of Johar and the hijackers because it made him sad.”

‘Squeeze him for all he’s got’

However, Alzamari did acknowledge that he was a friend of Thumairy and that Thumairy “trusted Alzamari and felt comfortable sharing frustrations with his job. While Alzamari was working at Circuit City, al-Thumairy would send him mosque visitors who were hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Los Angeles Consulate. Alzamari would provide these individuals with Toshiba computers and other electronics that were then paid for by the mosque,” says Hunt’s 2020 declaration.

“Alzamari said he did not understand why the U.S. government deported al-Thumairy [in 2003 for suspected terrorist links] and that the U.S. should have held onto al-Thumairy after 9/11 to ‘squeeze him for all he’s got’ and then deport him. He said he thought it was stupid of the U.S. to deport him,” the declaration says.

Musaed Ahmed al-Jarrah

“Alzamari said he had more information but would not share it unless compelled by some authority,” the declaration says. He “said he supports the lawsuit against Saudi Arabia and that he dislikes the Saudis because they are ‘responsible for a lot of problems for Muslims and non-Muslims’ ” and that “the entire Islamic community carries the burden for what the hijackers did.”

Hunt’s 2018 declaration states, “There are at least six other individuals employed by the Saudi government who the FBI investigated in relation to the 9/11 attacks,” and that each worked with Thumairy and/or Bayoumi. The name of one of those is Musaed Ahmed al-Jarrah. Jarrah’s name was declassified by the FBI after an order by former President Trump and later released in court papers as a person the 2012 FBI says “tasked” Thumairy and Bayoumi with assisting the hijackers.

Jarrah is a former Saudi Foreign Ministry official who worked at the Saudi embassy in Washington in 1999-2000.

Jarrah, Thumairy, Bayoumi and the others were all recently deposed in the New York litigation. What they had to say is subject to an FBI protective order that has thrown a blanket of secrecy over much of what’s unfolding in the case.

Oddly, Alzamari, despite his statement of support for the lawsuit, retained a high-powered New York law firm and fought a subpoena to testify in the case. Ultimately, the court ordered him to provide an unusual written deposition in answer to questions submitted in advance. That was done on March 11, 2020.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers later asked the court to allow them to conduct an additional oral deposition and cross-examine Alzamari “in the interests of justice” after they said he “recanted specific factual statements he made previously to federal investigators under penalty of imprisonment.”

“He implausibly claimed that several FBI agents from multiple offices, while investigating the worst terrorist attack ever committed on U.S. soil, included detailed, false statements in their interview reports in violation of federal law. His answers also contradicted statements he made to SA [ex-special agent] Hunt,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers said in a motion that was filed under seal in January.

U.S. District Judge George Daniels rejected the plaintiffs’ request in a May order. The motion was then made public.

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