Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” from the 9/11 terror plot, has been in U.S. custody for the past 13 years under a sentence of life in prison. Last October, he gave testimony from the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, as part of a civil suit filed by the families of 9/11 victims against the government of Saudi Arabia.
The New York Times has now published details from Moussaoui’s testimony, which had to be reviewed by the FBI before it could be released to the public.
In his sworn statement, Moussaoui insisted that prominent members of the Saudi royal family were major financial backers of al-Qaeda in the 1990s. He also claims to have discussed a plan to shoot down Air Force One (with Bill and/or Hillary Clinton aboard) with an official from the Islamic Affairs Department of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, who was supposed to work with Moussaoui to pick out a good missile launch spot in Washington—a plan scuttled by Moussaoui’s arrest.
The Saudi embassy has denied these allegations, accurately describing Moussaoui as “a deranged criminal whose own lawyers presented evidence that he was mentally incompetent.” The Saudis also pointed to the 9/11 Commission report, which concluded, “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al-Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually, funded the organization.”
Moussaoui has never made for the most trustworthy witness. He’s been diagnosed with mental illness, and yet also was found competent to stand trial for terrorism charges—a trial at which he engaged in all sorts of bizarre behavior and asserted that lying is a Koran-authorized element of warfare during one of his more lucid moments.
Lawyers quoted by the NYT judge that he “was of complete sound mind, focused and thoughtful” during his October testimony. His description of al-Qaeda finances is summarized as follows:
He said in the prison deposition that he was directed in 1998 or 1999 by Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to create a digital database of donors to the group. Among those he said he recalled listing in the database were Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States; Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire investor; and many of the country’s leading clerics.
“Sheikh Osama wanted to keep a record who give money,” he said in imperfect English — “who is to be listened to or who contributed to the jihad.”
Mr. Moussaoui said he acted as a courier for Bin Laden, carrying personal messages to prominent Saudi princes and clerics. And he described his training in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
People who are decidedly not crazy have expressed interest in exploring Saudi links to al-Qaeda, and they’re not just talking about a few petrodollars kicked in by obscure spoiled-brat princelings and fanatical renegades:
Also filed on Monday in the survivors’ lawsuit were affidavits from former Senators Bob Graham of Florida and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and the former Navy secretary John Lehman, arguing that more investigation was needed into Saudi ties to the 9/11 plot. Mr. Graham was co-chairman of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the attacks, and Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Lehman served on the 9/11 Commission.
“I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia,” wrote Mr. Graham, who has long demanded the release of 28 pages of the congressional report on the attacks that explore Saudi connections and remain classified.
Mr. Kerrey said in the affidavit that it was “fundamentally inaccurate and misleading” to argue, as lawyers for Saudi Arabia have, that the 9/11 Commission exonerated the Saudi government.
Kerrey is likely alluding to the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion that “charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al-Qaeda.” Terrorist money is often laundered through such careful means by sponsors who wish to preserve a level of deniability. Saudis involved with al-Qaeda would naturally have wanted a very high level of deniability indeed.
On the other hand, CNN quotes Robert Jordan, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, saying that he found “no hint whatsoever of direct Saudi leadership involvement” in financing or planning for the 9/11 attacks, an attitude shared by contemporaneous FBI director Robert Mueller and CIA director George Tenet.
Moussaoui didn’t just mention Prince Turki al-Faisal as a name he punched into a database; CNN reports that Moussaoui claims to have been treated “extremely well” by the Saudi royals when he approached them as Osama bin Laden’s messenger, and Prince Turki was his primary contact. He said he was given money by Saudi royals during his time in the United States before the September 11 attack.
Moussaoui could be acting on a deranged whim, he might be trying to build up a deal for better treatment in prison, he could be doing his part to confuse the search for bona fide supporters of al-Qaeda, he might be looking to sow chaos in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, or he might be entertaining himself by making life difficult for the royal family. Or he might be telling the truth. International terrorism was an even murkier business before 9/11.
In an extensive review of Moussaoui’s pre-9/11 financial maneuvers last December—written when it was known the imprisoned terrorist had given testimony in the civil suit against the Saudi government, but the details were still under wraps—Phil Hirschkorn at Salon notes that Moussaoui had been shopping inside dirt on al-Qaeda’s donors to a number of other sources before he found attorneys willing to take him seriously. Some of what he said in this new deposition mirrored claims he’s made in the past about specific Saudi royals, including Prince Turki, assisting him in terrorist actions. There are still questions swirling around a particular Saudi citizen living in the United States, Omar al-Bayoumi, who was most likely either an unsuspecting dupe used to help a couple of the 9/11 hijackers get into the U.S. or a covert agent of the Saudi government, depending on whom you ask.
That’s the sort of lead skeptics of the Saudi government want to follow up on. Unfortunately, one of the few sources of information available is Zaccarias Moussaoui, who constantly dispenses a maddening mixture of wild and plausible claims.