What Questions Remain About 9/11?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 5 September 2018

In less than a week, it will be the seventeenth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s “Plane’s Operation”, the assault on the United States. It is a vertiginous enough reflection that many of us have been alive more years since 11 September 2001 than before it, and positively alarming that many of those who will soon move into the government, media, and other leading societal institutions will have been born after an event that still shapes so much of the international scene. As Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan put it in The Eleventh Day: The Ultimate Account of 9/11 (2011), we are left with “the brief name ‘9/11’,” the context and meaning stripped away all this time later. The book is a useful overview of an event that should always be to some degree fresh in mind, though it is not without its problems in its analytical sections.

The first quarter of the book is a retelling of what happened during the attacks. There is the way the hijacking teams coordinated and took over the planes. The smashing of planes full of civilians into buildings full of civilians, both towers of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The details—the telephone calls from those trapped in the towers, those who chose to jump to their deaths rather than burn or suffocate, the fireman struck by falling bodies, the official at the Pentagon “engulfed by fire” with “[m]ost of his body scorched” (p. 45)—remain haunting even at this distance. To revisit the events on United Airlines Flight 93, brought down by a passenger revolt as it headed for the Capitol or the White House, is to be reminded of people—Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer, Sandra Bradshaw—who chose as their last act to spare their country and countrymen worse grief.

President George W. Bush declared in the evening of 11 September that the U.S. would “bring … to justice” the perpetrators and “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them”. At that moment the world changed. No more would there be in reply to al-Qaeda’s escalating campaign what Bernard Lewis described as “angry words and misdirected missiles”.


The authors do an excellent job of evidence compilation, elucidating the key substance from the 9/11 Commission Report, and adding to it declassified government documents, media reports, published scholarship, and their own interviews. Even for those well-acquainted with the history, there are interesting fragments.

For instance, it is perhaps not as well known as it should be that an hour after the first tower had been struck the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted a telephone call from a known associate of Usama bin Ladin in Afghanistan, who remarked on the “good news”, adding, “We’ve hit the targets” (p. 155).

The most interesting item is the “Spiritual Manual” found in the misdirected luggage of lead death pilot Mohamed Atta, as well as in car of Nawaf al-Hazmi, one of the killers on the plane that hit the Pentagon, and in the ruins of Flight 93 (pp. 160-4). It is, as Summers and Swan say, an extraordinary omission from the 9/11 Commission Report. The Arabic-language dossier contains everything from practical instructions for a suicide mission (“shav[e] off excess hair from the body … and [as] zero hour approaches tear open your clothing and bare your chest, welcoming death”) to more theological content (“Smile in the face of death”, “the heavenly virgins are calling you”). It is not only evidence of the perpetrators’ identities but their state of mind.

Some worries are expressed about Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM), the operational planner of 9/11, having confessed to his responsibility as a result of enhanced interrogation techniques. It is noted, though, that KSM made this confession quite voluntarily long before he was in American custody, in an elaborately-organised interview with Yosri Fouda of Al-Jazeera in April 2002. “I am the head of the al-Qaeda military committee”, KSM told Fouda, “and Ramzi [bin al-Shibh] is the coordinator of the Holy Tuesday operation. And yes, we did it.” (It was shortly after this, as we now know, that Muhammad Saladin Zaydan, a.k.a. Sayf al-Adel, wrote to KSM asking him to resign.) The book points out that the American pressure that forced Sudan to expel Bin Ladin in 1996 now looks like an error. Bin Ladin and KSM had been on “separate trajectories” into the mid-1990s; now their paths would merge in Afghanistan, with the help of figures like Muhammad Atef (Abu Hafs al-Masri).

The book does a fair job of tracing al-Qaeda’s road to 9/11, including that it started in Somalia in 1992. But the authors allow to stand the suggestion that the Central Intelligence Agency supported Bin Ladin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, even quoting former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who wrote a few weeks before his death that Bin Ladin “was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis” to get the Red Army out of Afghanistan. The Saudi dimension, which the book dwells on (see below), is more complicated; the notion of CIA support for Bin Ladin is a myth, a tale that makes no logical sense even in theory.


A section on the widespread conspiracy theories around the attack argues convincingly that this phenomenon is tied to the rise of the internet, though the “old” forms of media did their share, with books like 9/11: The Big Lie (2002) and movies like Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup.

The Eleventh Day takes on some of these conspiracy theories, such as that a missile, rather than American Airlines Flight 77, struck the Pentagon. Two people on that flight managed to make telephone calls: Barbara Olson to her husband, then-Solicitor General Theodore Olson, and flight attendant Renee May to her mother. Some 9/11 denialists posit that these calls were faked by the U.S. government using software, an idea that, when combined with the other available evidence, Summers and Swan correctly say “sink[s] to the level of obscenity”.

