The great escape

Immediately after 9/11, dozens of Saudi royals and members of the bin Laden family fled the U.S. in a secret airlift authorized by the Bush White House. One passenger was an alleged al-Qaida go-between, who may have known about the terror attacks in advance. Our first excerpt from "House of Bush, House of Saud."

Published March 11, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

Editor's note: President Bush is campaigning for reelection as the Western world's leader in the war against terrorism. But the president's family has long been closely tied -- through a complex web of oil, money and power -- to the royal family of Saudi Arabia, which has maintained its despotic grip on the petroleum-rich kingdom through an alliance with the most militant strain of Islamic fundamentalism. Journalist Craig Unger has been covering the alliance between the Bush family and the House of Saud for years. His reporting raises crucial questions about the consequences of this personal, political and financial partnership for U.S. foreign policy, democracy and the future of the world. Salon is proud to present a series of excerpts from Unger's book "House of Bush, House of Saud," to be published on March 16 by Scribner.

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By Craig Unger

March 11, 2004  |  Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, had long been the most recognizable figure from his country in America. Widely known as the Arab Gatsby, with his trimmed goatee and tailored double-breasted suits, the 52-year-old Bandar was the very embodiment of the contradictions inherent in being a modern, jet-setting, Western-leaning member of the royal House of Saud.

Profane, flamboyant and cocksure, Bandar entertained lavishly at his spectacular estates all over the world. Whenever he was safely out of Saudi Arabia and beyond the reach of the puritanical form of Islam it espoused, he puckishly flouted Islamic tenets by sipping brandy and smoking Cohiba cigars. And when it came to embracing the culture of the infidel West, Bandar outdid even the most ardent admirers of Western civilization -- that was him patrolling the sidelines of Dallas Cowboys football games with his friend Jerry Jones, the team's owner. To militant Islamic fundamentalists who loathed pro-West multibillionaire Saudi royals, no one fit the bill better than Bandar.

And yet, his guise as Playboy of the Western World notwithstanding, deep in his bones, Prince Bandar was a key figure in the world of Islam. His father, Defense Minister Prince Sultan, was second in line to the Saudi crown. Bandar was the nephew of King Fahd, the aging Saudi monarch, and the grandson of the late king Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who initiated his country's historic oil-for-security relationship with the United States when he met Franklin D. Roosevelt on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on Feb. 14, 1945. The enormous royal family in which Bandar played such an important role oversaw two of the most sacred places of Islamic worship, the holy mosques in Medina and Mecca.

As a wily international diplomat, Bandar also knew full well just how precarious his family's position was. For decades, the House of Saud had somehow maintained control of Saudi Arabia and the world's richest oil reserves by performing a seemingly untenable balancing act with two parties who had vowed to destroy each other.

On the one hand, the House of Saud was an Islamic theocracy whose power grew out of the royal family's alliance with Wahhabi fundamentalism, a strident and puritanical Islamic sect that provided a fertile breeding ground for a global network of terrorists urging a violent jihad against the United States.

On the other hand, the House of Saud's most important ally was the Great Satan itself, the United States. Even a cursory examination of the relationship revealed astonishing contradictions: America, the beacon of democracy, was to arm and protect a brutal theocratic monarchy. The United States, sworn defender of Israel, was also the guarantor of security to the guardians of Wahhabi Islam, the fundamentalist religious sect that was one of Israel's and America's mortal enemies.

Astoundingly, this fragile relationship had not only endured but in many ways had been spectacularly successful. In the nearly three decades since the oil embargo of 1973, the United States had bought hundreds of billions of dollars of oil at reasonable prices. During that same period, the Saudis had purchased hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons from the U.S. The Saudis had supported the U.S. on regional security matters in Iran and Iraq and refrained from playing an aggressive role against Israel. Members of the Saudi royal family, including Bandar, became billionaires many times over, in the process quietly turning into some of the most powerful players in the American market, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in equities in the United States. And the price of oil, the eternal bellwether of economic, political and cultural anxiety in America, had remained low enough that enormous gas-guzzling SUVs had become ubiquitous on U.S. highways. During the Reagan and Clinton eras the economy boomed.

The relationship was a coarse weave of money, power and trust. It had lasted because two foes, militant Islamic fundamentalists and the United States, turned a blind eye to each other. The U.S. military might have called the policy "Don't ask, don't tell." The Koran had its own version: "Ask not about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble."

