Saturday, June 18, 2016

Saudi Imam, 2 Hijackers and Lingering 9/11 Mystery

From the New York Times:

Inside an opulent palace in Riyadh late one evening in February 2004, two American investigators interrogated a man they believed might hold answers to one of the lingering mysteries of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: What role, if any, did officials in Saudi Arabia’s government play in the plot?

The man under questioning, Fahad al Thumairy, had been a Saudi consular official based in Los Angeles and the imam of a mosque visited by two of the hijackers. The investigators, staff members of the national 9/11 commission who had waited all day at the United States Embassy before being summoned to the late-night interview, believed that tying him to the plot could be a step toward proving Saudi government complicity in the attacks.

They were unsuccessful. In two interviews lasting four hours, Mr. Thumairy, a father of two then in his early 30s, denied any ties to the hijackers or their known associates. Presented with phone records that seemed to contradict his answers, he gave no ground, saying the records were wrong or people were trying to smear him. The investigators wrote a report to their bosses saying they believed Mr. Thumairy was probably lying, though no government investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks has ever found conclusive evidence that Mr. Thumairy — or any other Saudi official — assisted in the plot.

But nearly 15 years after the attacks on New York and Washington, the question of a Saudi connection has arisen again amid new calls for the release of a long-classified section of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the attacks that discusses a possible Saudi role in the terrorist plot — the so-called 28 pages, whose secrecy has made them almost mythical.

American officials who have read the 28 pages say that, of all the investigative leads in that section of the report, the unanswered questions about Mr. Thumairy and the two hijackers remain the most intriguing. If there was any Saudi government role whatsoever, some still believe, it most likely would have gone through Mr. Thumairy.

The fact that years of investigation found no hard proof of official Saudi involvement has led some, notably the Saudi government, to argue that it is now the stuff of wild conjecture and conspiracy theory. The material in the 28 pages has been thoroughly investigated, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, said during a news conference here on Friday, and “those investigations have revealed that these allegations are not correct.”

“There is no there there,” he said.

John O. Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said during a recent interview with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television network that while he supported the release of the 28 pages, “people shouldn’t take them as evidence of Saudi complicity in the attacks.” American investigations into 9/11, he said, concluded that the attacks were the work of “Al Qaeda, of Bin Laden” and “others of that ilk.”

But to some, all the circumstantial evidence provides a glimpse of a truth that has yet to be unearthed.

“It’s one of those cases where there are an awful lot of very troubling coincidences,” said Richard L. Lambert, who oversaw the investigation into the hijackers’ contacts as the assistant agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s San Diego office in the year after the attacks.

At the F.B.I., the Sept. 11 plot officially remains an open case. While there is broad agreement on how it unfolded, there are aspects of the investigation that remain unresolved. And the mystery begins with the arrival at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 15, 2000, of two Saudi men who more than year and a half later would be among the hijackers who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

Apart from their proven devotion to the jihadist cause, the men, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, seemed unlikely choices for a pair of terrorists who would have to survive, and plot for months, in the United States. Neither spoke English or had experience navigating American life.

That circumstance would make it all the more critical for the F.B.I., after the attacks, to find out whether the two hijackers received help after reaching Los Angeles. But after an exhaustive canvass of hotels, investigators were unable to find any definitive evidence of where and how Mr. Hazmi and Mr. Mihdhar spent their first two weeks in the United States. By some accounts, however, they worshiped at the King Fahad Mosque in the Culver City area, where Mr. Thumairy was an imam, and they may have stayed in a nearby apartment rented by the mosque.

An F.B.I. document from 2012, cited last year by an independent review panel, concluded that Mr. Thumairy “immediately assigned an individual to take care of al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar during their time in the Los Angeles area.” The review broadly upheld the conclusions of the 9/11 commission on Saudi involvement, and the F.B.I. has still not been able to fill other gaps in the timeline of those initial two weeks in January 2000.

When the two hijackers reappeared in early February, they were eating at a restaurant, Mediterranean Gourmet, near the mosque. There, they encountered Omar al-Bayoumi, a fellow Saudi who was on the Saudi government payroll through the country’s civil aviation authority, possibly with an assignment to keep an eye out for Saudi dissidents in California.

Mr. Bayoumi later told the F.B.I. that the meeting was happenstance — that he overheard Mr. Hazmi and Mr. Mihdhar, noticed their Gulf accents and struck up a conversation. But the bureau believed that Mr. Bayoumi had met with Mr. Thumairy at the mosque just before he met the hijackers in the restaurant, and investigators wondered whether Mr. Thumairy had arranged the meeting.

At the time, Mr. Thumairy was part of a network of representatives of the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which finances mosque-building, trains clerics and proselytizes the conservative and intolerant strain of Islam known as Wahhabism. During his interview in Riyadh in 2004, Mr. Thumairy spoke fondly of his six years in Los Angeles, praising the warm weather and friendly people. His job at the consulate and the nearby mosque, he said, was to answer religious questions.

But investigators wrote that Mr. Thumairy appeared to be “deceptive” when questioned about his contacts, notably with Mr. Bayoumi. He denied knowing Mr. Bayoumi, despite telephone records that showed 21 calls between them over two years.

Read the rest here.

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