One defect of the book is a curious insensitivity to the nature of antisemitism. In noting that one conspiracy theory centres on a “cabal” around the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) planning the atrocity to supply a pretext to intervene in the Middle East, the authors neglect to note that this is usually explained as means of eliminating Israel’s rivals—and that Jewish-American officials such as Paul Wolfowitz are held up as consciously working for such ends. This occurs again when the authors, surveying the 9/11 murderers, say that “Palestine” was “the factor that united the conspirators”, from Bin Ladin on down, and hint that this “principle political grievance” might have been alleviated by a more even-handed American approach between Israel and the Palestinians. This is wrong from just about every angle.

For a start, Bin Ladin didn’t focus much on Palestine until years after 9/11, specifically after what is now the Islamic State, then-al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, brought discredit on the organisation by its conduct in Iraq and Bin Ladin needed a distraction. In his February 1998 declaration of war “against Jews and Crusaders”, Bin Ladin made a glancing reference to “the Jews’ petty state” that would pass from the scene amid the fires of holy war, but focused on Iraq, where Saddam Husayn’s regime was under sanctions and near-daily bombardment to maintain the no-fly zones, and Saudi Arabia, where the government had blasphemously hosted U.S. forces on Islamic holy land and provided them a platform to “fight the neighbouring Muslim peoples” (it was from Saudi territory that the planes strafing Saddam took off).

Secondly, the lead operatives of the 9/11 conspiracy signed-up in late 1999, at the exact moment an American-mediated peace deal seemed at hand between Israel and the Palestinians. Al-Qaeda, of course, rejected any settlement that left Israel intact since it views the whole area between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan as one province in a future caliphate.

Which is the third and main problem with the authors’ presentation of Palestine as a “political” motivator: it suggests a connection with real-world grievances, with rationality and potential negotiability, and a distinction with the uncompromising religious worldview of the 9/11 killers that does not exist. Bin al-Shibh, among others, believed in a “world Jewish conspiracy”, though the authors seem not to fully absorb what this means. Like the Nazis, who believed even after they had invaded the Soviet Union that they were in a war forced upon them “by world Jewry’s immeasurable hatred against Aryan people” and striving for “world domination”, the sincerity of Bin al-Shibh’s belief that he was acting defensively does not make it true, and treating aggression motivated by ideologized grievances as appeaseable demands never ends well.


The last quarter of the book is devoted to the loose ends from 9/11. These break down broadly into two categories: the failures of the American intelligence system in particular, as well as its partner services, to detect the plot, and the potential foreign state involvement in the 9/11 atrocity. There will perhaps never be conclusive answers, but it is important to pose the questions.

A largely unknown incident on which the authors spend a chapter is the report by Alexandra Richard in Le Figaro, the oldest French daily, on 31 October 2001, which said that a CIA officer and another American official met with Bin Ladin in Dubai sometime between 4 and 14 July 2001 when Bin Ladin was getting medical tests related to the functionality of his kidneys. There were persistent rumours down the years that Bin Ladin required dialysis. The United Arab Emirates was also “friendly territory”, as Summers and Swan write, and that comports with known facts. The U.A.E. was—with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—one of only three states to recognise the Taliban as the legal government of Afghanistan.

Ms. Richard and her sources reiterate their story to the authors, and Alain Chouet, the former head of the Security Intelligence department within the French external intelligence agency, the DGSE, independently corroborates the story. Chouet says the meeting in Dubai was apparently brokered by Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head (1979-2001) of Saudi Arabia’s premier intelligence agency, Riasat al-Istikhbarat al-Amah (The General Intelligence Directorate or GID). In Berlin, between 17 and 21 July 2001, there was a meeting of retired diplomats from the U.S., Iran, Pakistan, and Russia to discuss the future of Afghanistan. These representatives were not formally official. In Chouet’s telling, the outreach to Bin Ladin was to have him desist in opposing any solution that might come out of this meeting and above all for him to leave Afghanistan and move to Saudi Arabia, where he could receive a royal pardon and settle down—ending his terror spree. Even in Chouet’s telling this offer was “bluntly rebuffed”.

Whether the meeting and the offer actually occurred—and what effect such a deal, if effected, would have had on the well-advanced 9/11 plot—will probably remain a mystery in perpetuity.

The stop-start attention Western intelligence gave to the Hamburg cell—led by Atta, with Bin al-Shibh serving as the cut-out to channel instructions from KSM—throws up many what-ifs. Some of these questions recurred recently when Mohammad Haydar Zammar, a facilitator and recruiter for the Hamburg set, resurfaced in Syria: first released by Bashar al-Asad as part of his cynical machinations to defeat the uprising against his tyrannical regime, and then captured by the Coalition’s Kurdish partners earlier this year. The detention of Marwan al-Shehhi, the murderer who drove United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower, at Dubai airport in January 2000, and the decision—apparently at the prompting of the Americans—to let him go, now looks like a missed opportunity.

The above incidents are more speculative when compared with the case of Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.

Al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, aboard Flight 77 when Hani Hanjour smashed it into the Pentagon, were two of the most experienced al-Qaeda operatives among the nineteen suicide-killers on 9/11. Both al-Hamzi and al-Mihdhar had been involved in al-Qaeda’s war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, and both attended the 5-8 January 2000 summit in Kuala Lumpur that among other things planned the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and 9/11.