But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the ugly seams of the relationship had been laid bare. Because thousands of innocent people had been killed and most of the killers were said to be Saudi, it was up to Bandar, ever the master illusionist, to assure Americans that everything was just fine between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Bandar had always been a smooth operator, but now he and his unflappable demeanor would be tested as never before.

Bandar desperately hoped that early reports of the Saudi role had been exaggerated -- after all, al-Qaida terrorist operatives were known to use false passports. But at 10 P.M. on the evening of Sept. 12, 2001, about 36 hours after the attack, a high-ranking CIA official -- according to Newsweek, it was probably CIA director George Tenet -- phoned Bandar at his home and gave him the bad news: Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Afterward, Bandar said, "I felt as if the Twin Towers had just fallen on my head."

Public relations had never been more crucial for the Saudis. Bandar swiftly retained PR giant Burson-Marsteller to place newspaper ads all over the country condemning the attacks and dissociating Saudi Arabia from them. He went on CNN, the BBC and the major TV networks and hammered home the same points again and again: The alliance with the United States was still strong. Saudi Arabia would support America in its fight against terrorism.

Prince Bandar also protested media reports that referred to those involved in terrorism as "Saudis." Asserting that no terrorists could ever be described as Saudi citizens, he urged the media and politicians to refrain from casting arbitrary accusations against Arabs and Muslims. "We in the kingdom, the government and the people of Saudi Arabia, refuse to have any person affiliated with terrorism to be connected to our country," Bandar said. That included Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the attacks, who had even been disowned by his family. He was not really a Saudi, Bandar asserted, for the government had taken away his passport because of his terrorist activities.

But Osama bin Laden was Saudi, of course, and he was not just any Saudi. The bin Ladens were one of a handful of extremely wealthy families that were so close to the House of Saud that they effectively acted as extensions of the royal family. Over five decades, they had built their multibillion-dollar construction empire thanks to their intimate relationship with the royal family. Bandar himself knew them well. "They're really lovely human beings," he told CNN. "[Osama] is the only one ... I met him only once. The rest of them are well-educated, successful businessmen, involved in a lot of charities. It is -- it is tragic. I feel pain for them, because he's caused them a lot of pain."

Like Bandar, the bin Laden family epitomized the marriage between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Their huge construction company, the Saudi Binladin Group, banked with Citigroup and invested with Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Over time, the bin Ladens did business with such icons of Western culture as Disney, the Hard Rock Café, Snapple and Porsche. In the mid-1990s, they joined various members of the House of Saud in becoming business associates with former secretary of state James Baker and former president George H.W. Bush by investing in the Carlyle Group, a gigantic Washington, D.C.-based private equity firm. As Charles Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the Wall Street Journal, "If there were ever any company closely connected to the U.S. and its presence in Saudi Arabia, it's the Saudi Binladin Group."

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, members of the Saudi royal family were scattered all over the United States. Some had gone to Lexington, Ky., for the annual September yearling auctions. The sale of the finest racehorses in the world had been suspended after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, but resumed the very next day. Saudi prince Ahmed bin Salman bought two horses for $1.2 million on Sept. 12.

Shortly after the attack, one of the bin Ladens, an unnamed brother of Osama's, frantically called the Saudi embassy in Washington seeking protection. He was given a room at the Watergate Hotel and told not to open the door. King Fahd, the aging and infirm Saudi monarch, sent a message to his emissaries in Washington. "Take measures to protect the innocents," he said.

Meanwhile, a Saudi prince sent a directive to the Tampa Police Department in Florida that young Saudis who were close to the royal family and went to school in the area were in potential danger.

Bandar went to work immediately. If any foreign official had the clout to pull strings at the White House in the midst of a grave national security crisis, it was he. A senior member of the Washington diplomatic corps, Bandar had played racquetball with Secretary of State Colin Powell in the late '70s. He had run covert operations for the late CIA director Bill Casey that were so hush-hush they were kept secret even from President Ronald Reagan. He was the man who had stashed away 30 locked attaché cases that held some of the deepest secrets in the intelligence world. And for two decades, Bandar had built an intimate personal relationship with the Bush family that went far beyond a mere political friendship.

First, Bandar set up a hotline at the Saudi embassy in Washington for all Saudi nationals in the United States. For the 48 hours after the attacks, he stayed in constant contact with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Before the attacks, Bandar had been invited to come to the White House to meet with President George W. Bush on Sept. 13 to discuss the Middle East peace process. Even though the 55-year-old president and he were, roughly speaking, contemporaries, Bandar had not yet developed the same rapport with the younger Bush that he'd enjoyed for decades with his father. Bandar and the elder Bush had participated in the shared rituals of manhood -- hunting trips, vacations together, and the like. Bandar and the younger Bush were well known to each other, but not nearly as close.

