The document details the contacts several of the 9/11 hijackers had with Saudi associates in the US. Yet, the information did not appear to provide conclusive proof that senior Saudi government officials themselves were complicit in the plot.
Saudi Arabia has always denied that its government or officials played any role in the attacks, even though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
A week after Joe Biden signed an executive order vowing to make public any information the government had into the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington DC that killed almost 3,000 people, the Department of Justice released the first tranche of such information – a heavily-redacted, 16-page summary of Operation Encore, the FBI’s own probe into possible links between the hijackers and Saudi officials.
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While the document may not be the smoking gun some were hoping for given that so many names were blanked out, lawyers representing survivors and relatives, claimed it was just that.
“With this first release of documents, 20 years of Saudi Arabia counting on the US government to cover up its role in 9/11 comes to an end,” New York attorney James Kreindler said in a statement, first reported by the Florida Bulldog, a watchdog site.
“The findings and conclusions in this FBI investigation validate the arguments we have made in the litigation regarding the Saudi government’s responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. This document, together with the public evidence gathered to date, provides a blueprint for how al-Qaeda operated inside the US with the active, knowing support of the Saudi government.”
Meanwhile, Brett Eagleson, whose father died in the Word Trade Centre, said the release of the FBI material “accelerates our pursuit of truth and justice”.
Mr Biden had promised that an FBI electronic communication dating from 4 April 2016 would be made public by the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
Survivors, along with relatives of those who died, had long suspected the document could relate to Operation Encore, an investigation that the FBI continued, long after the 9/11 Commission issued its report in 2004, and which suggested America’s greatest error in not preventing the attacks had been a “failure of imagination”.
As it was, the previously classified document was slipped out with minimal fanfare by the Department of Justice shortly before midnight on Saturday, and in doing so just meeting Mr Biden’s promise. It was located on a part of the DoJ website called the “The Vault”.
Particular scrutiny has centred on the first two hijackers to arrive in the US, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar and the support they received.
In February 2000, shortly after their arrival in southern California, they encountered at a halal restaurant a Saudi national named Omar al-Bayoumi who helped them find and lease an apartment in San Diego, had ties to the Saudi government and had earlier attracted FBI scrutiny.
Among Mr Bayoumi’s contacts was Fahad al-Thumairy, at the time an accredited diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles who investigators say led an extremist faction at his mosque. The two men left the US weeks before the attacks, and have always denied any wrongdoing.
The document details interviews carried out in 2015 by the FBI with someone who had contact with Mr Bayoumi. The name of the individual was redacted from the report and was referred to as “PII”.
The New York Times said PII was applying for American citizenship, and that he had detailed his work at the country’s consulate in Los Angeles and shared anecdotes about his personal interactions with embassy leadership. The document also summarised his contact with people who investigators said had provided “significant logistic support” to two of the hijackers.
The document also says communications analysis identified a seven-minute phone call in 1999 from Mr Thumairy’s phone to the Saudi Arabian family home landline of two brothers who became future detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
Saudi Arabia has also insisted it had no role in either planning or financing the attacks, the 20th anniversary of which was marked in services and ceremonies across the US.
Last week, the Saudi embassy in Washington DC repeated the kingdom’s previous denial of any complicity.
“Previous declassification of materials relating to the September 11 attacks, such as the “28 Pages”, only have confirmed the 9/11 Commission’s finding that Saudi Arabia had nothing to do with this terrible crime,” it said.
“It is lamentable that such false and malicious claims persist.”
In a statement on behalf of the organisation 9/11 Families United, Terry Strada, whose husband Tom was one of the 2,977 victims, said the document released by the FBI on Saturday put to bed any doubts about Saudi complicity in the attacks.
“Now the Saudis’ secrets are exposed and it is well past time for the kingdom to own up to its officials’ roles in murdering thousands on American soil,” the statement said.