Saudis, 9/11
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Stephen Downes / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Flickr.

Key facts about Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11 continue to emerge, 21 years later. What else don’t we know — and why aren’t we paying attention?

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Last week I wrote about Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City, ground zero for 9/11, giving credence to one of the biggest open questions about the infamous attacks: the Saudi Arabian connection. 

By this, I don’t mean that 15 out of 19 of the hijackers were Saudi; I mean the indications, supported by the Biden administration’s document release last year, that high-level elements of the Saudi government and royal family may have been involved. 

If it is true that this important US ally and supplier of oil was somehow involved in the biggest attack on the US since Pearl Harbor, then this story is about as big as any story, ever.

Most news accounts on the recent anniversary of the extraordinary terrorist attack made almost no effort to contextualize the attack itself or to ask deeper questions — 60 Minutes, for example, marked the 21st anniversaryby focusing on the human tragedy of the New York Fire Department. However, a growing body of evidence raises eyebrows a mile high. 

This latest tranche of new information comes from Robbyn Swan, a journalist and 9/11 expert who co-authored with her husband Anthony Summers The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden, which was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. 

Studying a never-before-published 2007 FBI analysis of telephone calls, from documents declassified by the Biden administration after the Trump administration declared them “state secrets,” she notes for the nonprofit Florida Bulldog new evidence that builds the case against the Saudis even further. 

To summarize: about 18 months before the 9/11 attacks, a young Somali/Yemeni student studying in the United States met with Fahad al Thumairy and Omar al Bayoumi, two men with connections to the Saudi government. Two weeks later, he began placing a series of calls to a phone number identified as an al-Qaeda communications hub which the National Security Agency had been tracking since the mid-1990s. 

Men with demonstrable connections to the Saudi government — Thumairy was a consulate official, while Bayoumi has all the markings of an intelligence agent — met with a Somali/Yemeni student who shortly thereafter called a number associated with al-Qaeda as well as both an earlier terrorist act and the 9/11 attack itself. 

One of the bombers involved in the catastrophic 1998 attack on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had called the same number before the embassy attacks. So too did the big boss, Osama bin Laden himself. He also called the number before those precursor attacks. In fact, bin Laden called that number many times. 

The number traces to a house in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, that was owned by a man bin Laden had known since the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. That man’s son-in-law ended up being one of the 9/11 hijackers. 

As for the student, identified in the FBI report as Fathi M. Aidarus, his Saudi connections weren’t minor. First of all, when interviewed in 2001, Aidarus admitted to FBI agents that he had been friends with two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. 

The two hijackers were themselves directly connected to Bayoumi, who helped them get settled in the US while they prepared for the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the White House. Bayoumi is alleged to have been involved with Saudi Arabian intelligence, an FBI source told the agency. A later FBI memo guessed there was a “50/50 chance Omar al-Bayoumi had advanced knowledge the 9/11 terrorist attacks were to occur.” And, as Swan reported, Aidarus was in frequent contact with Bayoumi.

To summarize, men with demonstrable connections to the Saudi government — Thumairy was a consulate official, while Bayoumi has all the markings of an intelligence agent — met with a Somali/Yemeni student who shortly thereafter called a number associated with al-Qaeda as well as both an earlier terrorist act and the 9/11 attack itself. 

Meanwhile, Bayoumi, who was on the FBI’s radar after handing $400,000 to a Kurdish community to build a mosque, also had direct contact with the hijackers. He helped them get settled in the San Diego area. 

In almost any other situation, evidence like this would be considered earth-shakingly important.  Everyone would be scrambling to learn more. 

But this is not Hunter Biden’s laptop, nor yet the latest turn of the screw concerning Donald Trump.  

World Trade Center 2, 9-11

Just before the collapse of World Trade Center 2 on September 11, 2001 in New York City. You can see all floors fully involved with fire, and structural failure is imminent. Photo credit: jphillipobrien2006 / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Instead, it’s so far been ignored, by the US government, the major media, and by most 9/11 “truthers,” who continuously avoid the Saudi connection in favor of pinning blame on other governments or actors. 

Some seem particularly obsessed with Israel, mostly citing purported motive and highly circumstantial material — such as the so-called “dancing Israelis,” who are definitely suspicious characters worthy of a closer look — to make their weak case. Others are certain key US government officials were involved. 

Despite their ardor and their insults against skeptics of their theory, they really cannot explain how, exactly, their pet conspiracy worked. Nor do they acknowledge the complexity and planning required to get the US establishment itself to covertly carry out such an intricate, treacherous, and diabolical operation against its own people. (By comparison, the political assassinations of the 1960s were child’s play.) 

I personally find all this fascinating and incredibly important. As I have pointed out in prior columns, any journalist who digs too deep into something that makes the general establishment uncomfortable can expect to be ignored or ostracized. 

Yet as any sane person can see, this is the very essence of what investigators, journalists, and others should be doing: trying to connect suspicious dots through careful research based on documented facts and credible sources. 

Clearly, much more work needs to be done. Perhaps there is a benign explanation for all of these connections, but one has to contort a bit to see what that might be. 

Along those lines, I’ve asked Robbyn Swan to answer some of my own lingering questions. 