It was this Malaysian trip that brought the duo to the attention of U.S. intelligence. Summers and Swan record that al-Mihdhar was identified as a terrorist in December 1999 after he was detected making a call to arrange his flight through al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Yemen run by Ahmad al-Hada. Al-Hazmi was detected in al-Mihdhar’s company, and al-Mihdhar’s passport was photographed during a stopover in Dubai on his way to Malaysia, revealing he had a visa for the United States.

After the summit, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar flew on to California via Bangkok, the book explains, and the Thais passed this information to the CIA in March 2000. The authors note that in the narrative told by then-CIA Director George Tenet, al-Hazmi, an identified Bin Ladin associate, and al-Mihdhar, known from two months earlier to have an American visa, landed in the country; this was confirmed; and for seventeen months nobody did anything, until August 2001 when the FBI became aware of the two men’s presence by accident because of a personnel transfer from CIA. The FBI began to search for al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi in something less than a vivacious manner, and the two jihadists were added to a State Department watchlist.

This “wall”, and the competition it bred, between foreign and domestic intelligence, between the CIA and FBI, erected in the wake of the supposed abuses of the Nixon administration, has been identified as the single largest enabler of 9/11, and that was surely at work here. No intelligence agency likes to give up information and the CIA is prevented by law from doing domestic surveillance; if the CIA did not inform the FBI, as it clearly did not, then al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were free to roam. This seems an inconceivable scenario, and indeed the authors note the fragmentary but suggestive evidence that this isn’t what happened.

The theory the authors advance is that the CIA did keep al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi under watch, and kept the FBI out of the loop, in order to allow an effort at recruitment. This was to try to compensate for the CIA had singularly failed to penetrate al-Qaeda. If this is what happened it would not only be illegal; it self-evidently failed, catastrophically.

Whatever the CIA did or didn’t do with regard to al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, it is quite clear that the agency knew more than it has let on. Tenet blatantly misled the 9/11 Commission on when and what he had briefed President Bush immediately before 9/11. In the rest of his testimony, Tenet answered what was convenient and didn’t remember anything else. By the end of the process, “We just didn’t believe him any more”, the book quotes Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, saying.

The book goes on to document that when Tenet looked at the Flight 77 manifest and saw the names of al-Mihdhar, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and his brother, Salem al-Hazmi, he said: “There it is. Confirmation. Oh Jesus.” The notion that Tenet knew more than he would later let on was also present in Bob Woodward’s 2002 book, Bush at War, where Tenet was very obviously a source and is generally portrayed positively. Woodward records, though, that as Tenet heard about the attacks, he said: “I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy [Zacarias Moussaoui] taking pilot training?” Moussaoui, the “twentieth hijacker”, had been arrested at a flight school in Minnesota when the instructors became concerned. The Minnesota FBI office could get no attention from the centre, however, despite repeated and vigorous attempts, for a deeper look into Moussaoui’s associates and plans.


Al-Qaeda’s designation as a “non-state actor” was “always more myth than fact”, wrote Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer. Al-Qaeda was deeply intertwined with the two states that hosted it, Sudan and Taliban Afghanistan, and has, to various extents and at various times, had state support from Saddam’s Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, and (via Iran) Bosnia.

This naturally raises the question of what, if any, role these states played in the 9/11 massacre. The book deals with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.

Saddam’s Iraq

A role for Saddam’s Iraq in the 9/11 atrocity is dismissed and the authors correctly note that the Bush administration “never alleg[ed] a direct Iraqi role”. Had the book left it there, there would be little to quibble with. Instead, a chapter is devoted to criticising the Bush administration for apparently trying to torture al-Qaeda detainees into confessing to links with Saddam’s regime, and to giving credence to a claim by Ron Suskind, made in his 2008 book The Way of the World, that the White House tried to manufacture such a link by fabricating a memo, dated 1 July 2001, which purports to show the chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS), Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, writing to Saddam to say that IIS hosted Atta at the home of Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal) in the Dora area of Baghdad.

The Habbush memo could well be a forgery, though by whom is more uncertain and the evidence that the White House was involved is dubious at best. But the notion that the Bush administration invented the connections between Saddam and al-Qaeda is flabbergasting in its ignorance. The suggestion that torture produced the only evidence of Saddam-Qaeda links is related to the controversy over Ali al-Fakheri (Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi), who first testified that al-Qaeda operatives had been trained by Saddam in using poison gas and later recanted the story. The case is still unresolved. Tenet, a ferocious critic of the Bush administration and the Iraq invasion, notes in his book that al-Fakheri “clearly lied. We just don’t know when … we can assume nothing.”

By 2002, Saddam had “a decade” of contacts with al-Qaeda at senior levels, as a reluctant CIA was forced to admit after it came under withering bureaucratic criticism for politicizing its intelligence in line with an in-house theory that “secular” Ba’thists did not cooperate with religious militants. This ignored the internal Islamization of the regime and most importantly Saddam’s decision to instrumentalize Islamists in foreign policy. This began in the 1980s with support to the Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria, and came to include al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As just one example: Saddam’s agents met Bin Ladin’s representatives in February 1995 and agreed to broadcast sermons agitating against the Saudi monarchy into the Kingdom. On and on it went.

