By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Seven years after thousands of 9/11 family victims won the right to sue Saudi Arabia for allegedly helping al Qaeda hijackers attack the U.S., their monumental court case is approaching a make-or-break crossroads.
The kingdom’s Washington, D.C. lawyers recently declared in court documents that by Oct. 6 they will ask the presiding federal judge to dismiss the New York litigation against them in its entirety, asserting that a U.S. court lacks jurisdiction to hear the multi-billion-dollar case because Saudi Arabia is immune from a lawsuit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).
If Senior U.S. District Judge George Daniels agrees, the decades-old case against Saudi Arabia would stop dead in its tracks, though appeals likely would drag on for years.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of understanding out there that if the motion to dismiss is granted, the case is, for all intents and purposes, over,” said Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ron, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.
“If we end up losing this case, literally there will be no accountability or justice whatsoever for 3,000 innocent civilians who were brutally murdered in broad daylight more than two decades ago. That’s just outrageous, and something I’d expect in some third world theocratic country – not the United States of America,” she said.
‘IT’S NOT SO EASY TO WIN’
Breitweiser is one of the four “Jersey Girls” who lost their husbands on 9/11 and were later indispensable in the lobbying effort to convince Congress and a reluctant President George W. Bush to establish the 9/11 Commission to investigate the 2001 terrorist attacks. The other widows in the group: Patty Casazza, Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie Van Auken.
“It’s not so easy to win, as was just shown in Pensacola,” Breitweiser said. She referred to a May ruling by a federal magistrate in North Florida that the families of three murdered U.S. Navy servicemen cannot sue Saudi Arabia for damages after a Saudi air force officer with “significant ties to al Qaeda” opened fire on them and others at Naval Air Station Pensacola in 2019. U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers, who will make the final call on whether FSIA was correctly invoked, has given plaintiffs lawyers until Monday, June 26, to file objections to the magistrate’s recommendation.
However, should Judge Daniels in New York find the plaintiffs have produced enough facts to overcome the kingdom’s renewed assertions of sovereign immunity – as Congress enabled in certain circumstances in 2016 with the passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act – the case would not only continue, it would expand greatly in scope.
To date, Daniels has limited discovery, or fact-finding, to events surrounding the entry into the U.S. of the first two al Qaeda hijackers – Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar – via Los Angeles in January 2000, and the help they received after they arrived. (The two men were later aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon.)
But should the case be allowed to continue, the plaintiffs would then be allowed to examine what the 19 hijackers were up to in other locales – including South and Southwest Florida; Phoenix and Tucson, AZ; Falls Church, VA, and Paterson, NJ.
“Once we meet the prima facie showing of jurisdiction over Saudi Arabia, we then proceed to discovery on the merits as to all issues, on all al Qaeda cells, their support systems, and on Saudi Arabia’s systematic material support of violent extremism,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Jodi Westbrook Flowers of the South Carolina-based law firm Motley Rice LLC.
LIMITED FACT-FINDING SO FAR
Judge Daniels restricted discovery in a 2018 order that denied a previous Saudi motion to dismiss. In it, he declared the plaintiffs had “articulated a reasonable basis for Saudi Arabia to be held responsible for the conduct” of two of its “agents” who aided Hazmi and Mihdhar – suspected spy Omar al Bayoumi and diplomat Fahad al Thumairy, and their “subagents.” Further, the judge ruled the 9/11 victims “allege facts sufficient to show” that Bayoumi and Thumairy, both Saudi nationals, “were following instructions from more senior officials in the Saudi embassy.”
Daniels noted that shortly after the hijackers’ arrival, Bayoumi met for an hour with Thumairy in Thumairy’s office at the Saudi Arabian consulate before meeting Hazmi and Mihdhar at a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant where he offered to help the pair settle in San Diego.
Bayoumi assisted the two al Qaeda members – neither of whom could speak English – by finding them an apartment, co-signing their lease as a guarantor, helping them open a bank account, occasionally paying their rent and, most significantly, putting them in touch with Anwar al Awlaki, an imam and covert al Qaeda recruiter who a decade later would be killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
On that basis, Daniels granted lawyers for the 9/11 victims the authority to conduct “limited and targeted discovery” aimed at answering this question: “Whether and to what extent Thumairy, Bayoumi and their agents took actions in 2000, at the direction of more senior Saudi officials, to provide assistance to Hazmi, Mihdhar, and other 9/11 hijackers?”
