WASHINGTON - Relatives of the victims of the 9/11 attacks who are suing Saudi Arabia for compensation obtained a coveted piece of information last week that they hope will strengthen their case.
The FBI disclosed the name of a Saudi official who is believed to have helped two of the 19 hijackers who carried out the terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
The name, included in a 2012 FBI report on suspected Saudi ties to the terrorists, was released to lawyers representing the families of nearly 3,000 victims of the worst act of terrorism on American soil.
The mystery man allegedly tasked two other Saudis living in the Los Angeles area before the 9/11 attacks — Omar al-Bayoumi and Fahad al-Thumairy — to aid Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
Al-Bayoumi allegedly did such things as finding the two terrorists an apartment, co-signing their lease and paying their first month’s rent.
Fourteen other hijackers forced two other airliners to crash into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and a third into a field in Pennsylvania.
“This has been a very important name to our case because it will now tie the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and their officials in an official capacity directing the actions of 9/11,” said Terry Strada, national chair of the 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, whose husband died in the attack on the North Tower.
Most hijackers were Saudis
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, which has raised persistent suspicion about Saudi involvement. But Saudi Arabia has long denied any connection, and over the years it has waged a vociferous campaign to forestall the litigation and disclosure of damaging information.
Neither the FBI nor the CIA could conclusively say after the attacks that the Saudi government was responsible.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Lawyers for the families declined to discuss the name, but they said the disclosure connected the dots between al-Bayoumi and al-Thumairy and the hijackers.
“Our mission here is to uncover facts about what Omar al-Bayoumi and Fahad al-Thumairy did and who they were working with,” said Sean Carter, co-chair of the Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee in the case.
The disclosure marks a turning point in the case, as the Justice Department acquiesced to demands for disclosure, despite the Trump administration’s close relations with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The litigation grew out of hundreds of lawsuits filed against Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. The lawsuits have since been consolidated into one massive case. It seeks billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia for supporting al-Qaida and facilitating the 9/11 attacks.
For nearly 13 years, the case languished in the courts, hampered by a 1976 law that largely protects foreign governments from being sued in U.S. courts.
Then came the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, the 2016 law that allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments over terrorist acts carried out on American soil.
That pumped fresh blood into the case. Last year, a federal judge in New York rejected Saudi Arabia’s latest motion to dismiss the lawsuit and ruled that the case could move forward. Attorneys for the 9/11 families were allowed to collect information from Saudi Arabia, the U.S. government and other parties about Saudi support for the hijackers, including the activities of al-Bayoumi and al-Thumairy.
Their names were mentioned in the 2012 FBI report, which referenced an unnamed third person who tasked them to help the two hijackers.
The FBI released the report in late 2016 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by a news site, but kept the name of the third person redacted. The 9/11 families’ lawyers pressed for its release, and Attorney General William Barr consented, while invoking “state secrets” privileges over much of the rest of the report.
The FBI investigated al-Bayoumi and al-Thumairy after 9/11 but released them without bringing any charges. The men are believed to be living in Saudi Arabia.
The families’ lawyers say they want to talk to them.
“We intend to depose all witnesses whose attendance we can compel, whether by U.S. rules, treaties or international law and norms,” Carter said.