The Saudi connection

Published : Aug 29, 2003 00:00 IST

WHAT was the connection between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the terror attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001? Too many glaring facts - particularly the circumstance that 15 of the 19 perpetrators were Saudi nationals - militate against the notion that there was no connection at all. Yet, investigations spread over two years and a review of those investigations by the congressional committee have failed to establish a linkage between the perpetrators of the 9/11 events and the official machinery of the kingdom.

Much attention will be devoted to the testimony that might be rendered by a Saudi national, Omar al-Bayoumi, who is known to have been closely acquainted with at least two of the men who hijacked and then crashed a civilian aircraft into the Pentagon. Bayoumi left the U.S. two months before the terror strikes and has returned to Saudi Arabia after a spell in the United Kingdom. He had been questioned by U.S. and British investigators after the event but was not detained unlike many others who were suspected of being involved in terrorism. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has promised U.S. President George W. Bush that the kingdom will make al-Bayoumi available for questioning by U.S. intelligence personnel currently posted in Riyadh.

The nature of the testimony that may or may not be provided by al-Bayoumi could have a bearing on whether the U.S. administration will de-classify a 28-page chapter of the congressional report, which has been kept confidential for now. This chapter deals with the involvement of foreign countries in the events of 9/11 and those who have read the report claim that the bulk of it contains information and inferences pertaining to Saudi Arabia. Members of the panel and the Saudi Arabian government have demanded, but for diametrically opposite reasons, that this chapter be de-classified. But Bush has refused to do so, claiming that such disclosure could compromise ongoing investigations.

From what has been leaked to the press by those who have seen the report, al-Bayoumi had befriended Khalid al Midhar and Nawaq al Hamzi, two of the 9/11 suspects, in early 2000. He was said to have met the two hijackers in Los Angeles when they flew into the U.S. after attending a meeting of Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia. The circumstances of their first meeting were mysterious since the investigators have apparently been able to establish that the three men met in a restaurant and happened to strike up an acquaintance when they realised that they spoke the same language. Investigators appear to tend to favour the view that this was not a chance encounter but the result of a deliberate attempt by al-Bayoumi to befriend the two.

The relationship appears to have flourished very rapidly. Midhar and Hamzi were taken to al-Bayoumi's house in San Diego and lived there for a few days until their new-found friend helped them get another apartment. The security deposit and the first month's rent were paid by al-Bayoumi, who also threw a party in their honour. Rewards for these services soon followed, though it was not Midhar and Hamzi who recompensed al-Bayoumi but an official of Saudi civil aviation. This official, who had been giving al-Bayoumi cheques for $500 a month, suddenly increased the sum to between $3,000 and $3,500 after he had befriended the two men.

Two interpretations are possible of this wondrous friendship. One is that al-Bayoumi was an informant for Saudi intelligence, who was being handled by the civil aviation official, who was in turn an intelligence operative. From this perspective it would appear that al-Bayoumi's official duty was to report on Saudi dissidents living in the U.S. Counter-terrorism analysts in the U.S. reportedly tend to favour an assessment on these lines. But it is possible to view al-Bayoumi's role from another perspective. From this point of view, al-Bayoumi was indeed an operative of a clandestine Saudi official outfit, but his job was not that of monitoring dissidents. Al-Bayoumi, in this interpretation, played a pivotal role in channelling the funds to the perpetrators. Although none of the congressional committee members has said it right out, reports suggest that the members tend to favour this conclusion.

The strongest argument that the Saudi government can advance, to refute the allegation that they were complicit in the 9/11 events, is that Al Qaeda is as much opposed to the monarchy as it is to the U.S. This was the line taken by the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Bandar bin Sultan, in an angry response to the leaks about the congressional report. But Bandar's response might well have succeeded only in drawing attention to another controversy. This was the rumpus over the fact that cheques made over to a Saudi couple in California by Bandar's wife had found their way to al-Bayoumi's account. The explanation was that these cheques were just a part of the thousands of dollars that the Saudi Ambassador routinely paid out to needy countrymen. It was probably a true and valid reply but will probably not register in the U.S. as a result of the cultural clash that the congressional report has unleashed.

Making the picture even more murky is the fact that Hamid al-Rashid, the civil aviation official who made the monthly payments to al-Bayoumi, has a son by the name of Saud al-Rashid, whose photo was found in a raid on an Al Qaeda cell in Karachi. Saud admitted that he had been in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.

All this only confounds the task of unravelling the Saudi connection. Were the perpetrators of 9/11 successful in duping a part of the elite in their country to fund charities, which in turn provided them with the resources for terrorism? Or were elements in the Saudi elite the actual plotters of 9/11 who hired extremists to do their bidding? The jury is out on that question and the safest bet would be that it will never return.

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