Twenty years is a long enough period to bring closure to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, especially as the equally long war waged in Afghanistan in response has also now ended tragically. Yet, at least in the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, the saga of 9/11 refuses to go away.
Since fifteen of the nineteen perpetrators of 9/11 happened to be Saudi nationals, there is no respite in the deliberate attempts to implicate the Saudi government in the deadliest act of terrorism against the United States, which claimed nearly three thousand innocent lives. Fortunately, each of these attempts has failed.
In the most recent instance, ahead of the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks and compelled by the families of the 9/11 victims, President Joe Biden declassified the sixteen-page FBI report on the possible links between Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdar, two hijackers who participated in 9/11, and Fahad al-Thumiary and Omar al-Bayoumi, two Saudi nationals living in the United States. But, like previous disclosures, the report, which was authored in 2016 and is based on the so-called Operation Encore, provides no evidence about the involvement of Saudi government officials in the September 11 attacks.
In 2016, the “infamous” twenty-eight pages redacted from the 2002 report of the Joint [Congressional] Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were also declassified. These pages formed the last portion of the inquiry and reached the same conclusion, which is that “Neither CIA nor FBI witnesses were able to identify definitively the extent of Saudi support for terrorist activity globally or within the United States and the extent to which such support, if it exists, is knowing or inadvertent in nature.”
The 2004 bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report had likewise “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded [Al Qaeda].” Shortly after the twenty-eight pages were declassified, the Director of National Intelligence released a statement that supported the findings of the 2013 9/11 Review Commission, stating “that there was no new evidence that would change the 9/11 Commission’s findings regarding responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.”
This matter should have ended then and there but it has not. That is why the Saudi government has insisted for several years on the full disclosure of all classified U.S. documents pertaining to 9/11 so that this bad chapter in Saudi-U.S. ties is closed once and for all. Saudi authorities know that additional disclosures in the coming months under the Executive Order signed by Biden will also not produce any smoking gun. Nor will the proceedings of the several lawsuits filed by the families of the 9/11 victims under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which Saudi Arabia is defending in the District Court in Manhattan.
JASTA authorizes U.S. courts to hear cases against foreign nations accused of aiding terrorist acts, even if they have sovereign immunity under international law. Hence, these lawsuits will not only harm counter-terrorism efforts but may also set a bad precedent, which other nations may use in the future against U.S. soldiers and diplomats serving abroad in conflict situations. That is why the Obama administration had vetoed the act, but it became law after Congress overruled the veto in 2016.
The problem with lawsuits filed under JASTA is that the defendant nation—Saudi Arabia in the present case—could reveal sensitive information to defend itself against charges of collusion with terrorists and thereby not only jeopardize counterterrorism efforts but also harm U.S. national security. Likewise, the public disclosure of secret FBI files could harm U.S. national security because it would entail intelligence sources and information collection methods, thereby compromising the willingness of foreign governments to work with the FBI if required.
In fact, the Biden administration is already facing this dilemma. In a court filing days before the FBI report was declassified, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines asserted state secrets privilege in a civil lawsuit filed by Sakab, a Saudi holding company, against former Saudi counterterrorism official Saad Aljabri and two of his sons. The lawsuit accused them of fraud. The Department of Justice had also expressed its intention earlier to intervene in this case, because allowing it to proceed unchecked could lead to “the disclosure of information that could reasonably be expected to damage the national security of the United States.”
In a sense, this points to a major dichotomy in the Biden administration’s approach to asserting state secret privileges. It instantly invokes these privileges when it comes to protecting U.S. national security, but deliberately ignores them in the case of 9/11 insinuations against Saudi Arabia.
However, at least for its part, Saudi Arabia must be careful about sharing sensitive information in the U.S. court cases so as to preserve the milestones achieved in its counterterrorism partnership with the United States, especially post-9/11. Also, Saudi Arabia must ensure that U.S. national security is not harmed in the process. After all, this is the most that can be expected of Saudi Arabia as a true friend of the United States in circumstances where its own global repute is at stake due to the political vendetta of some vested interests in and outside the United States.
No one can deny the fact that Saudi Arabia has closely collaborated with the United States in the past three decades to counter international terrorism by both Al Qaeda and ISIS. After all, it was a victim of Al Qaeda’s terrorism long before 9/11. Also, it has pursued an exemplary counterterrorism policy based on Prevention, Cure and Care to not only prevent instances of international terrorism but also deradicalize and rehabilitate the terrorists and extremists.
The State Department, in its Country Report 2019 on Saudi Arabia, provides the evidence. “Saudi Arabian government officials continued to work closely with their US counterparts to deploy a comprehensive and well-resourced counter-terrorism strategy that included vigilant security measures, regional and international cooperation, and measures to counter terrorist radicalization and recruitment,” the report states. “Saudi Arabia maintained a high cooperation tempo with U.S. and international partners in a range of counter-terrorism fields, including terrorist information sharing, monitoring of foreign terrorist fighters, border security, countering unmanned aerial systems, and countering violent extremism.”
With this level of Saudi-U.S. cooperation in combating international terrorism, how could anyone insinuate that Saudi Arabia was complicit in 9/11?
Alleging so is a rebuke to Saudi sacrifices and services in combating terrorism. It also amounts to covering up the U.S. strategic blunders that gave rise to Al Qaeda and ISIS in the first place. Al Qaeda was born after the United States abandoned Afghanistan once the Mujahideen defeated the Soviets, and ISIS emerged out of the vacuum left by the U..S-led coalition’s adrift in the Iraq war. In each episode, it is not just the United States but allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that had to deal with the terrorist consequences.
Having served as Saudi ambassador in Islamabad for almost a decade, I know how closely the United States and Saudi Arabia cooperated in combating Al Qaeda and its local affiliates. They were able to stabilize Pakistan in the process. I arrived in Islamabad months ahead of 9/11 and had the pleasure of working with four U.S. ambassadors, starting with Windy Chamberlin and ending with Anne Patterson, until my posting as ambassador to Lebanon in 2009. This extensive cooperation, including intelligence sharing, led to major arrests. We detained Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, Abu Zubaydah, who was responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole, and Abu Faraj al-Libi, the operational head of Al Qaeda. During this tumultuous period, both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan faced major terrorist attacks. Others were thwarted through intelligence sharing, with the United States on board.
A correct reading of history would tell us that the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf war in 1991 provided Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden the pretext for declaring a “campaign of guerrilla attacks to drive U.S. forces out of the Saudi kingdom” in 1995. In 1996, he declared the “War Against the Americans Who Occupy the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” Saudi Arabia responded by freezing bin Laden’s assets and revoking his citizenship. The establishment in 1998 of the “World Islamic Front of the Jihad against the Jews and Infidels” was also aimed at the United States and Saudi Arabia. No surprise that both also became the primary target of Al Qaeda terrorism in the 1990s.
Before 9/11, the United States faced three major Al Qaeda terrorist attacks, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. The first Al Qaeda attack against Saudi Arabia came in 1995 when a Saudi National Guard training complex in Riyadh was bombed. Six people were killed, including five U.S. citizens, and over sixty were injured. Then, in 1996, a massive truck bomb exploded alongside the perimeter of the Khobar Towers housing complex, killing nineteen U.S. airmen and wounding more than five hundred others.