Few will argue at this distance that the Iraq invasion was not an error, and the mistakes of Western intelligence services on weapons of mass destruction, specifically that Saddam had an active nuclear program, are clear enough. (The issue of the chemical stockpiles is a bit more complicated.) This does not legitimate a bogus history where Saddam had no connection to terrorism and the Bush administration “lied us into war”.

What is most egregious in the space given to a rather polemical rehashing of the Iraq-9/11 argument—and to crank Bush critics like Paul Pillar—is that it leaves out an actual unanswered question: Ahmed Hikmat Shakir.

The most thorough treatment of the Shakir case is by Stephen Hayes in his book, The Connection (2004). Shakir had long been involved in the murky world where Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda met, writes Hayes: Shakir received at least one telephone call from the planning headquarters of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre, and had been in contact with Zahid Sheik Muhammad (KSM’s brother), Musab Yasin, and Mamdouh Salim, Bin Ladin’s designated representative to Saddam’s Iraq.

The crucial point came when Shakir got a job at Kuala Lumpur Airport in August 1999 through a contact at the Iraqi Embassy in Malaysia. Up to half of Saddam’s “diplomats” were spies, suggesting that Shakir’s placement had official sanction in Baghdad. Hayes goes on to document that when al-Mihdhar arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Shakir greeted al-Mihdhar, put al-Mihdhar’s paperwork in order, and then, “as any facilitator would”, got in the car with al-Mihdhar and drove him to the condo where al-Qaeda’s summit took place. Whether Shakir attended the meeting is uncertain. Shakir went to work at the airport for the last time two days after the summit, on 10 January 2000.

Shakir was arrested on 17 September 2001 in Qatar, Hayes reports, while working as a midlevel official at the Ministry of Religious Development. Shakir was released on 21 October and headed straight for Baghdad via Jordan. The Jordanians stopped him. The Saddam regime requested that Shakir be released to them; according to some accounts the representations from Baghdad were rather more than pro forma. In addition to his Embassy contact, Shakir’s resistance to interrogation (not “enhanced” interrogation, it should be noted) convinced his Jordanian and American handlers that he had been trained by a state intelligence service, writes Hayes.

For reasons that perhaps we’ll never know, Jordan, which believed Shakir was an IIS officer, made an audacious suggestion: flip Shakir—send him to Baghdad but have him report back to Jordan and/or America. Shakir would later appear in some sensationalist media coverage because of his alleged homosexuality: it is likely this was felt to be a point of leverage. The CIA agreed. Shakir hasn’t been seen since, leaving an open question about whether Saddam had an agent at the final planning meeting for 9/11. It is one of the grossest mistakes of the War on Terror.

Saudi Arabia

Summers and Swan chose to focus their unanswered questions on Saudi Arabia, and there is plenty of scope.

The authors point to a warning about Saudi conduct from May 1994, when Muhammad al-Khilewi, the first secretary at the Saudi mission to the United Nations, defected and sought political asylum in America. Al-Khilewi brought with him 14,000 documents that laid out Saudi corruption, abuse of human rights, espionage in the U.S. (against the Kahanist “Jewish Defence League” and “Jewish Defence Organisation”), and support for Islamist extremism, both missionary activity and Palestinian terrorists like HAMAS and Islamic Jihad. The U.S. refused to take the documents.

Immediate Saudi Response to 9/11

The fact that fifteen of the nineteen death pilots were Saudi placed the U.S.-Saudi relationship under severe strain in late 2001. Riyadh argued that al-Qaeda had deliberately recruited Saudi citizens in order to damage the Kingdom’s relations with the West. Whatever the truth of that, the Saudi government did itself few favours.

In private, Riyadh reacted with hesitancy, if not outright refusal, when asked for information. This was, said James Kallstrom, the director of New York’s Office of Public Security and previously assistant director of the FBI’s New York office, “nothing new”. An old grievance was Tayyib al-Madani (or Madani al-Tayyib: sources conflict), a.k.a. Abu Fadel, Bin Ladin’s financial manager who had turned himself over to the Saudis in May 1997. The U.S. did not get access until after 9/11. The logic seemed to be that since the Saudis “knew that once we started asking for a few traces the list would grow”, as one U.S. official put it in October 2001, “it’s better to shut it down right away.”

In public things were hardly more reassuring. In July 2002, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, who became heir apparent in 2005 said, “It is enough to see a number of congressmen wearing Jewish yarmulkes to explain the allegations against us.” Four months later, the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, said: “We know that the Jews have manipulated the Sept. 11 incidents and turned American public opinion against Arabs and Muslims. We still ask ourselves: Who has benefited from Sept. 11 attacks? I think they [the Jews] were the protagonists of such attacks.”

In December 2002, the Senate and House Select Committees on Intelligence produced the “Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001”. A twenty-eight-page section at the end was redacted. It was known that these pages contained information unflattering to Saudi Arabia. (“The 28 Pages” were released in July 2016, an outcome, it should be noted, the Saudi government had always advocated.) In August 2003, in response to a Congressional demand for declassification, Adel al-Jubeir, the current Foreign Minister, let it be known that an internal Saudi government inquiry had uncovered “wrongdoing by some”. This cryptic statement was not followed up.

