Did the Saudis know about 9/11?

A new book claims that Saudi princes and a Pakistani official knew Osama bin Laden would strike America that day. But some critics say the whole story could be a neoconservative fabrication.

Published October 18, 2003 7:03PM (EDT)

When U.S. and Pakistani special forces raided a house on the outskirts of Faisalabad, Pakistan, on March 28, 2002, and successfully nabbed top al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah, the mood at CIA headquarters was upbeat. Langley watched the early morning raid via satellite, and once a Pakistani intelligence officer and some quick voiceprints confirmed Zubaydah's identity, the CIA knew it had captured one of its most sought-after adversaries, a figure who could potentially reveal the full story of the 9/11 terrorist plot. Shot several times in the raid, Zubaydah was given enough medical treatment to ensure his survival and hauled away for questioning. According to a new book, what Zubaydah said -- after being subjected to highly controversial interrogation methods -- stunned intelligence officials.

In his book "Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11," Gerald Posner makes an explosive allegation: Top figures in the Saudi and Pakistani governments had been directly assisting Osama bin Laden for years and knew al-Qaida was going to strike America on Sept. 11. Posner cites two unnamed U.S. government sources, both of whom he asserts are "in a position to know," who he said gave him separate, corroborating reports. One source is from the CIA and the other is a senior Bush administration official "inside the executive branch," he told Salon in an interview.

According to Posner's account, four Saudi princes and the head of Pakistan's air force were deeply involved with Osama bin Laden for years, some of them meeting with him well after al-Qaida began its terror attacks on U.S. targets overseas in the mid-1990s. The fact that some of the figures were so highly placed makes it hard to dismiss the possibility, if the allegations are true, that the heads of the Saudi and Pakistani governments signed off on the policy.

Saudi, Pakistani and U.S. government officials (the latter off the record) have dismissed the story as false. Zubaydah himself subsequently recanted his claims, saying he lied to avoid torture, according to Posner. But Posner thinks the allegations are credible -- not least because four of the five supposed conspirators died under strange circumstances -- and believes the U.S. wants to downplay them for an obvious reason: They're too hot to handle, painting as they do two crucial allies as working hand-in-hand with America's Public Enemy No. 1.

But several intelligence analysts and experts on Saudi Arabia doubt the story's authenticity. While acknowledging that Saudi Arabia has supported fiery proponents of militant Islam and took an early see-no-evil approach to bin Laden, they say it would be highly unlikely that top members of the Saudi royal family would be so deeply involved with a global terrorist organization -- one that seeks to destroy the Saudi regime itself as part of a worldwide jihad against infidels and their allies. They also point to contradictory evidence drawn from separate classified intelligence reports. And some are suspicious of Posner's unnamed sources -- suspicions they say have been heightened by the Bush administration's manipulation of intelligence before the Iraq invasion. Indeed, one analyst suggests the Zubaydah charges could be part of a disinformation campaign launched by neoconservatives who believe that the U.S. should decisively break with Saudi Arabia, which they regard as a corrupt, terrorist-supporting state.

Posner says his two sources told him that U.S. officers used highly unorthodox, coercive methods -- what many would label torture -- to interrogate Zubaydah. For three days they manipulated his medical treatment, withholding full access to painkillers, using a quick "on-and-off" narcotic and giving him sodium pentothal (popularly called "truth serum") to extract information. When Zubaydah didn't talk, they set up a so-called false flag operation, transporting him to a secret location in Afghanistan mocked up to look like a Saudi Arabian jail. Fear of the Saudis' harsh interrogation techniques might make Zubaydah talk, they reasoned.

On March 8, 2003, the New York Times published an account similar to Posner's of the methods used on Zubaydah, also citing unnamed "American officials" as the source. But to date, only Posner has reported what Zubaydah allegedly said.

According to Posner's account, two Arab-American special forces personnel posed as Saudis and took over the questioning of Zubaydah at the secret location in Afghanistan. CIA officials observing from another room watched Zubaydah's reaction with amazement: He was visibly relieved to be in "Saudi" hands, and started talking. He named three Saudi princes, recited their private phone numbers, and told his interrogators to call one prince, saying, "He will tell you what to do." That man was King Fahd's nephew Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a London publishing magnate and horse racing aficionado whose thoroughbred War Emblem won the 2002 Kentucky Derby. Zubaydah made clear he was under the protection -- and direction -- of the princes. During the questioning, Zubaydah also fingered Pakistani air force chief Mushaf Ali Mir, suspected to have close ties with some of the most pro-Islamist elements within Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.

