Twenty Years Ago, the Saudi Government Got Away With the Crime of the Century

Despite copious evidence of Saudi complicity in the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration and its successors have spent twenty years shielding the country’s elite from accountability while making war on an ever-growing list of other Middle East countries.

One World Trade Center collapses on September 11, 2001. (L. Busacca / WireImage via Getty Images)

One of the still unsolved mysteries of the September 11 attacks is how the foreign government that was by far the most responsible for that atrocity got off completely scot-free — and, in fact, proceeded to be lavishly rewarded by Washington for years to come.

If 9/11 was a modern Pearl Harbor, then imagine that Franklin Roosevelt had responded to that attack by covering up any evidence of Japan’s involvement, blaming and invading the Soviet Union instead, and then spending the next two decades selling the Japanese Empire billions of dollars in weapons, regularly wining and dining their leadership, and helping them commit war crimes in other parts of the world. This is basically what happened between the United States and Saudi Arabia since that day in 2001.

Even before the attacks, it was understood that, as part of the delicate balance of power keeping the royals in place at the top, the Saudi government was helping fund and export Islamic extremism around the world, in line with the wishes of the radical clerics by whose assent they ruled. The Saudi government was a distinctly unhelpful force in previous terrorism investigations, stonewalling US attempts to get Osama bin Laden and refusing US requests to arrest or execute him when Sudan offered to hand him over. According to one US counterterrorism official, that would’ve meant “we probably never would have seen a September 11th.” Then there was the fact that most of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, as bin Laden himself was.

Since the release in 2016 of the redacted “twenty-eight pages” of the 9/11 Commission report George Bush had tried to keep secret, Saudi government culpability for the attack has gone from mere smoke to a wildfire. We found out that, in 1999, two Saudi nationals who claimed their tickets from Phoenix to Washington had been paid for by the Saudi Embassy they were traveling to, and who the FBI later determined had “connections to terrorism,” did a “dry run” for the attacks, forcing their plane to make an emergency landing because of their suspicious behavior.

We also found out that the eventual hijackers “were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi government,” including workers at that embassy, a Saudi diplomat in Los Angeles, and at least two possible Saudi spies. One of these alleged spies was paid directly out of the account of the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, and by the charity his wife ran. Meanwhile, a year before the pages were declassified, the government quietly declassified another document: an Al Qaeda operative’s US pilot certificate, enclosed in a Saudi embassy envelope. That same operative would later claim that, while recruiting him to carry out an attack on the United States, a Saudi religious figure used the term “Your Highness,” while discussing his jihadi qualifications with a man over the phone.

There was more than enough evidence to warrant a comprehensive investigation, with the results released publicly — and, at minimum, serious diplomatic and even economic consequences for the House of Saud if their complicity was confirmed beyond doubt.

Instead, the American public’s fury and the vast military resources of the US government were immediately directed against the impoverished and backward government of Afghanistan. And, perversely, the Bush administration, and the media that worked lockstep with it, turned Saudi Arabia into a trusted partner to prosecute Bush’s “crusade” against terrorism.

“We’re going to need support from places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and others,” retired Air Force major general Perry Smith told NPR on September 13 about waging war on Afghanistan. Nine days later, a New York Times editorial praised Bush for “wisely” realizing “the importance of enlisting major Muslim nations like Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia in the antiterrorist coalition.” “Saudi Arabia possesses an array of assets that can be critical in the war against terrorism,” read another op-ed.

Even the proto-Trumpist Pat Buchanan, who opposed the Afghanistan war, included Saudi Arabia in a list of “our Arab allies” that would be negatively impacted by a war on Afghanistan. A Honolulu Star-Bulletin column taking vengeful callers to task the day after the attack chided one who called for bombing Saudi Arabia, claiming that “the Saudis usually are on our side.”

In the grand and utterly delusional plans Bush officials and pundits immediately drew up after September 11, just about every Middle Eastern state was listed as a future target for regime change or attack: Syria, Algeria, Libya, the Palestinian Authority, and, of course, Iraq and Iran. Saudi Arabia was never even mentioned, except as a reliable partner for Washington to pursue this madness.