The 9/11 Commission Report

The 9/11 Commission Report was published in July 2004. The quotes extracted by Summers and Swan are not pretty.

On page 171, the Commission says:

Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.)

Still, al Qaeda found fertile fund-raising ground in Saudi Arabia, where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was both essential to the culture and subject to very limited oversight. Al Qaeda also sought money from wealthy donors in other Gulf states.

From pages 371-4:

Saudi Arabia has been a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism. At the level of high policy, Saudi Arabia’s leaders cooperated with American diplomatic initiatives aimed at the Taliban or Pakistan before 9/11. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s society was a place where al Qaeda raised money … [and] produced 15 of the 19 hijackers. …

[C]ooperation [between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia] can exist for a time largely in secret, as it does now, but it cannot grow and thrive there. Nor, on either side, can friendship be unconditional.

In its recommendations at the bottom of page 374, the Commission asked if a U.S.-Saudi relationship can be built that “political leaders on both sides are prepared to publicly defend—a relationship about more than oil”. If so, this would require “a shared commitment to political and economic reform” and “a shared interest in greater tolerance and cultural respect, translating into a commitment to fight the violent extremists who foment hatred”. The implication being that tolerance and a mutual commitment to fight extremists were not currently features of the relationship.

Straws in the Wind

After Zayn al-Abidin Husayn (Abu Zubaydah) was captured in March 2002, he named three Saudi princes as supporting al-Qaeda. John Kiriakou, a CIA operative serving in Pakistan at the time, said the agency believed Husayn. A very odd fact highlighted in The Eleventh Day is: all three princes died soon after, within one week. Ahmed bin Salman, 43, died from heart failure on 22 July 2002; Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, 41, died in a car crash as he drove from Jeddah to Riyadh for Salman’s funeral on 23 July; and Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, a 25-year-old prince, “died of thirst” while traveling in the deserts south of al-Ammaniya on 30 July.

The Saudi government has always insisted that since 1994 it severed all contact with Bin Ladin after he made his intention to overthrow the monarchy clear, and Bin Ladin’s family ostensibly disowned him, too. The evidence is rather more complicated (p. 249). French intelligence believed that one of Bin Ladin’s brothers, perhaps Yeslam, who was publicly supportive of Usama even after 9/11, acted as intermediary to supportive sections of the family and to donors in the Kingdom. Some female relatives were also apparently involved in fundraising as they could keep a lower profile.

Attention is drawn by the authors to James Risen’s State of War (2006), where it is disclosed that in 1997 the Bin Ladin unit in the CIA said Saudi intelligence was a “hostile service” on the question of al-Qaeda: they refused even to hand over biographical details about Bin Ladin and intelligence supplied to Saudi security, particularly about communications, had leaked to the terrorists, enabling them to better avoid surveillance. In context, Risen’s conclusion is not quite so stark, but it still hardly reflects well on Riyadh. Nor that the defence fund for Umar Abdurrahman, “The Blind Shaykh”, an al-Qaeda-financed jihadist in New York whose network tried to bring down the World Trade Centre in 1993, was “supported with GID money” (p. 400).

The Matter of Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar and Saudi Agents

Far and away the most intriguing Saudi thread related to 9/11 revolves around al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar.

One suggestion, made by Joseph and Susan Trento and quoted in The Eleventh Day, is that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were Saudi agents, or believed to be by CIA and GID. This belief that the duo were friendly double-agents is proffered as an answer to the question of why the CIA never added them to watchlists or took action to surveil and/or apprehend them. Only after laying this theory out at some length (pp. 399-400) do the authors acknowledge that the Trentos were fed “deliberate disinformation”. The (ir)responsibility of this presentation to one side, there are real questions on this matter that still stand.

On 1 February 2000, two weeks after arriving in the U.S., al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, struggling with the English language and in general to adapt to the local environment, happened to meet Omar al-Bayoumi and Caysan Bin Don “at a halal food restaurant on Venice Boulevard in Culver City, a few blocks away from the King Fahd mosque.” Al-Bayoumi and Bin Don had travelled 130 miles north from San Diego earlier that day in order that al-Bayoumi could resolve a visa issue and collect some papers at the Saudi Consulate. Al-Bayoumi says he recognised al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar speaking Gulf Arabic and engaged them; Bin Don’s Arabic was limited, so al-Bayoumi translated for him.

It was resolved that the pair would come to San Diego, where al-Bayoumi helped them find accommodation (an apartment next-door to his), set up bank accounts, paid for various expenses (including it seems the first month of rent), and kept in touch. Al-Bayoumi’s telephone made four calls to Anwar al-Awlaki, then a simple local imam. Summers and Swan do not mention, but it is strongly believed by the FBI that those calls to al-Awlaki were by either al-Hazmi or al-Mihdhar, using al-Bayoumi’s telephone.