Zubaydah's "Saudi" interrogators later pressed him on his story, writes Posner, telling Zubaydah that Prince Ahmed had "credibly denied any knowledge of him" and that "he would be executed for disparaging the reputation of a member of the royal family." At that point Zubaydah unleashed a monologue "which one [U.S.] investigator refers to as the Rosetta stone of 9/11."

Zubaydah told his interrogators that he had attended a 1996 meeting in Pakistan where Mushaf Ali Mir struck a deal with Osama bin Laden that provided al-Qaida with protection, arms and supplies. The arrangement was blessed by the Saudis, Zubaydah said. He named a fourth Saudi prince, the kingdom's then intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal, as the nexus of the Saudi-Pakistani-al-Qaida axis. Zubaydah said Turki attended several meetings with bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990's, including one in Kandahar in 1998 at which Taliban members were present, where Turki pledged steady Saudi aid to al-Qaida as long as the terrorist group promised not to attack the kingdom.

Prince Turki, who is now the Saudi ambassador to London, told an Arab newspaper in September, "This information is totally false and groundless. I have had no contacts with bin Laden since 1990, and have never had contacts with al-Qaida, which is a satanic terrorist organization." He also pointed out that Saudi Arabia revoked Osama's citizenship in 1994.

According to Posner, about a month after the interrogation CIA officials, who had found no evidence to discredit the story, cautiously raised the Zubaydah information with their counterparts in Saudi and Pakistani intelligence. Here, the story line veers from le Carré to "The Godfather." Shortly after the U.S. inquiry, on July 22, 2002, Prince Ahmed, age 43, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. On the way to Ahmed's funeral the next day, Prince Sultan al-Saud was killed in a single-car crash. A week later the third prince Zubaydah had fingered, Fahd al-Kabir , was found dead 55 miles east of Riyadh -- according to the Saudi royal court he'd "died of thirst" while traveling in the summer heat. Seven months later Pakistani air force chief Mir, his wife and 15 of his closest associates died in a plane crash near Islamabad. The plane had recently passed maintenance inspection, and the weather was clear. According to the Asia Times, "Reports at the time said that the pilot had been changed just minutes before takeoff."

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are key U.S. partners in the war on terror, particularly Pakistan, which aided in the capture of Zubaydah and other top al-Qaida agents after 9/11. Both countries are also vital to U.S. interests for other reasons: Saudi Arabia because of its oil and its religious and political centrality in the Arab-Muslim world, Pakistan as Afghanistan's neighbor and a member of the nuclear club. But both are highly problematic allies. Radical Islamists hold significant power in Pakistan (particularly in the ISI, and in its lawless northwestern provinces), and President Musharraf's regime must walk a fine line between placating the Americans and not enraging its citizens. The U.S. has a much longer and stronger, but also troubled, alliance with Saudi Arabia, which has promoted its hard-line Wahhabi sect of Islam around the world and spawned 15 of the 19 hijackers -- but also pumps much of the oil that drives the global economy.

Posner is careful not to unequivocally endorse Zubaydah's claims, but he believes that the fact that four of the five named officials suddenly died (with the exception of the highest ranking one, Prince Turki) is powerful evidence that his story is largely true. "Zubaydah's interrogation leaves some questions unanswered which I think will eventually be run to ground," he says. "He's recanted his story. He's said he just picked these names out of a hat to spare himself some torture. But is it possible that he picked out three Saudi princes and the head of the Pakistani air force, and then they all just had the bad luck of dying -- the three Saudis within days of each other -- after the U.S. shared the information? And from a blood clot, a car wreck, dehydration and a plane crash? I guess technically it's possible. People do win the lottery. But as I view it, it's extremely unlikely."

The fact that Prince Turki is still alive would seem to weaken the idea there was foul play behind the three other Saudi princes' deaths. But Posner speculates that the longtime intelligence chief, who was dismissed from his post just 10 days before 9/11, was untouchable: "He's the J. Edgar Hoover of Saudi Arabia. If anybody has all the goods on the highest members of the royal family -- their sex lives, their use of prostitutes when they visit Europe, etc. -- it's him."

It's also possible that Turki himself, if accusations of his close ties to al-Qaida have any merit, could be involved in a coverup of the Zubaydah interrogation.

Turki, in fact, did have friendly contacts with radical Islamist groups, including Afghan jihadis fighting the Soviets in the 1980s and later with the Taliban, over a protracted period of time. "If anyone made payments to bin Laden and al-Qaida, it would be Turki, given his connections to them through the '80s," says Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer who did extensive tours in the Mideast and Central Asia during his 21-year career and is the author of "Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude." "Turki arranged for things like sending cars to the Taliban, and free gas for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he supported the Islamic movement in Sudan -- it was his job. But I've never seen any evidence that Turki himself was complicit in terrorism."

