For long, there has been speculation that the 28 pages of the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry [JICI] report of 2002 portray that the Saudi government had at the very least an indirect role in supporting the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attack.
In fact, former Senator Bob Graham, who chaired the JICI is himself on record that he is convinced that «the Saudi government without question was supporting the hijackers who lived in San Diego». Now, all this is no longer a matter of intellectual curiosity or the stuff of idle gossip on the part of the US Congressmen and the American public and the media – and, perhaps, even the judiciary…
By a strange coincidence, last week the US Appeals Court upheld the right of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to pursue their suit filed in 2003 to sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on grounds that it provided significant support to the al-Qaeda in advance of the terrorist attack. Essentially, the ruling is to the effect that placing Saudi Arabia as a defendant in the suit is necessary.
Indeed, lawyers in the 9/11 lawsuit have often cited the JICI report to claim Saudi Arabia was the primary source of the al-Qaeda funding, but the counter-argument by the lawyers representing the House of Saud has been that the available JICI report showed no evidence of either the Saudi government or Saudi officials individually having funded al-Qaeda.
This is exactly where the move in the US Congress to declassify the entire JICI report assumes special significance. Is it a matter of strategic timing on the part of the Congress (and the Administration) or is it a mere case of coincidence that the White House made available the 28 pages of the JICI report for the perusal of two Congressmen on a strictly confidential basis at this point when the Appeals Court was all set to pass judgment on the possible culpability of the Saudi government in the 9/11 attacks?
Conversely, what happens indeed if in the light of these developments, the plaintiffs who want to sue the Saudi government insist on invoking the full JICI report as evidence? We are entering a dark labyrinth.
In the final analysis, however, the ball, as Americans would say, lies in Obama’s court. It is entirely up to the Obama administration to respond to the congressional resolution urging the JICI’s declassification if it is passed in the House and the Senate.
Herein lies the rub. It is a well-known fact that unlike his three immediate predecessors in the Oval Office – George Herbert Walker Bush, William Jefferson Clinton and George Walker Bush – Barack Hussein Obama is not a «hands-on» president when it comes to US-Saudi relations. Here is a president, who, as New York Times wrote a couple of months ago in the context of Syria, «rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings… (whose) body language was telling; he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his Blackberry or slouching and chewing gum».
Indeed, that may be an uncharitable partisan criticism by the Times’ opinionated columnist, because Obama certainly does comprehend the gravity of the crisis but then, he also factors in the limits to the US’ capacity to influence the emergent Middle Eastern hotspots. Besides, as the former US ambassador to NATO and the Director of Middle East Affairs in the US National Security Council during the Jimmy Carter administration Robert Hunter wrote recently, the US has some specific interests to pursue in the current Middle Eastern situation, and, therefore, «US strategy regarding partners and allies in the Persian Gulf needs to move beyond the fixation with military instruments and focus more on redeveloping US engagement and commitment in non-military terms».
Meanwhile, coming back to the JICI report, public pressure is building from the 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, an activist group comprising the attack victims, and neither the White House nor the Congressmen can be impervious to an emotive issue such as this, which has left an indelible mark on the nation’s psyche. The media reports show how ecstatic the families of the victims of the 9/11 attack already feel about the Appeals Court verdict. The father of a 25-year old young man who was killed in the North Tower of the World Trade Center told the ABC News, «Christmas has come early to the 9/11 families. We’re going to have our day in court».
To be sure, the lawsuit, if it succeeds, could mean the Saudi government and members of the royal family serving on charities that financed al-Qaeda operations paying compensation to the tune of tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars. Once the legal juggernaut starts moving, which is shortly, it is anybody’s guess where it could end up.
What makes the whole matter highly explosive is that the Saudi ambassador to the US at the time of the 9/11 attack was none other than Bandar bin Sultan, presently Riyadh’s spy chief. Furthermore, Bandar is also alleged to have personally prevailed upon Bush Jr. to grant special permission by the White House (at a time when all air traffic was grounded all over the US) to whisk out of the US post-haste in a chartered plane from Kentucky a group of 144 persons, including several members of the bin Laden family, so that they wouldn’t be prescreened, interviewed or in any manner debriefed on the 9/11 attack. After the flight, FBI officials have been cited as ruing that these people who were whisked out of the US by Bandar (thanks to Bush’s personal intervention) were «people of interest».
Indeed, the curious part is that Bandar today also happens to be the key person charioting the Saudi project to overthrow the legitimate government of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Put differently, Bandar, who may be called to witness in the US trial court in the 9/11 lawsuit, is the very same Bandar who on the operational side threatens to torpedo the best laid plans of the Obama administration to find a political settlement to the Syrian question at the Geneva 2 conference.
Interestingly, to digress for a moment, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings (which Obama handpicked recently as the forum from where to make some major policy remarks on the US’ engagement with Iran) just brought out an exhaustive study authored by a Middle East expert Elizabeth Dickinson titled «PLAYING WITH FIRE: Why Private Gulf Financing for Syria’s Extremist Rebels Risks Igniting Sectarian Conflict at Home». The analysis paper focuses on how Kuwait has «emerged as a financing and organizational hub for charities and individuals supporting Syria’s myriad rebel groups». It assesses that «Gulf donors have contributed to the ideological and strategic alignment of today’s rebel groups [in Syria], in which extremists have the military upper-hand».
What emerges – and, perhaps, what Bandar needs to take note seriously – is that Washington is closely monitoring the support for extremist jihadi groups operating in Syria by the Gulf Arab petrodollar states and their so-called «charities». The paper says, «The US Treasury is aware of this activity and has expressed concern about this flow of private financing».
At this point, into the simmering cauldron, we may add yet another potent ingredient – namely, the internal power struggle within the Saudi regime, with Bandar becoming the target of rare criticism in the Saudi press.
The well-connected Saudi writer and journalist Jamal Kashoggi wrote in the establishment daily Al Hayat recently in a thinly veiled attack on Bandar, «It would be a mistake to defy the power of history with the illusion that the powerful can forge deals and plan the future away from the peoples whose divisions and lack of experience with democracy enabled local, regional and international forces to abuse them. Yet, these peoples continue to be in a state of liquidity and rage. They know what they want but they are confused about how to achieve it. What is certain is that they will not wait for a knight mounted on a white horse to lead them toward a new shining dawn. The one-man era is over».
Kashoggi couldn’t have written like this except with the reasonable certainty that what he wrote needed to be written.