'It's time we expose the truth': 9/11 families see a turning point in fight to reveal alleged Saudi role

WASHINGTON – Twenty years after he narrowly escaped the World Trade Center's South Tower, Timothy Frolich is going back to ground zero for the first time to mark the anniversary of the deadliest attack on U.S. soil.

Frolich's visit to the site isn't just about commemorating the day that transformed his life and the lives many other Americans. He hopes it will also be about what's next: the likely release of new details about Saudi Arabia's alleged role in the attacks – information the U.S. government has fought for years to keep secret.

Under pressure from 9/11 victims and their families, President Joe Biden on Sept. 3 directed the Justice Department and other federal agencies to declassify some documents from the FBI's investigation into the terrorist attacks.

Terry Strada, whose husband was killed in the North Tower on Sept. 11, hailed Biden's order as a potential "turning point" in the victims' efforts to shed light on whether and how Saudi government officials may have supported the hijackers.

"The 9/11 families certainly should know the truth about who is responsible for the murder of our loved ones, but the American people deserve to know ... just as much as we do," said Strada, who is among hundreds of 9/11 families suing the Saudi government for compensation.

"We've had roadblocks for the last 20 years whenever the kingdom was involved. It’s time we expose the truth," she said.

The Saudi government has long denied any involvement in the attacks and recently said it welcomes Biden's declassification decision.

"Any allegation that Saudi Arabia is complicit in the September 11 attacks is categorically false," the embassy said in a Sept. 8 statement. "Saudi Arabia knows all too well the evil that al-Qaeda through its ideology and actions represents ... Alongside the U.S., the kingdom has spared no effort in tackling the men, money, and mindset of terrorism and extremism in all its forms."

The embassy said it hopes the "full declassification of any documents" related to the attacks will "end the baseless allegations against the kingdom once and for all."

Former Sept. 11 investigators say it's not clear yet how much pivotal new information will be released under Biden's order, given that U.S. intelligence officials can still seek to shield key details based on privacy laws or national security concerns.

People run from the collapse of one of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center in this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo.
People run from the collapse of one of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center in this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo.

But Strada and others say there is already a significant trove of information suggesting at least low-level Saudi officials had some role in supporting two of the 19 hijackers. They believe there is much more to come. And they have their hopes pinned on securing new details from an FBI investigation dubbed "Operation Encore," which began years after other probes closed and focused specifically on the question of Saudi Arabia's possible complicity.

Here's some of what we already know – and don't – about Saudi connections to the Sept. 11 attacks, which killed 2,977 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Penn.

By the numbers: Facts from a tragic day in American history

The plotters and hijackers

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, as was Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaida, the militant Islamic terrorist group that plotted and executed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks from a safe haven in Afghanistan. The Saudi government expelled bin Laden from the kingdom and stripped him of his citizenship well before the 2001 attacks on the U.S. The alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is a Pakistani citizen.

The money

According to the 9/11 Commission's final report, al-Qaida relied on "a core group of financial facilitators who raised money from a variety of donors and other fundraisers, primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia."

Much of the funding for al-Qaida was channeled through charities, some of which enjoyed Saudi government backing and involvement, according to the 9/11 report and other documents.

Al-Qaida "found fertile fundraising 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," the report states.

But while Saudi Arabia was long considered "the primary source of al-Qaida funding," the commission's investigators found "no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization."

"It does not appear that any government other than the Taliban financially supported al-Qaida before 9/11, although some governments may have contained al-Qaida sympathizers who turned a blind eye to al-Qaida’s fundraising activities," the commission said.

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Saudi help in San Diego

When a bipartisan congressional panel published its probe into the attacks, then-President George W. Bush's administration withheld 28 pages on the grounds that it would reveal U.S. intelligence sources and methods. That move, among others, fueled deep suspicion that the U.S. was protecting Saudi Arabia and America's strategic alliance with the oil-rich country.

The Obama administration agreed to declassify those pages with some redactions, revealing new tidbits alleging that two low-level Saudi officials based in California helped two of the hijackers when they arrived in the U.S.: Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who were on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon.