Another possibility is that Zubaydah's story is partly false but contains elements of truth. Posner speculates that some members of the Saudi royal family who may have once supported bin Laden later became horrified by his terrorist atrocities -- only to find themselves trapped, unable to reveal what they knew about him and his plans (perhaps including even the 9/11 plot) without implicating themselves.

Posner has a reputation for skepticism; he has authored books debunking conspiracy theories about the Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK assassinations (he concurred with the Warren report that Oswald acted alone). He says that his anonymous sources may have regarded him, as a book writer, as a safer choice for a leak than an intelligence reporter with a major byline. "Washington is a very small town in terms of sources. If you're a Robert Novak or a Sy Hersh people know the circles you hang out in. It narrows the hunt for the leaker by a wide margin."

And Posner reiterated to Salon he has full confidence in his unnamed sources, in part because of their partisan agenda: "Both of them clearly believe this information is true and should be public because the Saudis have not been our allies for a long time and they should be out," he says. "I have no doubt from my conversations that there's a split inside the administration. The majority opinion was this story came from the mouth of a terrorist who would say anything to save his skin. It's known that Zubaydah has lied about other things. So why should this information become public now, if we aren't even sure it's correct that these [Saudi and Pakistani] government officials were involved? But there's a minority view in the administration that the Saudis are no longer an ally, and I'm convinced my sources believe the story to be true."

Posner further argues it's implausible his anonymous sources would have made the story up out of whole cloth, since they would know that U.S. intelligence officials with knowledge of the Zubaydah debriefing could come forward and refute the story.

But several analysts are dubious or outright dismissive of the entire claim. "It just simply does not make sense. To have been involved in 9/11 would've been the House of Saud committing suicide," says Sandra Mackey, a Middle East scholar who's published several books on the region, including a study of Saudi Arabia. "Are there people in the House of Saud who might be connected to al-Qaida? Quite possibly. I wouldn't be surprised. But that's considerably different than saying the central leadership conspired with al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is their greatest enemy."

Saudi Arabia's relationship with al-Qaida is complex and has changed considerably over time. After the first Gulf War, Mackey says, the Saudis were essentially in denial: They kicked bin Laden out of the kingdom, but cut a deal with him in which they would look the other way -- and even provide financial support -- if the Saudi national would agree to leave the kingdom alone. They didn't grasp how serious a threat he posed.

Mackey says the Saudis were caught "flat-footed" by 9/11. They were shocked, and fearful their deep relationship with Washington would be damaged, but were slow to act. There was huge public sympathy for bin Laden, who was seen as a heroic militant Islamist battling the West, and the regime had no will to confront the potentially explosive Saudi street.

Finally came the May 2003 al-Qaida bombings in Riyadh, in which more Saudi civilians were killed than Americans. Mackey sees this attack as a watershed event, one that forced the Saudi rulers to realize they were in a fight for survival against militant Islam. To some degree, the serious attack on their own soil gave the Saudis the political capital to take aggressive action.

Subsequent running gun battles around the country, and the discovery of large weapons caches, have revealed a widespread al-Qaida presence in the kingdom. A number of Saudi military and police have died in these battles, and a number of al-Qaida members have been killed or captured since May. But the Saudis continue to thwart a U.S. investigation of the terrorist paper trail inside the kingdom, and have not handed over suspects or allowed U.S. authorities to interrogate them.

Gregory Gause, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont, says that although the Saudi ruling elite displayed a pattern of "willful ignorance" toward al-Qaida through much of the 1990s, he doesn't see any convincing evidence indicating its complicity in terrorism. He points to an attack on the Saudi Arabian National Guard office in Riyadh on Nov. 13, 1995, in which five Americans were killed. The perpetrators arrested and executed by the Saudi government, Gause says, were known to be al-Qaida sympathizers. "The top levels of the regime, including Prince Turki, would be extremely leery of any kind of political deal with al-Qaida when al-Qaida had already attacked inside the kingdom, and the al-Qaida leadership was openly calling for the overthrow of the Saudi regime."