Al-Bayoumi, a student, was in regular contact at the Saudi Consulate with Fahad al-Thumairy, an imam at the King Fahd mosque and an accredited Saudi diplomat, appointed by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Al-Bayoumi was paid by Erean, a company tied to the Saudi Defence Ministry (for what work is unclear), Summers and Swan note (p. 411). According to “The 28 Pages”, al-Bayoumi’s income “increased substantially in April 2000”, two months after the hijackers arrived, dipped a little in December 2000, and then held steady until he departed in the summer of 2001.

There is a strong suspicion that al-Bayoumi began receiving payments from another Saudi, Osama Basnan, to whom he was very close; they were “in telephone contact … several times a day”. Good intelligence was never collected on whether Basnan met al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, but Basnan bragged to an undercover FBI informant that he had done more for the pair than al-Bayoumi had. A close friend of Basnan’s, Khaled al-Kayed, certainly did have contact with the two killers “about learning to fly Boeing jet aircraft”. Basnan had worked for the Saudi Education Ministry in the early 1990s and a decade later his wife was being paid monthly instalments for nursing services that never seem to have been provided by Princess Haifa al-Faisal, the wife of Prince Bandar, the long-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington. It is possible Princess Haifa was unaware of where the cheques she was signing, prepared by the Islamic Affairs Ministry, were going. “The 28 Pages” record at least one direct payment from Bandar to Basnan of $15,000 in May 1998 for reasons unknown.

Summers and Swan document the “suspect backgrounds” of al-Thumairy, al-Bayoumi, and Basnan (pp. 411-12). Al-Thumairy was denied re-entry to the U.S. in 2003 for suspected links to terrorism. Al-Bayoumi had come to FBI attention for connections to radicals; it seems they included individuals associated with the Holy Land Foundation, a front for HAMAS. Al-Bayoumi left the U.S. in August 2001. Basnan hosted a party for “The Blind Shaykh” in October 1992 and celebrated 9/11 as a “wonderful, glorious day”. One of Basnan’s associates was in email contact with Bin al-Shibh. Basnan was convicted of visa fraud in August 2002 and deported.

Al-Thumairy, al-Bayoumi, and Basnan were interviewed by the 9/11 Commission in 2003-04 after a White House request (pp. 412-15). At all times Prince Nayef’s secret police supervised these meetings and even intervened on occasion. Al-Thumairy was “deceptive during both interviews”, the Commission reported; he flatly denied knowing al-Bayoumi even after being shown the phone records demonstrating their regular contact. Al-Bayoumi made a more favourable impression: he said he met the two killers by accident, helped his Muslim brothers as any man should, and then did not see them much once they were set up in San Diego. Basnan lied about everything, including his own statements to the Commission.

Al-Thumairy was straightforwardly an employee of the Saudi government. Al-Thumairy denied knowing of, or ever meeting, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar. Even if al-Thumairy never met the 9/11 suicide-murderers, the question lingers over al-Bayoumi: Was he a cut-out for al-Thumairy? Al-Bayoumi was clearly financially dependent on the Saudi government. The characterisation of al-Bayoumi as a Saudi agent or spy is contested, as it is with Basnan, and will, pending new evidence, remain a matter of interpretation.

A Note of Caution

Summers and Swan bring to attention a lot of interesting and neglected material about a potential Saudi state role in 9/11. They are also fairly clearly convinced of a nefarious Saudi hand in 9/11 and it allows through their filters some dubious material, some hyperbole, and some innuendo.

The clearest case, mentioned above, is the Trentos, which is ultimately rejected in the text itself. But Seymour Hersh is quoted as authoritative on the idea that the Saudi government from 1995-6 paid al-Qaeda effectively as a protection racket. This even leads to the suggestion that when Prince Turki went to Afghanistan in May 1998 at the behest of the CIA to try to get the Taliban to hand over Bin Ladin—and got played, handing over four-hundred trucks and financial aid—it was actually the Saudis delivering a pay-off. Later the book quotes  James Bamford, a notorious sensationalist and even fabulist.

Elsewhere, the Saudis are blamed for the failure to get to the bottom of the Khobar Towers atrocity, an Iranian operation run out of their Damascus Embassy, with the complicity of the Asad regime. And Riyadh is implicated, on dubiously-thin sourcing, of having an intelligence service “80% sympathetic to al-Qaeda”, where officers have Bin Ladin pictures as screensavers on their mobile telephones (p. 401). The authors at least put to rest the old question of the Saudi elite being allowed to leave the U.S. after 9/11: Richard Clarke, hardly a friend of the Bush administration’s, took the decision alone to allow those flights, after the FBI had spoken with all Bin Ladin relatives, including Usama’s nephew, Umar Awadh bin Ladin (p. 407).

The critique levelled at Saudi Arabia by Summers and Swan is not untrue; it just remains somewhat frozen in time. The Eleventh Day makes no allowance for how considerably Saudi Arabia cleaned up its act, on everything from charities’ regulation and terror-financing to extremism in school textbooks, after the mid-2000s when jihad came home. Nor does the book give a full picture of the nature of the Saudi system and its state doctrine that might complicate the narrative of what was once called “Hatred’s Kingdom”.