But the 28 pages are hardly definitive. And investigators warned at the time that much of it was "raw, unvetted" material drafted for the purpose of further inquiry.

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"While in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi government," the document says.

The first is Omar al-Bayoumi, who provided "substantial assistance" to al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar after meeting them in a supposedly chance encounter at a restaurant, according to the declassified pages. At the time, al-Bayoumi was in contact with Saudi government entities in the U.S. and received money from a Saudi company linked to the kingdom's defense ministry. FBI sources alleged that he may have been a Saudi intelligence officer.

"This support (from the company to al-Bayoumi) increased substantially in April 2000, two months after the hijackers arrived in San Diego," the declassified document says.

He helped the two hijackers find an apartment, co-signed their lease and paid the security deposit (for which they reimbursed him in cash on the spot), according to the 9/11 Commission report. Al-Bayoumi also allegedly connected them with another man, Modhar Abdullah, who helped them get drivers' licenses and assisted them in finding flight schools, among other things.

In a 2005 letter to Congress, the CIA and FBI directors said they did not have evidence that al-Bayoumi "wittingly" helped the hijackers or that he was a Saudi intelligence officer. The letter said that the Saudi government and its agencies had been "infiltrated and exploited" by individuals sympathetic to al-Qaida but highlighted the kingdom's cooperation with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

A second person who allegedly helped the two hijackers is Fahad al-Thumairy, who was a Saudi consular official based in the Los Angeles area and an imam at a mosque in Culver City, Calif. FBI documents suggest the mosque was built with funding from a Saudi crown prince and was known for its anti-Western views.

When the two hijackers first arrived in the U.S., al-Thumairy "immediately assigned an individual to take care of them during their time in the Los Angeles area," according to part of a declassified, redacted document stemming from the FBI's "Operation Encore" probe.

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According to a joint investigation by the New York Times and ProPublica into the Operation Encore probe, al-Thumairy tasked an Eritrean man to help al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, deeming them “very significant” visitors. But the report also said FBI agents were divided over the significance of Thumairy's role. Under questioning by the FBI, Thumairy denied having ever met the hijackers.

"It was the Operation Encore investigation that really kind of brought this forward," said Frolich, because it went beyond what the 9/11 Commission had found. "Those are the specific documents that we're asking for."

Richard Lambert, an FBI veteran who led the agency's initial 9/11 investigation in San Diego, said he believes the Saudi government was directly involved in helping al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar while they were in southern California. Lambert is now working as a consultant to the 9/11 families in their lawsuit against Saudi Arabia.

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, Chief of Staff Andy Card whispers into the ear of President George W. Bush to give him word of the plane crashes at the World Trade Center, during a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, Chief of Staff Andy Card whispers into the ear of President George W. Bush to give him word of the plane crashes at the World Trade Center, during a visit to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

"I can't comment on any specific items of evidence," Lambert said, noting the court's protective order barring disclosure of some of the information gathered in the lawsuit.

"What I can say is ... I believe that the government of Saudi Arabia directed and orchestrated a hijacker-support enterprise in southern California. And that enterprise enabled the two hijackers, al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar, to complete all the preparations that they needed to board the plane and fly it into the Pentagon," said Lambert, emphasizing that is his opinion "based on the totality of the evidence" produced in the lawsuit so far.

Strada is similarly convinced, and she said Biden's declassification order could finally help the 9/11 families "peel back the onion" and get to the bottom of who helped the hijackers when they were in the United States. She said the Saudi and U.S. governments wouldn't have fought them this hard and this long over inconsequential documents.

"We're now getting the information that they wanted buried, so it has to be good," she said.

Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who led the 9/11 Commission, said all top-secret files should be opened up to the public, especially those that touch on allegations that Saudi officials helped the 19 hijackers. But he doesn't expect the 9/11 families or the American public to learn anything new about the alleged Saudi connection.

“I’ve read the files,” Kean told NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, in a recent interview. “There is no smoking gun.”

Contributing: Mike Kelly of NorthJersey.com.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 20 years after 9/11 attacks, what we still don't know about Saudi role