"If the Saudis were more deeply involved in al-Qaida [operations], I think you would expect to have seen some different behavior from the Saudi government after the East Africa embassy and USS Cole bombings," says Gause. The 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania led Turki, according to his own account, to deliver an ultimatum to the Taliban during his known 1998 meeting with the Afghan rulers, in which he demanded, unsuccessfully, that they hand bin Laden over. "If the princes were working with al-Qaida," Gause says, "I think you would've seen more direct Saudi contact with the Taliban after that, and I'm not aware of evidence of any high-level [Saudi] visitors there."

As for the Pakistani connection, Mary Anne Weaver, author of "Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan," agrees that it's quite plausible elements in the Pakistani government could have been involved with al-Qaida, given the long-standing presence of militant Islamists inside the country. But she's seen no evidence connecting Pakistan to the 9/11 plot. "I did a huge amount of interviewing for my book, and even with the people who were the most antagonistic toward the Musharraf government, nobody mentioned even the remote possibility that Pakistan had been at all complicit in Sept. 11 in a specific way. I've heard nothing about government officials knowing in advance that something was going to happen, even if they didn't know what or where."

More specifically, Weaver is dubious about the claim that Mir could have been an al-Qaida supporter. Weaver admits that several friends she knows from the country's political elite who knew Mir "very well" are perplexed by his death, but says that they had no indication he was involved in anything related to terrorism. Moreover, she says the fact that Mir was from the air force makes it less likely he was hooked up with militant Islamists in the ISI. "It's the Pakistani army that really runs the country -- the nine corps commanders, and [its security branch] the ISI. It's really a nation within the state. The air force and the navy aren't as important or influential. I've never met anybody from the ISI who hasn't been from the army."

Vince Cannistraro, the former head of the CIA's counterterrorism unit, dismisses the Zubaydah theory as part of a disinformation campaign. "My view is this didn't come from inside the [active] intelligence community, but from an administration source, a neoconservative who's promoting it, who also provided a former CIA officer for confirmation." He also says intelligence that's since come to light contradicts Zubaydah's story. "We know a great deal about the training, planning, and operational details of 9/11 now that Khalid Sheik Mohammed is in custody and is talking. He's the key person here, the person who orchestrated 9/11. Abu Zubaydah was not. I doubt Posner had access to the Zubaydah debriefing, though one of his sources probably did. But the point is, none of his sources had access to the debriefing on the person who is the key figure here." Without going into details, Cannistraro said that Mohammed's account contradicted Zubaydah's.

"I don't buy the idea that a serving case officer involved in the Zubaydah debriefing leaked this information," Cannistraro adds. "To me that would be an extraordinary act: It's too great a risk. [CIA officers] have to take polygraphs, and internal leaks are taken very seriously -- people lose their jobs, their careers. It's not like working at the Department of Agriculture -- or at the White House, apparently, where you can blow someone out of the water out of pure vindictiveness."

Cannistraro is equally dismissive of the idea that the sudden, odd deaths of the four officials indicates foul play. "Anything can be made to look [conspiratorial] when you start putting together a number of things that might otherwise be random in nature. Were these deaths [perpetrated] by an embarrassed royal family that didn't want the [Zubaydah] information to get out? That's just a little bit far-fetched," he says flatly.

Robert Baer agrees it would be possible for someone with access to classified information to smear the Saudis. "If you gave me all the al-Qaida interrogations, I could go through them if I wanted to and cherry-pick stuff that [collectively] could destroy relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S.," he says. But he doesn't believe figures inside the Bush administration would want to do so. "People I know [close to] the administration who follow this tell me that the administration is [ultimately] behind Saudi Arabia. Not because of the Bush family relations with the royal family, but because it's the pin that holds together the Gulf, and therefore our economy."

Baer believes that there could indeed be an al-Qaida-Saudi conspiracy, involving radical elements within the extended royal family. "With all the arrests there since the May 12 bombing in Riyadh, what the Saudis have learned to their dismay is that bin Laden has a lot of support in the government and the royal family. It's such a huge family, and there are a lot of princes who resent everything about the West. The Saudi [rulers] have now said openly that they're in a battle for their lives, and they know they have enemies embedded throughout the family," he says. "Call them what you will -- terrorists, Arab nationalists, crazies -- they're in the police, the army and the government."

In fact, Baer makes an assertion startlingly similar to Posner's. "My information is that [investigators there] were blown away when they started arresting all these people. They found cellphones... and [those arrested] had the numbers to call into the command center of the ministry of the interior."

Posner's charges have made little official impact, but they come at a critical -- and strained -- moment in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Ever since 9/11, there has been a growing drum roll of anger and resentment against the conservative kingdom and America's alliance with it. Pundits -- some but not all of them right-wing -- have attacked Saudi Arabia, as well as lawmakers including Sen. Bob Graham,D-Fla., and Sen. Charles Schumer,D-N.Y. The censored 9/11 report released by Congress in late July, which many suspect implicates the Saudis more deeply, has only added fuel to that fire.

