Families press FBI for 9/11 secrets, answers to Saudi connection in San Diego

The apartment in Clairemont was devoid of any furniture, its two new tenants from Saudi Arabia having just arrived in the United States with few possessions.

Nonetheless, soon after the pair moved in, about 20 men, most of them strangers, packed inside for a party one evening in February 2000.

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The party was hosted by a well-connected fellow Saudi. At his direction, another attendee walked around the party with a video camera in hand, documenting what turned out to be the unofficial introduction of two future 9/11 hijackers into their new community in San Diego.

The video footage has become a much-discussed piece of evidence in understanding the groundwork laid in San Diego and elsewhere for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The tape is of particular interest to the thousands of families who lost loved ones in the terrorist plot, as they try to prove in a lawsuit that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was complicit in the conspiracy.

But when lawyers for the families recently subpoenaed the FBI for the footage, the response was baffling. The tape, the FBI told them, has gone missing — either misplaced or destroyed, it wasn’t clear. Same for several other specific pieces of evidence gathered by investigators over the past two decades, the FBI said.

The exchange — recounted in a complaint filed earlier this month with the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General — illustrates how, 20 years later, families continue to be largely rebuffed in their effort to obtain official FBI and CIA documents generated by their investigations into 9/11, particularly as it relates to Saudi Arabia.

A view of the Parkwood Apartments on Mount Ada Road in Clairemont

Future 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar briefly lived in the Parkwood Apartments on Mount Ada Road in Clairemont upon first arriving in San Diego in February 2000. The complex has since been converted into condominiums.

(Sean M. Haffey / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The families see the material not only as pivotal pieces to advance their lawsuit, but also a way to fill in gaps surrounding their loved ones’ deaths as our understanding of the 9/11 narrative continues to evolve.

“The families deserve closure, we need closure,” said Brett Eagleson of Middletown, Conn., who was a teenager when his father was killed while attending a meeting on the 17th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. “There are still unanswered questions not only for us but the American people.”

Much of the investigative material points back to San Diego.

It was here that Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, the first of the al-Qaeda hijackers to arrive in the United States, lived in plain sight posing as language students and learning to fly before the attacks, and where they almost immediately enjoyed a support system that helped them navigate life in a foreign country.

The initial investigation into the plot and its players, including those in San Diego, is outlined at length in the 9/11 Commission’s final report released in 2004.

Saudi Arabia has long been a central focus: 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, as well as the plot’s mastermind, Osama bin Laden. While the report, including its 28-page final chapter declassified in 2016, highlights circumstantial evidence of complicity, it stops short of laying blame with the Saudi government or certain Saudi officials in Southern California.

Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement in or prior knowledge of the attacks.

Photos released by the FBI of hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar

Photos released by the FBI of 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi, left, and Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, who lived in San Diego the year prior to the attacks.

(Associated Press)

Still, the Justice Department has historically resisted declassifying the bulk of its investigation — which continued well after the commission made its findings — claiming the information is a state secret.

That may soon change.

About a week ago, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that directs the attorney general and various agencies to review the now-closed 9/11 investigations with an eye toward declassification. Those documents must then be released to the public over the next six months. Additionally, the agencies must provide Biden justification for any decision to keep documents secret.

Many families are optimistic, but they’ve also heard similar promises before.

“President Biden is asking us to trust that the administration will bring justice to the 9/11 community,” Eagleson said, “and we certainly hope this is a genuine step forward.”

In an email statement, the FBI said it “will continue to work in coordination with the Department of Justice and other agencies to declassify and release documents related to the 9/11 investigation.” The FBI declined to address the missing evidence, citing the ongoing litigation.

This 1988 Toyota Corolla found abandoned at Dulles International Airport the day after 9/11

This 1988 Toyota Corolla found abandoned at Dulles International Airport the day after 9/11 led the FBI to San Diego, where two hijackers had previously lived. Khalid al-Mihdhar had bought the car while living in San Diego and later transferred ownership to Nawaf al-Hazmi.

(Courtesy of FBI)

Staging ground

The trail to San Diego began with a blue 1988 Toyota Corolla found abandoned at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12, 2001.

American Airlines Flight 77 had departed from the airport a day earlier before crashing into the Pentagon, killing all 64 passengers and 125 people on the ground. Hazmi and Mihdhar were two of five hijackers onboard.

The car’s registration listed a home in Lemon Grove. The lead soon exposed the seemingly mundane lives that Hazmi and Mihdhar had led in Southern California as a cover for extremism and raised the specter that they were being supported by a larger network of Saudi-funded sympathizers already in place.

Hazmi and Mihdhar came to the U.S. on tourist visas, arriving at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 15, 2000.

