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New Book Raises Questions about Saudi Links to 9/11 Attacks - 2003-10-03

Gerald Posner's new book, Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11, examines the central question of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington: What did American intelligence and law enforcement know and what did they ignore?

But there's one chapter that's getting a lot of attention these days. In chapter 19, Gerald Posner describes how in March 2002 American Special Forces working with elite forces from Pakistan captured a top Al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, in western Pakistan.

Gerald Posner says that when Abu Zubaydah was turned over to CIA officers he refused to talk. After three days the Americans decided to set up what looked like a Saudi jail. They had two Arab-American Special Operations officers play the Saudi interrogators, he says, under the belief that Abu Zubaydah would be more afraid of the Saudis, who use torture in their interrogations, than he would be of the Americans:

“When he sees the Saudis, the fake Saudis, instead of being afraid he's actually relieved and gives them a private cell phone number and tells them, ‘this man will know what to do.’ Turns out to be the nephew of the King of Saudi Arabia, a prince who is one of the leading businessmen in the kingdom. And in the next few days when the Americans (impersonating Saudis) challenge him further he gives the names of two other Saudi princes and the head of the Air Force in Pakistan. And further, he claims that two of these individuals, the nephew of the king in Saudi Arabia and the head of the Air Force in Pakistan knew that there would be an attack on American soil on 9/11 from Al Qaeda and did nothing about it.”

Gerald Posner says when the Americans posing as Saudi intelligence officers revealed their identities, what happened next surprised everyone: “The difficult thing to find out on something like this is: Is what we're being told real or not? Is it false information that's being planted? And what's astonishing with Zubaydah is that once he discovers that he was duped and really held by Americans, that he had not been talking to the Saudis. Because he thought he was playing his ‘get out of jail free card’ he becomes so distraught that first he tries to kill himself, which is stopped. But then he recants the entire thing. He says, ‘By the way, I was lying fellows. I just wanted you to know I had committed these names to memory. I had these cell phone numbers."

Not knowing whom to believe Gerald Posner says the CIA took this information directly to the Saudis and Pakistanis. Both governments denied any involvement with Abu Zubaydah. But he says what happened after the denials is what makes everyone so suspicious: “So the key people named by Zubaydah in the interrogation - after we tell the Saudis and Pakistanis - all have the misfortune of dying from the ages of 25 to 43: either by car wrecks, plane crashes, blood clots or dehydration. It seems pretty suspicious that there might be other things pending here.”

Is there a connection between the Saudi royal family and Al Qaeda? Middle East scholar Kenneth Katzman works at the Congressional Research Service. He points out that for many years Saudi Arabia paid off Islamic radicals including present Al Qaeda members - with the blessing of the United States:

“It wasn't necessarily that Saudi Arabia was buying off Al Qaeda, but what it was doing was buying off the Taleban in Afghanistan. It was assisting with funds and with political support the Taleban in Afghanistan with an implicit agreement that the Taleban would keep Al Qaeda under wraps. Would keep it under control so that it could not make trouble in the Saudi kingdom itself. So there had been intelligence ties but the Saudi intelligence ties go way back really to the struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. When the Saudis, with our blessing and with our cooperation, were funding various parties, Afghan parties, Arab volunteer parties, against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and those ties persisted.”

In a recent appearance on Meet the Press, an NBC morning television talk show hosted by Tim Russert, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked what ties if any Saudi Arabia had to the September 11 attacks:

“MR. RUSSERT: We could establish a direct link between the hijackers of September 11 and Saudi Arabia.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We know that many of the attackers were Saudi. There was also an Egyptian in the bunch. It doesn't mean those governments had anything to do with that attack.

MR. RUSSERT: There are reports that the investigation Congress did does show a link between the Saudi government and the hijackers but that it will not be released to the public.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I don't know want to speculate on that, Tim, partly because I was involved in reviewing those pages. It was the judgment of our senior intelligence officials, both CIA and FBI that that material needed to remain classified.”

Mr. Cheney went on to praise the Saudi royal family for its efforts to fight terrorism: “I think the Saudis came to realize as a result of the attacks of last May that they were as much of a target as we are. That al-Qaeda did have a foothold inside Saudi Arabia -- a number of the members of the organization are from there. That there have been private individuals in Saudi Arabia who provided significant financial support and assistance. That there are facilitators and operators working inside Saudi Arabia to support the al-Qaeda network. And the Saudis have been, as I say in the last several months, very good partners in helping us go after the people in the al-Qaeda organization.”

Observers agree that the Saudis are cooperating more than they were in the past. But many, including Leon Hadar, a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, say the way the story is being told by the U.S. government and media is somewhat misleading: “It creates the impression as though the Saudis are helping us, the United States, in the fight against terrorism. The fact of the matter is that the main threat is to the Saudi regime. The United States will survive, there might be casualties and so on, but the terrorist threat at this stage coming mostly from radical Islamic terrorist groups is directed against the regime in Saudi Arabia. So it is in the interests of the Saudis, more than in the interests of the Americans, to make sure those terrorist organizations will be dismantled and destroyed.”

Saudi Arabia is doing more to fight terrorism. Saudi policemen are dying in gun battles with Islamic militants and they are seizing weapons caches. The royal family has told Saudi clerics to tone down their anti-Western sermons. They have even let the U.S. Treasury Department and FBI agents into the kingdom to hunt for terrorism funding.

However, Gerald Posner says this is only half-hearted help. The Saudi royal family continues to funnel money to Islamic groups like Hamas who are responsible for suicide bombings in Israel and the Occupied Territories. In addition, Saudi citizens contribute to charity groups that have links to Al Qaeda.

Until the Saudi royal family confronts this problem, Mr. Posner says, Saudi Arabia won't become a fully trusted ally in the war on terror.