By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Mohdar Mohamed Abdullah is one of 9/11’s most intriguing figures whose name you may not know.
Today, exactly 20 years after the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil, he’s emerged as an important witness in the sprawling New York civil lawsuit in which thousands of members of the 9/11 Families are suing Saudi Arabia, contending the totalitarian kingdom provided financial and material support to the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for those attacks.
At stake in the lawsuit: billions of dollars and America’s relationship with its oil-rich Middle East ally – a “perfidious ally” as former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, sees it – hang in the balance. Graham co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.
Twenty years ago, Abdullah briefly gained international notoriety when the FBI arrested him 11 days after the attacks as a material witness. He’d admitted to agents being pals in Southern California with two al Qaeda hijackers who later helped commandeer American Airlines Flight 77 and plow it into the western wall of the Pentagon, but had declined to take a polygraph test.
Abdullah, then a 23-year-old Yemeni university student, said he’d “developed a close relationship, socially and religiously, with future suicide hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar, according to an FBI affidavit. He said he’d “assisted” Hazmi in Hazmi’s attempts to obtain lessons at a flight school in Florida, and told how in about January 2001 Hazmi introduced him to Hani Hanjour, later to be the hijack-pilot of Flight 77.
Abdullah, Hazmi and several subjects of interest in the 9/11 probe worked together in the fall of 2000 at a Texaco gas station in Mesa, CA owned by Osama “Sam” Mustafa. Mustafa, a U.S. citizen, repeatedly denied to the FBI having any terrorist connections, but has nevertheless remained a focus of FBI interest in the case. Mustafa was convicted in April 2013 of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. for his role in a $17.7-million scheme to profit from fraudulent U.S. Treasury income tax refund checks. He fled the country before sentencing, but was captured last year in Jordan. He is now serving a 20-year sentence.
ABDULLAH ‘CLEARLY SYMPATHETIC’ TO HIJACKERS
In court pleadings, the 9/11 Families have also alleged that Abdullah helped both Hazmi and Mihdhar “obtain multiple fake driver’s licenses and perform surveillance of Los Angeles International Airport, including through the use of video camera recording equipment.”
The 9/11 Commission concluded in 2004 “it is unlikely that Hazmi and Mihdhar…would have come to the United States without arranging to receive assistance from one or more individuals in advance of their arrival.” It also called Abdullah a “key associate” of the hijackers who “clearly was sympathetic” to Hazmi and Mihdhar’s “extremist” views, and was also aware of Mihdhar’s prior involvement in Yemen with the Islamic Army of Aden, a group with ties to al Qaeda.
But Abdullah strenuously denied being part of any clandestine support network. In papers filed in court, Abdullah insisted that his contacts with Saudis Hazmi and Mihdhar were merely “casual,” that he had no inkling of anything sinister they were up to, and that he’d translated for them because they were fellow Muslims in need.
FBI agents were nevertheless suspicious from the start. Abdullah, it soon turned out, had lied and used fraudulent documents to enter the U.S. in 1998. And when they searched his GEO Metro after his Sept. 21, 2001 arrest, they found “a spiral notebook displaying handwriting containing the word ‘hijacking,’ and references to planes falling from the sky and mass killing,” according to a Sept. 22, 2001 declaration by FBI Agent Daniel Gonzalez. Adding to agents’ concerns, at his booking in San Diego, Abdullah “made several spontaneous statements referencing the hatred in his heart for the United States government and states the United States brought ‘this’ on themselves.”
That same day, half-a-world away, New Scotland Yard agents found another spiral notebook containing a hand-drawn sketch of a plane plunging to the ground. The notebook was found at the Birmingham, England residence of suspected Saudi government agent Omar al Bayoumi, 42, the very man Abdullah told the FBI had introduced him to Hazmi and Mihdhar in Southern California and, as the 9/11 Commission put it, had tasked Abdullah to “acclimate the hijackers to the United States.”
ABDULLAH COMES UP IN ENCORE PROBE
A highly redacted October 2012 FBI Summary Report obtained in 2016 by Florida Bulldog about Operation Encore, a probe of possible Saudi government complicity in the attacks, stated that in June 2012 FBI agents and a federal prosecutor in New York traveled to London “to exploit evidence seized in 2001” during the search of Bayoumi’s “residence and offices.” What they found was blanked out in the report for national security and other reasons.
But in a follow-up story last year about Operation Encore, The New York Times Magazine reported, “An FBI agent who had studied aeronautical engineering concluded that the diagram showed a formula for an aerial descent like the one performed by Flight 77, the jet that Hazmi and Mihdhar hijacked, before it struck the Pentagon. Apparently, the notebook and its contents went unnoticed after Bayoumi’s detention and hadn’t been looked at again.”
It may also be noteworthy that at the time of his Aug. 16, 2001 arrest in Minnesota, al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person ever convicted in a U.S. court of conspiring to kill Americans in connection with the 9/11 attacks, had in his possession “seven spiral notebooks containing handwritten notes about aviation” along with a Microsoft flight simulator book, a Northwest Airlines 747 cockpit operating manual and two 747 training videos, according to a 2004 Justice Department Inspector General’s review of the handing of intelligence information related to the attacks.
After several years of litigation – in a case that government lawyers said was “worthy of a John LeCarre novel, replete with mysterious comings and goings across international borders and personalities whose true identify may never be known” – Mohdar Abdullah was deported to his home country of Yemen in 2004.
Shortly before his deportation and as the 9/11 Commission was shutting down, commissioners learned “of reports about Abdullah bragging to fellow inmates at a California prison in September-October 2003 that he had known Hazmi and Mihdhar were planning a terrorist attack.”
“Although boasts among prison inmates often tend to be unreliable, this evidence is obviously important. To date, neither we nor the FBI have been able to verify Abdullah’s alleged jailhouse statements,” says the commission’s report.
Abdullah had fought removal bitterly. His California lawyer, Randall Hamud, called it a “low tech lynching” in court records. Hamud wrote a crew of FBI agents showed up “for the purpose of contaminating the [removal] proceedings with specious allegations of terrorist connections based upon conjecture and mendacity.”
9/11 FAMILIES FIND ABDULLAH IN SWEDEN
On government paperwork seeking asylum, Abdullah wrote, “I have been identified in the public forum as a casual acquaintance of the 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar. Were I to be deported to Yemen, the government would seize me as a suspected terrorist/al Qaeda member/supporter and would torture me and possibly kill me in its prosecution of the war against terror as an ally of the United States.”
But Yemen is not where Abdullah settled. At some point he moved to Sweden.
Earlier this year, lawyers for the 9/11 Families finally caught up with Abdullah after years of searching. Court documents say they first obtained diplomatic documents needed to obtain his testimony in mid-2019 in Sweden. The Swedish court twice scheduled hearings, but both were canceled because “Abdullah avoided service of process.”
In April, in a Stockholm courtroom in front of a judge, Abdullah finally appeared and was deposed. The proceedings were closed to the public and the media. Several people without FBI clearance participated by video.
We don’t know what Abdullah had to say under oath. Like all the other depositions taken in the case, and thousands of official U.S. and Saudi Arabian government documents obtained by subpoena by the plaintiffs, they are locked away from public view under strict “protective” conditions laid down by the FBI and OK’d by deferential judges.
But one plaintiffs’ attorney who participated called Abdullah “an interesting witness. He had a lot to say. He spent a lot of time with the hijackers.”
Said another attorney for the 9/11 Families, South Carolina’s Jodi Westbrook Flowers: “This is a matter of keen interest but I’m prohibited from discussing the contents of the depositions due to an overly onerous FBI protective order.”
Robbyn Swan contributed to this report.