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FBI Looks at Saudi's Link to 9/11

The man aided two of the hijackers. Possible higher-level links are a point of contention.

November 23, 2002|Greg Krikorian, Greg Miller and H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The FBI is investigating a Saudi Arabian man who provided assistance to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, a disclosure that comes amid fierce debate in the intelligence community over whether the investigation also points to disturbing new links between the attacks and the Saudi government.

Government sources said Friday there are some indications that high-level Saudi officials were providing money to at least one man, who in turn helped San Diego-based hijackers get established in the United States by making rent payments and providing other assistance.

But congressional and Justice Department sources said they disagree sharply over what to make of the apparent financial links. The debate centers on whether the Saudi sponsors knew the money was going to terrorists -- let alone being used to support the Sept. 11 plot -- and whether the individuals were acting on their own or on behalf of the Saudi government.

Sources said that remains a central and unresolved question before the joint congressional panel conducting an ongoing probe of intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But FBI officials said they have investigated two Saudi men in connection with financial support provided to hijackers, and found no evidence of anything unusual. They determined that the men routinely helped newcomers from Arab countries with modest financial help.

"That is something we would be interested in," one congressional source said. Investigators "want to find out the complicity or knowledge of officials of a foreign government."

"If members felt there was some complicity or active knowledge and support, that would be a big deal," the source said. "But we're not there yet. All we have is circumstantial evidence."

The possibility of Saudi government links to the hijackers is sensitive for the Bush administration, which values the oil-rich Persian Gulf state as an important ally, one that is even more important as the U.S. government contemplates a war with Iraq.

The matter has become a source of significant friction between congressional investigators and the Justice Department. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been pressuring the Justice Department for weeks to declassify new information and evidence surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.

In recent interviews, Graham has refused to discuss the nature of that evidence, but sources have said that it relates to connections between the San Diego hijackers and a foreign government. The San Diego hijackers, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, were both Saudi citizens and were among those who commandeered a commercial jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon.

Congressional sources said lawmakers are frustrated that the FBI hasn't been more aggressive in pursuing the matter.

But a Justice Department official said the FBI has been aware of the evidence since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and is convinced that it does not point to Saudi complicity in the attacks.

"It's a suspected linkage that isn't true," the official said, adding that the matter is so sensitive that many believe even airing the suggestions of Saudi links will significantly hamper the war on terrorism.

Officially, the FBI declined to comment Friday, citing its ongoing investigation into terrorism. Spokesman Steven Berry, reading from a prepared statement, said that the FBI continues to investigate a man who assisted the terrorists, Omar Al Bayoumi, and a second Saudi, Osama Bassnan. The bureau noted that it previously charged both men with visa fraud but said: "For obvious reasons, the FBI does not divulge details of its pending investigations."

But two high-ranking FBI officials said this week that there was no evidence that the hijackers received financial support from any foreign power while they lived in San Diego.

"There are absolutely no facts that would support that theory," said one official.

"We have people we know associated with the hijackers ... but they didn't do things for the hijackers that they had not already done for 50 other Moslems" who came to San Diego from abroad, one of the FBI officials said.

Al Bayoumi first met Almihdhar and Alhazmi in late 1999 at a Los Angeles restaurant and later brought them to San Diego's large Muslim community, paying their first two months rent at an apartment in the neighborhood of Claremont.

Bassnan lived for a time in the same Clairemont apartment building as Al Bayoumi and was known as the "Unofficial Saudi Mayor of San Diego."

Two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, FBI agents began questioning Muslims in San Diego about Al Bayoumi. And 10 days after the attacks, he was detained in Birmingham, England, where he was then enrolled at Aston University, at the request of the FBI.

Al Bayoumi was released a week later, strongly denying any knowledge of the terrorist attacks or links to Al Qaeda, and is believed to be in England today.

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