There’s a lot going on in the world right now, so it’s not surprising some news slips through the cracks. Still, it’s amazing that explosive new information about an allied government’s complicity in one of the worst attacks on US soil in history has simply come and gone with barely any notice.
Last week, the FBI quietly declassified a 510-page report it produced in 2017 about the 9/11 terrorist attack twenty years ago. The disclosure is in accordance with President Joe Biden’s September 2021 executive order declassifying long-hidden government files about the attack, which many hoped would reveal what exactly US investigators knew about the Saudi Arabian government’s possible involvement.
They weren’t let down. These most recent revelations revolve around Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national working in San Diego for a Saudi government–owned aviation company he never actually turned up to. Al-Bayoumi had long been the subject of suspicion, both because of his ties to extremist clerics and due to the strange coincidences that surrounded him, from the job he never worked to the fact that he just happened to meet two of the future hijackers in a restaurant by chance — before finding them an apartment in San Diego, cosigning their lease, acting as their guarantor, paying their first month’s rent, and plugging them into the local Saudi community.
Despite all this, and even though FBI agents had reason to believe he was a Saudi spy — something only revealed in 2016 upon declassification of twenty-eight pages of the 9/11 Commission Report that former president George W. Bush had ordered be kept secret — US authorities exonerated him. The report ultimately concluded there was “no credible evidence” that al-Bayoumi “knowingly aided extremist groups,” while the bureau decided in 2004 that he had no “advance knowledge of the terrorist attack” nor that the two hijackers-to-be were members of al-Qaeda.
This latest release makes those claims a lot less tenable. According to an FBI communiqué dated to June 2017, from the late 1990s to September 11, 2001, al-Bayoumi “was paid a monthly stipend as a cooptee of the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency (GIP),” the country’s principal spy agency. The document notes that while his involvement with Saudi intelligence wasn’t confirmed at the time of the 9/11 Commission Report, the bureau has now confirmed it. In a separate 2017 document, bureau officials judge that “there is a 50/50 chance [al-Bayoumi] had advanced knowledge the 9/11 attacks were to occur.”
Upon being told about the revelation, the 9/11 Commission chair, former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, said that “if that’s true, I’d be upset by it” and that “the FBI said it wasn’t withholding anything and we believed them.”
More than that, the report directly implicates a member of the Saudi royal family and government. Al-Bayoumi’s monthly stipend was paid “via then ambassador [to the United States] Prince Bandar bin Sultan Alsaud,” it states, and any information al-Bayoumi collected on “persons of interest in the Saudi community in Los Angeles and San Diego and other issues, which met certain GIP intelligence requirements, would be forwarded to Bandar,” who would “then inform the GIP of items of interest to the GIP for further investigation/vetting or follow up.”
This disclosure is particularly explosive, because Bin Sultan was not just a member of the House of Saud but was close family friends with President Bush and generally cozy with the US political establishment — to the point that he was nicknamed “Bandar Bush.” Close friends with Bush’s father for more than two decades (“I feel like one of your family,” he wrote him in 1992), he later donated $1 million to the elder Bush’s presidential library.
This friendship extended to the younger Bush, whose father advised him to consult Bin Sultan as he prepared to launch his presidential campaign. So close was their relationship that Bin Sultan was one of the first people Bush told when he decided to invade Iraq. In a markedly weird episode, the two met at the White House two days after the September 11 attack and smoked cigars on the Truman Balcony, mere hours before chartered planes, in violation of the nationwide grounding of aircraft, picked up 160 royals, Bin Laden family members, and other prominent Saudis and flew them out of the country.
So let’s recap what these new documents tell us. They tell us that one of the men who helped two of the September 11 hijackers settle in the United States as they prepared to carry out their attack was in fact a spy for the Saudi government — a government long accused of supporting and financing fundamentalist extremists and the country where the vast majority of the hijackers came from. That spy was paid by and reported directly to the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States, a close and long-standing family friend of the US president.
This should, realistically, prompt many questions, like: If al-Bayoumi had advance knowledge of the attack, did Bandar bin Sultan know, too? Did the latter raise the alarm with anyone in the United States, like his close friend the president? Was Bin Sultan aware of al-Bayoumi’s assistance to the hijackers? Did Bush’s relationship with Bin Sultan cloud his judgement and explain his indifferent response to the intelligence warnings that came to his desk? What did the two talk about on September 13, and why has the Saudi government faced absolutely no accountability over the years?