Clearly trying to improve their tattered image in the U.S., the Saudi government made a major move on Friday, divulging for the first time the full extent of their cooperation with the U.S. war on terrorism since 1997. Among other favors, the Saudis, at Vice President Dick Cheney's request, facilitated the extradition of an al-Qaida member from Yemen to Jordan, where U.S. officials were able to interrogate him.

U.S. officials confirmed most of the Saudi claims, according to the Associated Press, to whom the Saudis had released the information.

The most intriguing and controversial claim, however, involved none other than the alleged key Saudi conspirator, former intelligence chief Prince Turki. Turki claimed his intelligence service warned the CIA in late 1999 and early 2000 about two al-Qaida members, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who were later among the Sept. 11 hijackers. "What we told them was these people were on our watch list from previous activities of al-Qaida, in both the embassy bombings and attempts to smuggle arms into the kingdom in 1997," Turki told the Associated Press.

The CIA denied receiving any such information from Saudi Arabia until after 9/11, and Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., admitted that "no documents" were sent. But Turki insisted his agency communicated the warning to the CIA, at least by word of mouth.

Saudi officials said they had not made their cooperation public previously because they were worried about hostile reaction from their citizenry and other Middle East countries.

But anti-Saudi hard-liners are not likely to be swayed by this new Saudi campaign. Frank Gaffney, president of the right-wing Center for Security Policy in Washington, takes a hard line in assessing the range of options open to America: "You can break off diplomatic relations, you can impose economic sanctions, and you have, ultimately, the option of seizing the oil fields militarily if you have to," he told Time magazine in September. Such views are still considered unacceptable in official circles: When an analyst invited by powerful neoconservative Richard Perle gave a similar virulently anti-Saudi briefing to a Pentagon advisory group in July 2002, the Bush administration was quickly forced to distance itself. But a push to turn confrontational with the Saudi regime has gained more traction since 9/11 and with the ascension of the neoconservatives, ardent supporters of Israel who despise Saudi Arabia both for its support of radical Islamists and of militant Palestinian groups.

Indeed, almost immediately after 9/11, administration hawks including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney began openly promoting a long-held vision for reshaping the Middle East, with the war on Saddam the opening gambit. By opening Iraq's massive oil reserves to the West, America would be less dependent on the Saudis, and the new U.S. military presence in Iraq would allow U.S. troops to withdraw from Saudi Arabia -- which in fact has already largely taken place.

Analysts of all ideological stripes welcomed that withdrawal, as U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia were increasingly viewed as a dangerous political liability. (One of bin Laden's major grievances, after all, was the presence of U.S. troops on sacred Saudi Arabian soil.) And most would agree that the U.S. relationship with the Saudis needs to be reevaluated, stressing the need (as "Threatening Storm" author Kenneth Pollack did in a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times) for the U.S. to encourage the kingdom to reform its autocratic, stagnant ways.

But for the U.S. to attempt to destabilize the Saudi regime as part of a broader endgame of U.S. hegemony in the region would be highly risky, experts say.

"This is all extremely serious. These people [neoconservative advocates of breaking with Saudi Arabia] are playing with not only American military security, but with our economic security," says Sandra Mackey. "It leads to the same question we're already facing with Iraq: What comes next? The Saudi regime may be a house of cards, but at least it's a house. If it topples, who's going to take over and be able to hold this region together? Some [in Washington] say, 'We'll just give the religious fundamentalists Mecca and Medina, and the only thing we really need to worry about is securing the oil-producing areas.' It's the same sort of fallacious thinking that got us into Iraq. The neoconservatives are painting a picture to look how they want it to look, rather than seeing what the reality is."

Robert Baer, while taking a darker view of Saudi complicity with al-Qaida than Mackey does, agrees with her that the neoconservative agenda is dangerous. "You do have a small group of people in Washington who would like to bring the whole Middle East crashing down, but I think they're totally irresponsible. There would be no better lesson in the law of unintended consequences. If Saudi Arabia goes down, it would take the rest of the Gulf with it. I have personal experience with the five [Mideast] families that control 60 percent of the world's oil. They're demented. They would not be able to hold on to power. As much as I despise the Saudi royal family for being arrogant, I still don't want to see them go down. It would mean tribal war, and a catastrophe of global proportions."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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9/11 Al-qaida Middle East Pakistan Terrorism Torture