Two decades after 9/11, the role of Saudi Arabia in the attack remains in dispute despite unrelenting efforts by the US and Saudi governments to neutralise it as a live political issue.
The Saudi Arabia embassy in Washington this week issued a statement detailing its anti-terrorist activities and ongoing hostility to Al-Qaeda. This was briskly rejected by the lawyers for the families of the 9/11 victims who said that, “what Saudi Arabia desperately does not want to discuss is the substantial and credible evidence of the complicity [in the attack] of their employees, agents and sponsored agents”.
Saudi Arabia claims that the 9/11 Commission Report, the official American inquiry published in 2003, cleared it of responsibility for the attacks. In fact, it found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials as individuals had funded Al-Qaeda. But this is not an exoneration since the Saudi government traditionally retains deniability by permitting Saudi sheikhs and wealthy individuals to finance radical Sunni Muslim movements abroad. A former Taliban finance minister, Agha Jan Motasim, revealed in an interview with the New York Times in 2016 that he went to Saudi Arabia several times a year to raise funds from private donors for his movement .
The evidence has always been strong that at various points the hijackers, who flew the planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, had interacted with Saudi state employees, though how much the latter knew about the plot has never been clarified. What is impressive is the determination with which the US security services have tried to conceal or play down intelligence linking Saudi officials to 9/11, something which may be motivated by their own culpability in giving Saudis a free pass when suspicions about the hijackers were aroused prior to 9/11.
In Sarasota, Florida, the FBI at first denied having any documents relating to the hijackers who were living there, but eventually handed over 80,000 pages that might be relevant under the Freedom of Information Act. Last week President Joe Biden decided to release other documents from the FBI’s overall investigation.
A striking feature of 9/11 is the attention which President George W Bush gave to diverting blame away from Saudi Arabia. He allowed some 144 individuals, mostly from the Saudi elite, to fly back to Saudi Arabia without being questioned by the FBI. A photograph shows Bush in cheerful conversation on the White House balcony a few days after 9/11 with the influential Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, told me in an interview with The Independent in 2014 that, “there were several incidents [in which US officials] were inexplicably solicitous to Saudis”. This solicitude did not ebb over the years and it was only in 2016 that the wholly redacted 28 pages in the 9/11 Report about the financial links of some hijackers to individuals working for the Saudi government was finally made public.
I have never been a believer in direct Saudi government complicity in 9/11, because they had no motive and they usually act at one remove from events. When the Saudi state acts on its own – as with the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamil Khashoggi by a death squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 – the operation is commonly marked by shambolic incompetence.
Conspiracy theories about 9/11 divert attention away from two areas of Saudi culpability that are beyond dispute. The first is simply that 9/11 was a Saudi-led operation through and through, since Osama bin Laden, from one of the most prominent Saudi families, was the leader of Al-Qaeda and 15 out of the19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. The 9/11 attacks might have happened without Afghanistan, but not without Saudi participation.
Another kind of Saudi government culpability for 9/11 is more wide-ranging but more important because the factors behind it have not disappeared. A weakness of the outpouring of analyses of the consequences of 9/11 is that they treat the attacks as the point of departure for a series of events that ended badly, such as the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is very much a western viewpoint because what happened in New York and Washington in 2001 was not the beginning, but the midpoint in a struggle, involving both open and covert warfare, that began more than 20 years earlier and made Saudi Arabia such a central player in world politics.
This preeminent status is attributed to Saudi oil wealth and partial control over the price of oil. But more than 20 years before 9/11 two events occurred which deepened the US-Saudi alliance and made it far more important for both parties. These genuine turning points in history, both of which took place in 1979, were the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These together generated 40 years of conflict and war which have not yet come to an end, and in which 9/11 was but one episode and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan last month another.
Saudi Arabia and the US wanted to stop communism in Afghanistan and the rise of Iran as a revolutionary Shia power. The former motive vanished with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (though not the permanent crisis in Afghanistan), but the Saudi aim to build a wall of fundamentalist Sunni movements in the 50 Muslim majority states in the world did not.
Saudi policy is to bet on all players in any conflict, so it can truthfully claim to be backing the Afghan government and fighting terrorism, though it is also indirectly funding a resurgent Taliban. The US was not blind to this, but only occasionally admitted so in public. Six years after 9/11, in 2007, Stuart Levy, the under secretary of the US Treasury in charge of putting a stop to the financing of terrorism, told ABC news that regarding Al-Qaeda, “if I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off funding from one country, it would be Saudi Arabia”. He added that not a single person identified by the US and the UN as a funder of terrorism had been prosecuted by the Saudis.
Most candid admissions by senior US officials were classified and are only known because of leaks. In a cable published by WikiLeaks, for instance, the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wrote that, “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LET [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.”
Many US politicians and officials came to feel over the years that the price paid by the US for its alliance with the Saudi rulers was too great because their interests had come to diverge too radically. Senator Graham told me that, “I believe that the failure to shine a full light on Saudi actions, and particularly its involvement in 9/11” had damaged the US and opened the door to violent jihadis. A direct line connects exonerating Saudi Arabia over 9/11 and the Taliban victory in Afghanistan 20 years later.