Since then, much more has come out about the roles of Bayoumi, Thumairy, their mysterious superiors at the Saudi embassy, and what happened in Southern California.
Some of that information is contained in still-sealed records turned over to plaintiffs’ lawyers by the U.S., the Saudi government and in depositions taken from dozens of witnesses both here and in the Middle East. Those records are secret under the terms of a “protective order” imposed by the court to shield allegedly important national security matters.
VICTIMS’ BITTERNESS AT U.S.
More emerged publicly after the Department of Justice’s disclosure of the existence of the FBI’s Operation Encore to Florida Bulldog in 2016 amid Freedom of Information Act litigation. Encore, apparently frowned on by FBI higher-ups, was an investigation into alleged Saudi government complicity in 9/11.
Encore – known in FBI bureaucratese as a “subfile” probe of PENTTBOM, the code name for its primary 9/11 investigation – was so highly classified that even its name was redacted from the 2012 FBI report that was released to Florida Bulldog. Adding to the mystery was Trump administration Attorney General William Barr’s invoking in 2020 of the state secrets privilege to broadly block the release of FBI documents about Encore that we now know contain evidence that Saudi government officials knowingly provided a support network for Hazmi and Mihdhar.
Barr’s extraordinary effort to hide documents evincing Saudi complicity, the FBI’s repeated solidarity with Saudi Arabia in court proceedings to suppress information about events leading up to 9/11, and the refusal of the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies to offer up 9/11 evidence has caused bitterness among survivors and the families of the dead.
“The FBI, CIA, NSA’s 9/11 Saudi coverup skullduggery spanning over 20 years, including the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations equates to complicity after the fact,” said Sharon Premoli, a Vermont resident who was at work on the 80th floor of World Trade Center’s North Tower when the first plane struck. She felt the building lurch and sway, then with a group of others made it to the ground where she was seriously injured upon the collapse of the South Tower.
“The 9/11 families and survivors have seen it all – even in court and there’s plenty of anger to go around. The FBI evidence is unambiguous. ‘9/11 would never have happened without Saudi Arabia,’” Premoli said, quoting former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.
Said Kristen Breitweiser, “The U.S. government has not been cooperative, has not shared evidence and information…A lot of my grievances are with the so-called Department of Justice. They protect the terrorists rather than prosecuting them and helping victims.”
BIDEN OPENED UP THOUSANDS OF FBI RECORDS
New evidence has emerged recently thanks to President Biden’s September 2021 executive order directing “The Attorney General and the heads of any other executive departments and agencies that originated relevant information” about 9/11 to complete declassification reviews and make public records that truly don’t involve national security.
“Information should not remain classified when the public interest in disclosure outweighs any damage to the national security,” the order says.
In the months that followed, the FBI released thousands of pages of previously buried records – including many Operation Encore documents that convincingly support the case for Saudi government involvement that 9/11 victims have striven for years to lay out in a court of law.
Notably, that includes a 130-page FBI compendium report written in July 2021 spelling out the numerous connections of U.S.-based “personnel and entities controlled by the Saudi Arabian government” to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
For example, Omar Bayoumi is affirmatively identified in the 2021 FBI report as a paid “cooptee” of the kingdom’s primary intelligence agency, “the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency [GIP], via then Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud.”
Bayoumi and Thumairy, who in addition to being an accredited diplomat was an imam at the nearby King Fahd Mosque, are also identified in the 2012 FBI report as having been “tasked” with aiding the future hijackers by the Saudi embassy’s then-director of Islamic Affairs, Musaed al Jarrah.
‘A MURDER TRIAL FOR 3,000 PEOPLE’
The Encore probe was begun three years after the 9/11 Commission shut down in 2004. It had declared, “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of Al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.”
Since then, the kingdom has cited that sentence to contend it was cleared of involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But former Sen. Graham, as well as 9/11 Commission members including ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) and John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, have each rebuffed that assertion, stating publicly that the Saudi government was not exonerated.
For Kristen Breitweiser, Sharon Premoli and thousands of other plaintiffs watching from the sidelines as the massive New York civil suit inches forward, anxiety is rising again as they await yet another crucial test of their case against Saudi Arabia.
“I would much rather have had a bunch of U.S. Attorneys with the full power of the United States standing behind them prosecuting co-conspirators. But my country decided not to do that. So what am I left with? I’m left with the 9/11 litigation, which is a civil federal court action but at the end of the day is a murder trial for 3,000 people,” said Breitweiser.