Let me be clear that Robbyn and I do not necessarily agree on all things. But given the considerable and thorough review she’s done, it is interesting to see what she thinks. 

Q&A with Robbyn Swan 

(Edited for clarity and brevity.)

Q: What major unanswered questions or unsolved mysteries remain from the 9/11 story?

A: I am one of those who — after many years of deep research — accepts that the official findings as presented by the Congressional Joint Inquiry and 9/11 Commission are substantially true. I have never seen anything of evidentiary value that would change the conclusion that the September 11 attacks were committed by al-Qaeda.

That said, there are important questions that remain. Most of those questions, for me, involve whether or not al-Qaeda was aided in those attacks by anyone — specifically any state actor.

As your readers will recall, there was a great rush after the attacks to get in and “do Iraq” by suggesting Saddam had been involved. There was later shown to be no credible evidence of Iraqi involvement.

The official enquiries and the early FBI investigation of the attacks, however, did turn up many leads on the possible role of members of the Saudi royal family, Saudi government officials, and Saudi-controlled charities in funding and abetting the attacks. Thousands of survivors and families have been engaged in a long struggle to resolve those questions and — if such connections are proven — hold the kingdom to account. 

For me, the question of the Saudi role remains key.

Q: What “conspiracy theories” that attempt to prove or explain some other more nefarious plot are believable, and which are bunk/distractions? 

A: In The Eleventh Day, we spend two chapters discussing the validity of various conspiracy theories suggesting that 9/11 was “an inside job.” Though I have not in recent years spent much time on this, I have not seen anything since that time that would lead me to conclusions differing from the evidence we presented in our book.

I would urge readers to have a look at The Eleventh Day for a sense of how I view some of these theories — which include crackpot suggestions such as there having been no real passengers on the planes that day. Or the Pentagon having been hit by a missile rather than a plane. 

Have those who proposed such ideas looked, for instance, at the photos of victims’ remains used in the trial of supposed 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui? What an appalling affront this kind of conjecture is to the families of those who died.

Q: Eric Adams appears to be taking the Saudi connection seriously. Are any other elected leaders doing similarly? Is there anything about Donald Trump’s behavior that arouses suspicion?

A: As I’ve made clear, I believe possible links to the attack by members of the Saudi regime is the most critical line of questioning that remains open. Resolving those questions is historically significant, but also important to the shape of our future relationship with the kingdom. 

President Biden got off to a good start on resetting that relationship by ordering the public release of documents on this case, and putting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a distance. That said, the oil price/supply issue brought on by the war in Ukraine has pushed the administration back toward the kingdom. 

No discussion of the possible Saudi role in 9/11 though, would be taking place today if not for the principled stand taken by former Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida. Having co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry on the attacks, the senator became convinced the kingdom had questions to answer. Instead of slipping into a peaceful retirement, as he could have done, Sen. Graham has over the past 20 years brought the full power of his reputation to bear on this issue. His quest for the truth has been inspirational to the survivors and families with whom I speak.

Q: How would Saudi Arabia have benefited by “doing 9/11,” given that the attacks destabilized the region?

A: We do not know to what extent Saudi Arabia as a nation state played a role in 9/11. The evidence emerging thus far does seem, as I have said, to suggest that some Saudi royals or officials may well have played a role. A theory as to “why” that conjecture does seem to have rational basis is the hypothesis that by allowing or encouraging its extremists to act abroad, the Kingdom sought to prevent those extremists — many of whom see the Saudi regime as corrupt and immoral — from turning against the Saudis state itself.

Q: If there was some kind of greater conspiracy beyond the al-Qaeda operation, how high up does a “conspiracy” go? Did the US know anything about it? Did Israel know?

A: If members of the Saudi royal family or Saudi officialdom knew about the attacks or assisted in orchestrating them, it will be critical to establish how close to the center of power in the Kingdom those individuals were or are. In my research, and in the work of the legal teams working for the families in their suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the names of some very senior royals — King Salman, former Crown Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, and others — have emerged. One needs to continue to push that research to see how far it goes.

The rest of this question — which seems predicated on the idea of some vast international conspiracy — troubles me.

Conspiracies do exist. In the US we recognise that fact in statutes like our RICO laws. And 9/11 was a conspiracy, but it was a conspiracy involving members of al-Qaeda and possibly a limited number of like-minded individuals. 

A far more interesting question to me is to ask what our intelligence agencies should and could have known about the plot. Not just the US or Israel, but Western allies like the UK, France, and Denmark had serious eyes on al-Qaeda. Then, too, so did countries like the UAE and Pakistan. We still don’t know everything about what any of these countries knew, and when or if they shared what they knew with the US.

Russ’s Coda

Let me close by noting that I differ with Robbyn on a number of points. For example, I place less trust in the findings of commissions dealing in national security, for the simple reasons that their own access is limited — and that there is a lot of pressure to keep some matters from being publicly aired. 

I think history tells us it is unreasonable to expect officially sanctioned commissions to find the full story — and then share it if and when they do. 

I also remain very curious about so many aspects of the narrative, including how the hijackers, who seemingly didn’t have much advanced training or skills and who were not jet-ready pilots, were able to pull off this astounding feat. 

Like so many Americans, I still find the official explanation deeply unsatisfying.  


  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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