How and where they spent their first two weeks in the country remain fuzzy, but investigators believe they likely received assistance tied to the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, which was funded by the Saudi royal family and known at the time for harboring an orthodox version of Islam known as Wahhabism.

On Feb. 1, they met the Saudi man who would end up hosting that party weeks later.

Omar al-Bayoumi was well known in San Diego’s Muslim community. He claimed to be a student, yet was not observed taking classes. He received a monthly paycheck from a Saudi civil aviation company affiliated with the Saudi Ministry of Defense, despite only visiting the office once. That pay increased during the time Hazmi and Mihdhar were apparently under his wing.

He was known to regularly videotape events and people within the local Muslim community, and many suspected he was a spy, keeping tabs on fellow Saudis living abroad for the kingdom.

Bayoumi told investigators that he drove from San Diego to Los Angeles to take care of a visa issue at the Saudi consulate, and then stopped for lunch at a Mediterranean café where he claims he met Hazmi and Mihdhar by chance. He has told investigators that he recognized their Gulf Arabic dialect, befriended them and invited them to settle in San Diego.

But investigators have long doubted the encounter was random.

Bayoumi — who left the U.S. for England about two months before the attacks — has become a central figure in the effort to determine Saudi Arabia’s potential role in the attacks. So has Fahad al-Thumairy, a Saudi diplomat posted at the Los Angeles consulate with whom Bayoumi is suspected of meeting before the restaurant encounter.

Thumairy was a representative of the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Islamic Affairs and also served as an imam at the King Fahad Mosque.

Retired FBI Agent Stephen K. Moore, who led the Los Angeles task force in the initial FBI investigation, said in a sworn declaration in 2017 that agents determined Thumairy and Bayoumi “were active participants in a terror cell associated with al Qaeda that provided substantial financial and logistical support to Hazmi and Mihdhar.”

King Fahad Mosque in Culver City seen at sunset

King Fahad Mosque in Culver City and its former imam, Saudi diplomat Fahad al-Thumairy, have long been a focus of investigations into the Saudi-linked support network of two Southern California 9/11 hijackers.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Neither Hazmi nor Mihdhar could speak English and they were unfamiliar with life in the U.S. “They would have had zero chance for success without a support structure waiting for them,” Moore concluded in the declaration, filed as part of the 9/11 families’ litigation.

However, the 9/11 Commission did not reach such specific conclusions, saying it had “not found evidence that Thumairy provided assistance to the two operatives” and that Bayoumi likely did so unwittingly, finding him “to be an unlikely candidate for clandestine involvement with Islamist extremists.”

Soon after meeting Bayoumi at the restaurant, Hazmi and Mihdhar arrived in San Diego. Bayoumi let them stay with him in the Parkwood Apartments on Mount Ada Road for a few days before setting them up in a nearby unit. He co-signed their lease and paid their first month’s rent but was reportedly reimbursed.

He threw the party in their sparse apartment, Bayoumi told investigators in a 2003 interview in Saudi Arabia, in honor of a visiting sheikh from Norway. Others remembered it as a welcome party for Hazmi and Mihdhar.

Either way, the new arrivals spent much of the party in a back room avoiding socialization.

The pair openly established their residency in the U.S. under their true identities, obtaining post office boxes, bank accounts and California driver’s licenses. Hazmi was listed in the phone book, and for a time worked washing cars at a Texaco gas station in La Mesa that employed some of his new friends.

They worshipped daily at the Islamic Center of San Diego — where they met the man who sold them the Toyota — and visited neighboring mosques, including Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami on the San Diego-La Mesa border. They played soccer, sought girlfriends, surfed the Internet on public library computers and spent money at strip clubs.

They navigated their new city with the help of others, including Mohdar Abdullah, a Grossmont College student tasked by Bayoumi with helping the pair acclimate.

Flight instructor Rick Garza heads out on the apron at Montgomery Field

Flight instructor Rick Garza heads out on the apron at Montgomery Field to prepare a plane for a flight lesson. Garza flunked Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar after about six flight lessons in May 2000, saying their English skills were not up to par.

(John Gastaldo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hopeless pilots

Early on in their training at Sorbi Flying Club at Montgomery Field, Hazmi or Mihdhar pointed to a jet and said they wanted to move straight to the part where they learned to fly Boeings. Flight instructor Rick Garza brushed it off as enthusiasm.

At one point, after a handful of lessons, the two told Garza that some friends had come to the airfield to meet him.

The men — one of whom may have been Bayoumi with short hair — were well-dressed in dark, western-style clothing, Garza recalled. They spoke in their native language, and one turned to Garza and asked in English: “So, they’re doing training with you?”

