Discovery phase will focus on two Saudis in southern California accused of aiding hijackers who attacked Pentagon
By Brian P. McGlinchey
U.S. District Judge George Daniels has rejected Saudi Arabia’s motion to be removed as a defendant in a civil suit in which thousands of 9/11 family members, survivors and insurers allege Saudi government officials and agents supported the al Qaeda plot that killed 2,996 people, injured more than 6,000 others and caused billions of dollars in damage to businesses and property.
From a Saudi public relations perspective, the timing of the decision is particularly inopportune: Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is in the midst of an aggressive two-week tour of the United States aimed at rehabilitating the kingdom’s image.
The prince’s itinerary crisscrosses the nation, and—according to leaked details obtained by the Independent—includes meetings with scores of government officials, CEOs and journalists as well as influential individuals ranging from Bill Gates to Barak Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
Saudi Arabia is seeking a home for its planned public offering of shares in its state oil company. While, at some $1.5 trillion, it’s expected to be the largest public offering in history, the potential for an enormous American liability claim has reportedly made Saudi leaders hesitant to pursue a listing on the prestigious New York Stock Exchange.
Judge Limits Discovery
Despite Saudi Arabia’s failure to be excused from the suit, the 41-page ruling does have some silver linings for the kingdom and its attorneys.
First, on jurisdictional grounds, the judge dismissed claims against the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Saudi charity accused of having supported al Qaeda.
The judge also sharply narrowed discovery, the upcoming phase of litigation in which Saudi Arabia will be compelled to respond to the plaintiffs’ requests for documents, depositions and other information.
Specifically, Daniels’ ruling confines the plaintiffs to exploring the facts surrounding two men, Omar al Bayoumi and Fahad al Thumairy, who are accused of helping to situate 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar in southern California after their arrival in January 2000.
Thumairy worked in the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles. Bayoumi lived in San Diego and is suspected of being a Saudi agent.
Immediately after a meeting with Thumairy at the consulate, Bayoumi met the two newly-arrived hijackers at a nearby restaurant. He then helped them become situated in San Diego, to include paying their initial apartment rent and introducing them to radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. A month after the hijackers arrived, Bayoumi’s stipend for a no-show job at a Saudi government-affiliated aviation company skyrocketed from $465 to $3,700, and stayed at that level until he left the country in August 2001.
The ruling authorizes the plaintiffs to “conduct limited and targeted jurisdictional discovery critical to answering (the question of) whether and to what extent Thumairy, Bayoumi, and their agents took actions in 2000, at the direction of more senior Saudi officials, to provide assistance to Hazmi, Midhar and other 9/11 hijackers.”
Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11, offered a mixed view of the judge’s ruling.
“While it’s very much in the public interest that the case against those two go forward it also underscores the fact that in most of the other parts of the U.S., including Florida where a large number of the 19 hijackers spent substantial amounts of time, we know virtually nothing,” he said. “We don’t know enough in those places to be able to get jurisdiction in a federal court to determine whether there was complicity by the Saudis in those regions in support of the 9/11 tragedy.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys sought discovery on a broader cast of characters, including several charity organizations as well as:
- Osama Bassnan, a Saudi living in San Diego who allegedly bragged to an FBI informant that he was of even more help to hijackers Midhar and Hazmi than was Bayoumi. Bassnan had hosted a reception for the “Blind Sheikh” who was later convicted of plotting terror attacks in New York. Bassnan and his wife received direct cash payments from Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom’s ambassador to the United States.
- Mohammed al-Qudhaeein and Hamdan al-Shalawi, two Saudi students accused of conducting “dry run” probes of cockpits during a flight to Washington for an event hosted by the Saudi embassy.
- Saleh al-Hussayen, a senior Saudi cleric who arrived in Virginia shortly before the 9/11 attacks and abruptly changed his lodging so he was in the same hotel as several Flight 77 hijackers. FBI files say that, when he was interviewed about his move, “he either passed out or feigned a seizure.” After release from the hospital, “he managed to leave the United States despite law enforcement efforts to locate and re-interview him,” and was soon promoted to a position overseeing the holiest sites in Islam, the mosques in Mecca and Medina.
In a separate, 23-page ruling, Daniels also dismissed claims against National Commercial Bank, Al Rajhi Bank and the Saudi Binladin Group, which the plaintiffs accused of knowingly supporting al Qaeda.
JASTA’s Intent Becomes Reality
The suit against Saudi Arabia was enabled by the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which modified the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act with the stated purpose of “provid(ing) civil litigants with the broadest possible basis….to seek relief against persons, entities and foreign countries…that have provided material support, directly or indirectly, to foreign organizations or persons that engage in terrorist activities against the United States.” It was enacted in 2016 via the only veto override of President Obama’s tenure.
Saudi Arabia lobbied heavily against JASTA before it was passed, and then launched an even more furious yet fruitless counterassault aimed at immediately weakening the new law through amendments.
As extensively documented by 28Pages.org, that post-passage campaign was marked by widespread misconduct, to include misleading U.S. military veterans into believing the law exposed them to legal peril and then flying them to Washington to lobby against the measure without informing them Saudi Arabia was orchestrating the effort.
Following JASTA’s passage, 9/11 victims amended their complaint last spring to add Saudi Arabia as a defendant. The kingdom then filed its motion to be dropped from the suit on jurisdictional grounds.