Every now and then in the weeks after the attacks, hints of the truth briefly shone through. Saudi Arabia and Gulf states are “home to financial backers and recruits for terrorist networks,” reported the Washington Post, citing US officials who charged they “have not been completely forthcoming in the past, some U.S. officials say.” “Islamic experts and diplomats say that the reasons for the large numbers of Saudis implicated in the hijackings aren’t completely understood,” noted a different column. Ten days after the attacks, on page A15, the Post ran a report on the country’s “internal problems” (read: its links to extremists), noting that Saudi authorities had resisted US efforts to interview suspects in an earlier anti-American terrorist attack and quoting a 1998 State Department study that charged “US intelligence on Saudi Arabia suffers from misunderstanding the radical nature and underestimating the power of the religious establishment.”

Fishy stuff, to say the least. And yet, intent on flexing US military muscle by toppling the Afghan government, Bush officials like Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld shamelessly courted the Saudi leadership, which soon cut ties with the Taliban, backed the US “war on terror,” and begrudgingly allowed the US military to use the country as a base for its attack, ironically one of the major issues that had animated bin Laden and his ilk to attack the United States to begin with. It was only on the very day that US troops invaded Afghanistan that the Chicago Tribune saw fit to run a report on Saudi Arabia’s links to Wahhabi extremism: “Terrorism finds foot soldiers in Saudis.”

It was as if everything that should have made Saudi Arabia a target for American ire had simply been transplanted onto Afghanistan.

There are many reasons why this happened, most of them stemming ultimately from Saudi Arabia’s status as home to the world’s largest oil reserves. But let’s not ignore Saudi officials’ hard work in co-opting the US elite. The same Prince Bandar implicated in the twenty-eight pages was a close friend of the Bush family, to the point of earning the moniker “Bandar Bush” and being the first person Bush Jr talked to when mulling a run for president. He was also racquetball buddies with Bush’s future secretary of state, whom he gifted a 1995 Jaguar.

Saudi Arabia is consistently one of the biggest spenders on US lobbying — foreign meddling done openly and legally — and courts both parties, as well as the press to secure positive coverage. It’s not surprising that inexplicably influential New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who rewarded the country’s awful new crown prince with lavish praise in exchange for equally lavish trips to the country, was also one of the loudest voices in favor of hitting Afghanistan after September 11 (“Give war a chance,” he wrote a month into the invasion).

So whatever the truth is about the role Saudi officials played in the attacks, it was buried. According to John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy who investigated the attacks as part of the 9/11 Commission, the Bush administration was “refusing to declassify anything having to do with Saudi Arabia,” even when he presented them with evidence of Saudi officials’ links to the hijackers, and “anything having to do with the Saudis, for some reason, it had this very special sensitivity.” Before hiding the pages that implicated the House of Saud, and his family friend in particular, from public view for nearly fifteen years, Bush tried to put the Saudi-connected Henry Kissinger to head the Commission. Its cochair, former senator Bob Graham, accused the US government of “aggressive deception” in regard to the Saudi role in the attacks.

But maybe things are starting to change. Barack Obama famously declassified the twenty-eight pages under pressure from the families of September 11 victims, and Joe Biden has now ordered the declassification of more documents related to the FBI’s investigation into the attacks, which could well reveal even more about Saudi government involvement.

We’ll see what this means in practice. The order still leaves some wiggle room to hide inconvenient truths, creating an exception to declassification “when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise.” But Saudi officials themselves are certainly nervous about what the US public and world might learn in the coming months.

The war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq should never have happened, for reasons entirely unrelated to Saudi government culpability for the attacks: they were not only counterproductive and catastrophic but an immoral collective punishment of millions of innocent people for the sins of a few, the same twisted logic embraced by the terrorists Washington has spent this century hunting. But the evidence we have of Saudi involvement makes the military adventurism of the past decades especially, tragically absurd. With twenty years having passed since the attacks, it is high time there was some accountability for those responsible.