Wahhabism, the state Salafism of the Saudi realm, is invoked as synonymous with Islamist militancy by Summers and Swan and this is unfortunate. It is not that Wahhabism plays no role in jihadi-Salafism, but it requires additional components, namely, as Hassan Hassan has written, political Islam. That current within the Kingdom that combines the doctrinaire Wahhabism/Salafism with the revolutionary political methods of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood spawned al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (The Awakening Movement) in the 1990s, many of whose graduates went on to join al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Crucially: the Sahwa was an anti-government movement in Saudi Arabia.

The nature of the Saudi system is even more immediately important to Summers’ and Swan’s purposes. The 9/11 Commission’s precise exculpation of “the Saudi government as an institution” is germane here. In his book, Awakening Islam, Stéphane Lacroix writes:

[I]n a country like Saudi Arabia, the classic divisions of the social arena—state/civil society, government/opposition—are of little relevance. A member of the royal family, for example, who occupies no official function in the state apparatus is endowed merely by his lineage with definite influence on decision making that sometimes exceeds that of a high official who is a commoner. Is he then a state or societal actor? Similarly, where should the religious scholars—the ulema—be situated? They are in many cases both state agents and representatives of society and may, depending on circumstances, be spokesmen for the rulers or for the opposition.

It was this sectorization that the Sahwa sought to undo by combining the religious and political fields.

For the purposes of the 9/11 investigation, the segmented set-up of the Saudi state makes defining “the Saudi government” damnably difficult. It can be said—quite reasonably—that this is highly convenient for the Saudi monarchy, which is able to claim it is adequately uninformed about, and distanced from, the dangerous or criminal behaviour of state agents abroad. It is also the truth and has to be dealt with as such, with the mendacious claims of ignorance sifted from those that are credible.

Surveying the evidence, it does seem probable that agents of the Saudi state provided logistical and perhaps financial support to some of the 9/11 killers. Whether these Saudi operatives knew they were providing support for an act of terrorism is impossible to say; the interactions of Saudi emissaries even with radicals pre-9/11 was within a wholly different psychological and political framework to such actions if performed at the present. It is highly doubtful that what we might call “Riyadh proper” had any advanced knowledge of 9/11, any desire to help al-Qaeda agents in the U.S., or any intent to facilitate terrorism against the United States.

Pakistan and Iran

A curious near-omission from the book that struck this reader is Bosnia. The country is mentioned very briefly, noting that KSM, al-Mihdhar, and Nawaf al-Hazmi spent time in Bosnia in the 1990s, as did Bin Ladin himself—he met Der Spiegel’s Renate Flottau as he waited to be received by Bosnia’s Islamist president Alija Izetbegovic. It was in the Balkans during that terrible war in the 1990s that al-Qaeda’s networks thickened and went global; it is also an arena in which Saudi government operatives behaved most dubiously. One thought that occurs is that if the authors had looked too closely, it might have pushed their narrative in a different direction.

Bad as some Saudis were in Bosnia, the extent was the provision of money and logistics like false papers to jihadists. Iran, on the other hand, deployed its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), including its Lebanese wing, Hizballah, and built al-Qaeda jihadists into a serious force in the war, embedding its agents and supporters throughout the state security apparatus—with consequences lasting to this day. The authors, however, devote less than two pages to the question of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda (p. 389-90). They briefly note that the 9/11 Commission said Iran’s involvement with al-Qaeda “requires further investigation”, quote from a civil case brought in the U.S. that found Iran culpable for the 9/11 attacks, and leave it at that. This is a shame because the Iran dimension to 9/11 is a question that remains most alive.

The 9/11 Commission documents (p. 61) that Iran established “an informal agreement” with al-Qaeda in 1991-2, while al-Qaeda was in Sudan, and, by 1993, al-Qaeda jihadists were being trained by Iran through Hizballah in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Somewhere in this period, a more structured accord was reached, personally, between Bin Ladin and Imad Mughniya, Hizballah’s military chief who held “formal commission in the IRGC” (p.30). Mughniya was, before 2001, the terrorist responsible for killing the most Americans. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s current leader and the in the mid-1990s Bin Ladin’s roving ambassador, worked directly with Mughniya in Bosnia. The operational connection between Iran and al-Qaeda dates to 1996, when Iran attacked the Khobar Towers facility in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen Americans, with al-Qaeda playing “some role, as yet unknown”, as the 9/11 Commission notes (p. 60).

Al-Qaeda’s break onto the world stage was the East African Embassy bombings in August 1998, atrocities enabled by training provided to al-Qaeda from Iran, including to named individuals like Muhammad Saladin Zaydan (Sayf al-Adel), the military emir of al-Qaeda who is still sheltered in Iran. It was after al-Qaeda made it clear it had the intention and capacity to kill Westerners and attack their interests that Iran made a “concerted effort to strengthen relations”, as the 9/11 Commission notes (p. 240). When al-Qaeda fled Afghanistan after 9/11, it was hosted in Iran under an agreement made in January 2002 with the head of IRGC’s Quds Force, Qassem Sulaymani. To the present hour, Iran hosts al-Qaeda’s core facilitation network that sustains its global branches, and supports the Taliban that underwrites al-Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan.