That might happen in a media ecosystem that doesn’t have the attention span of a fruit fly. In the world we live in, the story has been covered by NorthJersey.com, by Democracy Now!, and . . . that’s it. The September 11 attack was a profoundly traumatic event that has irrevocably shaped US foreign policy and domestic politics for the entirety of this century, often in ways disastrous for both the world and average Americans. Yet when new information implicating an allied government in its execution comes to light, hardly anyone seems to care.
House of Humiliation
This is all particularly relevant now, given not just the decades of US policy that has lavished favors on the Saudi government but Washington’s continued support for the kingdom’s unspeakably brutal war against Yemen.
For seven years now, the Saudi-led coalition has waged an indiscriminate bombing campaign on the country, attacking military targets at roughly the same rate it bombs civilian infrastructure and residential areas, while depriving Yemenis of food and fuel through a tightening blockade. The result has been more than 377,000 dead Yemeni civilians, 70 percent of them kids under five, with two-thirds of them estimated to have died from starvation and preventable diseases, diseases that have exploded in the country thanks to the war. Millions are suffering extreme poverty and malnutrition, and the country is close to wholesale famine.
The United States and other Western governments have directly supported this war throughout, selling the Saudi-led coalition tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons. Washington and the UK , for their part, also provide the coalition with key logistical support, without which a former CIA and Pentagon official has said the war could not go on. Imagine if instead of assisting Ukraine in Russia’s current invasion, the US government instead sold Russia weapons, refueled its planes, shared intelligence with it, and helped its air force with targeting as it turned Ukrainian cities to rubble, and you have some idea of the nature of the US role in this.
Why is the US government doing this? After all, it was just three years ago that a bipartisan coalition in a GOP-controlled Senate voted to end the war, and Joe Biden ran and won the presidency on ending US support for it, before — in trademark Biden style — he kept on supporting the war anyway. Since then, with Biden’s support, the Saudi-led coalition has intensified its bombing to the worst its been since 2018, and the country’s humanitarian crisis is worse than it was under Biden’s predecessor.
The simple reason is that Washington sees the Saudi government as too important to alienate. This was, after all, the same government that led the 1973 oil embargo that caused worldwide economic mayhem and, conversely, stepped up oil production when Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait threatened to do the same. With the Saudi kingdom’s vast reserves of oil, the fundamental ingredient of modern civilization, US officials would rather keep it on their side by backing this horrendous war than alienate it and push it closer to hostile powers like Russia or China. This, we can presume, is also largely the reason why the Saudi government has only ever been rewarded by Washington despite mounting evidence of its complicity in an attack on US soil twenty years ago.
The tragic irony is that, in spite of Biden’s steadfast backing of its war, the Saudi government has lately been thumbing its nose at him. As oil-driven inflation threatens to derail Biden’s presidency, the Saudi crown prince has consistently rejected US pleas to alleviate it by boosting oil production. Both Saudi Arabia and its bellicose partner, the United Arab Emirates, dragged their feet on joining a UN resolution condemning Russia’s war. Just recently, the Saudi crown prince spoke with Russian president Vladimir Putin as the latter continued carrying out atrocities in Ukraine, then declined to even take Biden’s phone call as the president desperately looked for alternative oil supply to fill the vacuum created by sanctions against Russia. Biden sent him more weapons anyway.
It’s hard to imagine any country ritually humiliating the United States like this, let alone being rewarded for it. Then again, it’s also hard to imagine any foreign government being as complicit as the House of Saud was in an atrocity like September 11 and getting away entirely scot-free, but here we are.
The reason it can do this is the same reason why Putin believed he had the leverage to launch his war last month: the modern world’s continuing refusal to transition away from fossil fuels, ensuring that every despot who has enough oil and gas can violate international law, mock its allies, and even carry out atrocities with minimal cost. Who knows what else we’ll learn as more of the September 11 documents are declassified? But one thing’s for sure: little will come of it if the status quo stays in place.