The man pointed to the flight line, asking which aircraft they were training in, then said they might have more friends who want to take lessons. The group then left in a black Lincoln Continental.

Kenneth Williams, a former San Diego police officer and retired FBI agent, said the visit strongly suggests Hazmi’s and Mihdhar’s training was being closely monitored by sponsors.

“That shows that these guys didn’t just come here on their own volition to study English and fly airplanes. Those visitors were people doing a checkup to make sure (Hazmi and Mihdhar) were doing their training and taking care of business,” said Williams, who investigated 9/11 hijackers’ flight training in Arizona as a special agent in Phoenix after the attacks.

Ultimately, Hazmi and Mihdhar proved to be hopeless pilots, lacking the aptitude for basic flight. The language barrier was also insurmountable; they weren’t able to read or understand the flight training manual, nor could they grasp simple radio communications.

Garza dropped them from training in May 2000 after only about six lessons.

The following month, Mihdhar, having failed at flight training and yearning for home, departed to Yemen where his first child had just been born. Hazmi stayed on.

The pair had by then moved out of the Clairemont apartment into a home in Lemon Grove, owned by a retired educator and Muslim leader who rented rooms to students.

Mihdhar was replaced by another recruit, Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who had already obtained his private and commercial pilot’s licenses in Arizona in the late 1990s. He would end up piloting Flight 77.

Hanjour arrived in San Diego in December 2000 but stayed only a few days before leaving town with Hazmi.

They ended up in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, where Hanjour trained on multi-engine aircraft and Boeing simulators at his former flight school. By the end of March, the duo started driving east, ending up in Virginia, where the other hijackers would gather in anticipation of the attacks. They were joined by Mihdhar, who returned to the U.S. from his sabbatical in Yemen.

An old contact from San Diego was also there: Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American who once studied at San Diego State University. He had known Hazmi and Mihdar during his time as an imam at San Diego’s Ribat mosque, and he was now leading a mosque in Falls Church, Va.

Imam Anwar al-Awlaki

This October 2008 file photo shows Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Awlaki led the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami mosque in San Diego attended by two future 9/11 hijackers and another in Virginia, where the hijackers visited before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Awlaki was later determined to be an al-Qaeda member and killed in a U.S. airstrike.

(Associated Press)

Awlaki, who had been investigated for links to terrorism in the late ‘90s but not prosecuted, was heralded as a Muslim leader and sought out by news organizations as an authoritative community voice in the aftermath of 9/11. He was later exposed as an al-Qaeda member and killed in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen in 2011.

Saudi role

The possibility of Saudi government complicity in the 9/11 attacks has been probed for 20 years. It was at the heart of a secret FBI investigation called Operation Encore that was only recently acknowledged publicly.

Numerous reports, witness interviews and sworn declarations made public have pointed out money trails, personal and professional relationships, and suspicious behavior that would suggest a level of knowing involvement by people within the Saudi government.

The public record on the matter — a piecemeal, much-redacted collection from separate periods in the investigation — reads in shades of gray, and it can be difficult to ascertain what is being presented as an early theory in the case and what has been more or less verified.

But so far, according to official findings that have been made public, claims of Saudi government complicity remain unproven. In some cases, the official findings have seemed to contradict the conclusions of veteran FBI agents who spent years following the leads, according to a joint report by The New York Times Magazine and journalism nonprofit ProPublica published last year.

The lawsuit filed by the families, based in New York, is approaching the culpability question from a side angle: It alleges the royal family knowingly allowed and supported Wahhabi Islam and anti-U.S. sentiment within its government, which in turn fomented the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Brett Eagleson wipes grass off a memorial stone for his father at a baseball field

Brett Eagleson, whose father, Bruce, was killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, wipes grass off a memorial stone for his father at the baseball field where his father used to coach in Middletown, Conn.

(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

“I don’t think it was the king of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy initiative to attack us,” said Eagleson, a banker who spends much of his free time advocating on behalf of the families. “We’re not going to find a document of a meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia saying ‘Let’s go attack the World Trade Center.’ Come on.”

But, Eagleson and others involved in the litigation say, the picture that’s forming is of a kingdom that has historically funded radical groups as a way to justify the royal family’s rule, and that has turned a blind eye to the terrorist factions receiving that support downstream, including al-Qaeda. The lawsuit further alleges the Saudi government operatives knowingly helped al-Qaeda and its hijackers pull off the 9/11 plot.

“It’s the back side of the house, funding radical charities and the money gets into the hands of terrorists,” he said. “There were elements in the Saudi government who knew about it and didn’t stop it.”