This context is important when considering what the 9/11 Commission says (pp. 240-1) about Iran’s role around the 11 September attacks themselves. Two-thirds of the fourteen Saudi “muscle hijackers”, and Marwan al-Shehhi, the pilot on Flight 175, had been in Iran. At least four named 9/11 killers took flights to Beirut shadowed by a senior Hizballah operative. Al-Qaeda passports were not stamped as they went into Afghanistan under explicit instruction from the Iranian authorities to avoid providing red flags to Western governments, warnings that might have thwarted the plot. After 9/11, Iran went to great lengths to “conceal any past evidence of cooperation” with al-Qaeda and, indeed, other Sunni jihadists. What is crucial to understand is that the Commission found all this in a hasty weekend rummage through NSA files it hadn’t known existed.

Investigation without NSA’s awesome power has since provided a wealth of evidence for a series of court cases that have found Tehran liable for 9/11. It is highly likely that NSA archives could fill in the gaps on Iran’s exact role. Mughniya is the obvious candidate for a deeper look. The other key question, often raised quietly by intelligence officials who have worked on this, is whether there was an Iranian agent or agents positioned to have strategic impacts on the 9/11 conspiracy of a kind that render any tactical interactions with Saudi assets trivial. The sign-posts for where to start are in the 9/11 Commission, which took note of KSM’s connections to Iran, particularly as the place of abode—under conditions never exactly clarified—for his family through most of the 1990s (p. 149). One can add that KSM never formally gave bay’a (an oath of allegiance) to Bin Ladin and kept together an array of connections, many of which remain un-probed.

The final chapter of The Eleventh Day focuses on Pakistan, but this, too, gives short shrift to a subject that deserves a lot more attention. The authors note that the 9/11 Commission says (p. 63) “Pakistan … held the key to [Bin Ladin’s] ability to use Afghanistan as a base from which to revive his ambitious enterprise for war against the United States”. They quote Richard Falkenrath, a one-time deputy homeland security advisor, who said al-Qaeda was “led and financed largely by Saudis, with extensive support from Pakistani intelligence.” After a brief précis of the U.S. working through ISI to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and ISI later using the Taliban as its colonial proxy to run Afghanistan, most of the rest of the chapter discusses Bin Ladin’s demise in Abbottabad, a stone’s throw from an important military installation.

It is useful to be reminded of some of the public diplomacy at that moment. Within forty-eight hours of the Abbottabad raid, CIA director Leon Panetta was revealed to have said Pakistan’s military establishment was “either … involved [with Bin Ladin] or incompetent”, and since Islamabad “might alert the targets”, they were kept out of the loop.

It is also intensely interesting to be directed to the testimony of none other than General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator (1999 -2008), who says that when Mustafa al-Uzaybi (Abu Faraj al-Libi), effectively KSM’s replacement, was arrested near Peshawar by ISI in May 2005, he was found to have had three safehouses in Abbottabad. In other words, “Who would have suspected Abbottabad?” is not a very convincing deflection from Pakistan’s leaders.

There are some mistakes. The Pakistanis were not dragged into an American jihad against the Soviets and then left holding the bag once the Red Army was out of Afghanistan. As Christine Fair extensively documents in Fighting to the End (2014), the American involvement began in July 1979 to push back on Soviet influence in Afghanistan; by that time the insurgency was at least five years old, created by ISI under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto out of the Afghan Islamists who fled after the 1973 coup in Kabul. (Pakistan’s fear at that time, from Daud Khan, was for its territorial integrity since he desired Pashtunistan. The Soviet problem came later, after the Marxist takeover in April 1978.)

Summers and Swan also miss some chances to strengthen their own case. For example, when President Clinton rocketed al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan in 1998, in retaliation for the assault on the Embassies in East Africa, the cruise missiles killed several ISI officers, underlining how closely Pakistani intelligence was intertwined with al-Qaeda. Moreover, since Pakistan, a state run by its military-intelligence establishment, is so close to, and dependent upon, Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government cannot wholly escape the sins of ISI.

The problems from Pakistan and Iran are hardly of historic interest alone. Pakistan’s support for al-Qaeda-connected jihadists in Afghanistan is a pressing issue at this hour, as the insurgency advances, threatening the Coalition mission and promising more space for transnational terrorists if the jihadists prevail. Meanwhile Iran’s revolutionary government rampages across the Arab world under the banner of fighting (Sunni) terrorism, though al-Qaeda’s leadership continues be able to direct its global operations sheltered from the West inside Iran.

Adrian Levy’s and Catherine Scott-Clark’s recent book, The Exile (reviewed here), described all the problems of Saudi policy through the 1980s and 1990s, but it documented the existential support Pakistan and Iran provided to al-Qaeda at its moment of peril in 2001, and have continued to provide ever since. That weighting better reflected where the attention should be over exactly who did what on that Tuesday morning seventeen years ago.



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  1. Pingback: The Jihad Factor in Bosnia | Kyle Orton's Blog

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