Days before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toured the U.S. this month, a federal judge handed Saudi Arabia a blow by rejecting the Arab nation’s motion to be eliminated as defendant in a huge 9/11 lawsuit that’s gaining tremendous steam.
The media has preferred to focus on the prince’s historic visit—a carefully planned jaunt aimed at mending his country’s image—with Hollywood heavyweights, billionaire philanthropists, President Donald Trump, top government officials and tech giants even though the lawsuit is just as newsworthy.
Thousands of survivors and family members of the 2001 terrorist attacks accuse the Saudi government of supporting the Al Qaeda plot that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people and injured thousands of others. Saudi Arabia is known as the birthplace of Islam and fifteen of the 19 hijackers that carried out the attack were Saudi.
A 2016 law (passed despite then-president Barack Obama’s veto) allows families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue parties involved in the acts. Saudi Arabia lobbied heavily against the measure, Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which had strong bipartisan support and passed with overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and House. Obama said he vetoed the law because it “would be detrimental to U.S. national interests.”
A few months before JASTA passed Congress declassified more than two dozen pages of the 9/11 report documenting ties between the hijackers and Saudi government officials, including multiple links to associates of a Saudi prince that served as a longtime ambassador to the U.S.
“According to various FBI documents and at least one CIA memorandum, some of the September 11 hijackers, while in the United States, apparently had contacts with individuals who may be connected to the Saudi Government,” states a section of the report’s once-classified pages. The report also blasts the Saudi government for supporting radical Islam by funding mosques and schools that promote extreme ideology and singles out rich Saudis who give money to terrorist groups.
Since the Saudi government failed to intercept the measure allowing Americans to sue over the terrorist attacks, it deployed a legal team to fight the lawsuit in court. JASTA revised the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which limits lawsuits in American courts against foreign nations, so that victims can seek relief against countries or entities that provide material support to groups or people that commit terrorist acts against the United States.
The case is being tried in a New York federal court and a few weeks ago, U.S. District Judge George Daniels, a Clinton appointee, rejected Saudi Arabia’s motion to be removed as a defendant. The timing couldn’t have been worse because the Saudis plan to offer public shares in its $1.5 trillion state oil company on the New York Stock Exchange.
The lawsuit alleges that Saudi Arabia bears responsibility for the 9/11 attacks because its agents and employees directly and knowingly assisted the hijackers and plotters who carried out the attacks.
It also claims that Al Qaeda’s development into a terrorist organization and its ability to carry out the 9/11 attacks was made possible through the financial and operational support it received from charity organizations established and controlled by the Saudi government, including the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SHC), an organization founded in 1993 by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and supported by King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz.
Between 1992 and 1995 the head of the SHC transferred more than $120 million from his personal accounts and SHC accounts under his control to Al Qaeda fighters in the Balkans, according to the lawsuit. Al Qaeda members were also “broadly embedded” in SHS offices and used SHC facilities to plot attacks against the West, the complaint asserts.
The Saudi legal team argues that the country’s immunity remains intact under FSIA even after Congress enacted JASTA. The judge disagreed, forcing Saudi Arabia’s to remain as a defendant and authorizing plaintiffs to investigate two men—Omar al Bayoumi and Fahad al Thumairy—accused of helping 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi in southern California. Thought to be a Saudi agent, Bayoumi lived in San Diego. Thumairy worked at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles.
“These allegations, unrebutted by any contrary evidence by Saudi Arabia, are sufficient to create a reasonable basis for this Court to exercise jurisdiction over the claims Plaintiffs assert against Saudi Arabia to justify allowing jurisdictional discovery to proceed as to Thumairy and Byoumi,” Judge Daniels’ ruling states. He also writes that plaintiffs have articulated a reasonable basis for Saudi Arabia to be held responsible for the conduct of its agents (Thumairy and Bayoumi).