The threshold for proving a case is lower in civil court — a preponderance of the evidence, or establishing that it was more likely than not to have occurred — versus the higher standard of beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal matters.

But it could still be a tall order. A U.S. appeals court ruled in 2008 that proving four Saudi princes knew their donations to Muslim charities would be piped to al-Qaeda would not be enough to hold them personally liable; plaintiffs would have to prove the princes engaged in intentional actions expressly aimed at U.S. residents.

In a statement earlier this week, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Washington called any allegation of complicity in the attacks “categorically false” and said that it welcomes the further release of declassified records.

“As the administrations of the past four U.S. presidents have attested, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has unwaveringly condemned and denounced the deplorable crimes that took place against the United States, its close ally and partner.”

Lawyers for the kingdom did not return emails asking for comment for this story. In their motion to dismiss the lawsuit, they pointed to past findings by the 9/11 Commission and other legal actions that have failed: “No court and no agency has ever found Plaintiffs’ allegations legally sufficient or supported by evidence.”

As attorneys for the families have pressed the FBI and CIA for documents, they have also been busy deposing figures central to their case, several of them who are now in Saudi Arabia. Bayoumi and Thumairy were questioned in June, as was Musaed al-Jarrah, a former Saudi embassy official in Washington suspected of assigning support for the hijackers, according to court documents obtained by Yahoo News.

Abdullah, the friend from San Diego, has also presumably been deposed in Sweden — following months of court officials trying to serve him with the subpoena, and a deposition date in March that he missed because he reported being ill with COVID-19.

Earlier investigations into Abdullah and some of the hijackers’ friends and roommates in San Diego tried to determine if any of them had advance knowledge of the attacks, allegations the men have strongly denied. The only one prosecuted on that premise, a Jordanian man who worked at the same gas station with Hazmi and was charged with perjury, was acquitted by a Manhattan federal jury in 2007.

San Diego attorney Randall Hamud, who represented three of the friends, has characterized the dragnet as a witch hunt and said the 9/11 Commission “got a lot of things wrong.” Still, he said in a recent interview: “There are still too many unanswered questions” when it comes to the terrorist plot.

Will the mysteries ever be solved? “Not in our lifetime,” he mused, “no.”

Dick and Kathy Keller of Del Mar hold a photo of their son, Chandler, who was killed on 9/11

Dick and Kathy Keller of Del Mar hold a wedding photo of their son, Chandler, who was killed on American Airlines Flight 77 at the Pentagon on 9/11.

(Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Embarrassments, failures

Those tied to the investigation and lawsuit have different theories about why the U.S. government has been so reluctant to declassify the files. The speculation runs from the reasoned to the wild, adding to an already long history of conspiracy theories surrounding the attacks.

“Our government breeds conspiracy theories because of its position on the documents,” said Eagleson.

He, like many others, believe the classified material is covering up the embarrassments and failures of the U.S. intelligence community.

The official record is already rife with acknowledgements of missed opportunities, including the CIA’s early documentation of Mihdhar as a terror threat — a distinction that didn’t get passed on to the FBI in San Diego where he was openly living.

And there is what has become known as the Phoenix Memo, penned two months before 9/11 by Williams, the retired FBI agent, reporting intelligence that bin Laden was recruiting students “dedicated to the overthrow of Western society” to train in civil aviation in the U.S. and would be well-positioned for future terror attacks. That memo also was not analyzed or widely disseminated within the FBI before 9/11.

Del Mar resident Dick Keller, whose 30-year-old son, Chandler, was killed aboard the same flight that Hazmi and Mihdhar commandeered, also wonders about the pre-9/11 lapses in intelligence that may remain secret.

“I can understand the complexity of the decision (to keep information classified) but I think to the extent they can further release information then maybe we’d learn something from all this,” Keller said. “I think our agencies — the intel community, FBI, all that — had a high degree of culpability in what happened on 9/11.”

In his executive order, Biden emphasizes that government failures cannot be covered by the state secrets exemption.

Many people over the years have also questioned whether protecting U.S. political relations with Saudi Arabia has played a part in the secrecy.

When Williams asked FBI counsel in 2017 if he was cleared to consult for the families on the case, he was told that any cooperation may negatively impact “other litigation involving the U.S. government going on.” Plus, the “Trump Administration is trying to have good relations with Saudi Arabia,” the FBI told him, according to a sworn declaration Williams filed with the court.

He decided to help out anyway and is now part of the effort pressing his former employer to release records — including the evidence the FBI has deemed missing.

“The government is claiming state secrecy as a reason to not divulge information,” Williams said. “Murder should not be covered under state secrecy.”