Biden Declassifies Secret FBI Report Detailing Saudi Nationals' Connections To 9/11

Sep 12, 2021
Originally published on September 13, 2021 3:09 pm

The Biden administration has declassified a 16-page FBI report tying 9/11 hijackers to Saudi nationals living in the United States. The document, written in 2016, summarized an FBI investigation into those ties called Operation ENCORE.

The partially redacted report shows a closer relationship than had been previously known between two Saudis in particular — including one with diplomatic status — and some of the hijackers. Families of the 9/11 victims have long sought after the report, which painted a starkly different portrait than the one described by the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004.

While the commission was largely unable to tie the Saudi men to the hijackers, the FBI document describes multiple connections and phone calls.

Years ago, the commission wrote that when it came to the Saudi diplomat Fahad al-Thumairy, "We have not found evidence that Thumairy provided assistance to the two hijackers." A decade later, it appears FBI agents came to a different conclusion. The report says Thumairy "tasked" an associate to help the hijackers when they arrived in Los Angeles and told the associate the hijackers were "two very significant people" more than a year before the attacks.

The report also casts new light on the meeting of a Saudi government employee with the hijackers in a restaurant. What was once portrayed as a chance meeting is now painted as a preplanned, well-orchestrated event. The 2004 9/11 Commission had described the Saudi employee, Omar al-Bayoumi, as "gregarious." Investigators wrote that they found him "to be an unlikely candidate for clandestine involvement with Islamic extremists."

The ENCORE report, however, says a witness to the meeting saw Bayoumi waiting by the window for the hijackers to arrive rather than running into them by chance and engaged in a lengthy conversation with them. The report says a woman told investigators Bayoumi was often saying that the Islamic community "needs to take action" and that the community was "at jihad."

In an interview, victims' families said they found other items in the report revealing. For example, both Thumairy and Bayoumi were each just a degree or two of separation away from others on a phone tree of known international terrorists. Bayoumi was in "almost daily contact" with a man with ties to the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack and spent the night in a hotel with another man connected to one of Osama bin Laden's senior lieutenants.

Thumairy's phone, meanwhile, was linked to people associated with the "Millennium Plot Bomber," who was convicted in a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve 1999.

Bayoumi and Thumairy told 9/11 investigators they had nothing to do with the attacks.

While the report does not draw any direct links between hijackers and the Saudi Arabian government as a whole, Jim Kreindler, who represents many of the families suing Saudi Arabia, said the report validates the arguments they have made in the case.

"This document, together with the public evidence gathered to date, provides a blueprint for how al-Qaida operated inside the U.S.," he said, "with the active, knowing support of the Saudi government."

The Saudi government has long maintained that any connections between Saudi nationals and the hijackers were coincidental and have pointed to years of fighting al-Qaida in partnership with the United States.

"No evidence has ever emerged to indicate that the Saudi government or its officials had previous knowledge of the terrorist attack or were in any way involved in its planning or execution," officials said in a statement released by the Saudi Embassy. "Any allegation that Saudi Arabia is complicit in the September 11 attacks is categorically false."

Family members of those who have died said regardless, they have waited years for information to be released. The ENCORE document is the first of many documents that the Biden administration has promised to release in coming months.

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It was called Operation Encore - a secret FBI investigation into connections between Saudi Arabia and the hijackers who carried out the attacks on 9/11. The families of the victims have wanted to see a 16-page document that summarized that investigation for years. And last night, they got it. The Biden administration made it public, or at least a redacted version of it, and it tells a complicated story and offers a fuller picture of the help that some of the hijackers received in this country earlier than official accounts. NPR's Laura Sullivan joins us now with the details. Good morning.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So remind us, what was Operation Encore looking into and why have the families felt it was so important?

SULLIVAN: Operation Encore was an FBI investigation that took a new look at the planning of the 9/11 attacks - I mean, specifically whether the hijackers had the help of the Saudi Arabian government. And at the end of it, agents put together this 16-page report. And the document does not draw a link between the Saudi government and the attacks or come to any conclusion on that, but it does add some new details that change how we understand how the attacks took place - I mean, namely how 19 hijackers, most of whom were Saudi and did not speak English or had spent any time in the West, pulled it off without help. The most authoritative report on 9/11 is still the 9/11 commission report published in 2004, which left many of these questions unanswered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how were these findings different in this new report?

SULLIVAN: So the 2004 report has these two main characters who are depicted in this almost sort of positive light. There's this one man, a Saudi government employee who allegedly stumbled into this chance meeting with the hijackers in a restaurant. He's described as gregarious and almost pro-American. This new report finds that that meeting was pre-planned and orchestrated and that he had multiple ties to extremists. He told a witness that the Islamic community was at jihad with the United States. And there's also this other man with Saudi diplomatic status in Los Angeles who comes across very different. The original investigation found no evidence that he provided any assistance. This new report found that he tasked an associate with helping hijackers. And it describes them - you know, he described them as very significant people, and this is more than a year before the attacks. The new report also basically found both men were just one or two people away from others on what was basically, like, a phone tree of known international terrorists.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hanging over this, of course, is what the government of Saudi Arabia knew. Families are suing the government of Saudi Arabia. So what has that government said about these allegations?

SULLIVAN: The Saudi government has long held that any connections that - you know, that come up like this are coincidental and that none of this points to Saudi government complicity. They said in a statement this week that they had no previous knowledge of the attacks and have been tremendous partners with the United States in fighting al-Qaida. The victims' families believe that this report vindicates what they've been saying, which is not only that there were Saudi nationals with government status that helped the hijackers but also that the U.S. government has had more information than it's acknowledged all along.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, are there more documents still to be released?

SULLIVAN: So there are, and the Biden administration has vowed to release all relevant records it has on the events leading up to the attacks and has promised to get the families - to get them to the families in the next six months. But, you know, it's been slow coming. They've been trying to get them for years, and we'll have to see what they end up being able to do in that time frame.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Laura Sullivan. Thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: Thanks so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.