On the 13th, the meeting went ahead as scheduled. But in the wake of the attacks two days earlier, the political landscape of the Middle East had drastically changed. A spokesman for the Saudi embassy later said he did not know whether repatriation was a topic of discussion.

But the job had been started nonetheless. Earlier that same day, a 49-year-old former policeman turned private investigator named Dan Grossi got a call from the Tampa Police Department. Grossi had worked with the Tampa force for 20 years before retiring, and it was not particularly unusual for the police to recommend former officers for special security jobs. But Grossi's new assignment was very much out of the ordinary.

"The police had been giving Saudi students protection since Sept. 11," Grossi recalls. "They asked if I was interested in escorting these students from Tampa to Lexington, Ky., because the police department couldn't do it."

Grossi was told to go to the airport, where a small charter jet would be available to take him and the Saudis on their flight. He was not given a specific time of departure, and he was dubious about the prospects of accomplishing his task. "Quite frankly, I knew that everything was grounded," he says. "I never thought this was going to happen." Even so, Grossi, who'd been asked to bring a colleague, phoned Manuel Perez, a former FBI agent, to put him on alert. Perez was equally unconvinced. "I said, 'Forget about it,'" Perez recalls. "Nobody is flying today."

The two men had good reason to be skeptical. Within minutes of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Federal Aviation Administration had sent out a special notification called a NOTAM -- a notice to airmen -- to airports all across the country, ordering every airborne plane in the United States to land at the nearest airport as soon as possible, and prohibiting planes on the ground from taking off. Initially, there were no exceptions whatsoever. Later, when the situation stabilized, several airports accepted flights for emergency medical and military operations -- but those were few and far between.

Nevertheless, at 1:30 or 2 P.M. on Sept. 13, Dan Grossi received his phone call. He was told the Saudis would be delivered to Raytheon Airport Services, a private hangar at Tampa International Airport. When he arrived, Manny Perez was there to meet him.

At the terminal a woman laughed at Grossi for even thinking he would be flying that day. Commercial flights had slowly begun to resume, but at 10:57 A.M., the FAA had issued another NOTAM, a reminder that private aviation was still prohibited. Three private planes violated the ban that day, in Maryland, West Virginia and Texas, and in each case a pair of jet fighters quickly forced the aircraft down. As far as private planes were concerned, America was still grounded.

Then one of the pilots arrived. "Here's your plane," he told Grossi. "Whenever you're ready to go."

What happened next was first reported by Kathy Steele, Brenna Kelly and Elizabeth Lee Brown in the Tampa Tribune in October 2001. Not a single other American paper seemed to think the subject was newsworthy.

Grossi and Perez say they waited until three young Saudi men, all apparently in their early 20s, arrived. Then the pilot took Grossi, Perez and the Saudis to a well-appointed 10-passenger Learjet. They departed for Lexington at about 4:30.

"They got the approval somewhere," said Perez. "It must have come from the highest levels of government."

"Flight restrictions had not been lifted yet," Grossi said. "I was told it would take White House approval. I thought [the flight] was not going to happen."

Grossi said he did not get the names of the Saudi students he was escorting. "It happened so fast," Grossi says. "I just knew they were Saudis. They were well connected. One of them told me his father or his uncle was good friends with George Bush senior."

How did the Saudis go about getting approval? According to the Federal Aviation Administration, they didn't and the Tampa flight never took place. "It's not in our logs," Chris White, a spokesman for the FAA, told the Tampa Tribune. "It didn't occur." The White House also said that the flights to evacuate the Saudis did not take place.

According to Grossi, about one hour and 45 minutes after takeoff they landed at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, a frequent destination for Saudi horse-racing enthusiasts such as Prince Ahmed bin Salman. When they arrived, the Saudis were greeted by an American who took custody of them and helped them with their baggage. On the tarmac was a 747 with Arabic writing on the fuselage, apparently ready to take them back to Saudi Arabia. "My understanding is that there were other Saudis in Kentucky buying racehorses at that time, and they were going to fly back together," said Grossi.

In addition to the Tampa-Lexington flight, at least seven other planes were made available for the operation. According to itineraries, passenger lists and interviews with sources who had firsthand knowledge of the flights, members of the extended bin Laden family, the House of Saud and their associates also assembled in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland, Orlando, Washington, D.C, Boston, Newark, N.J., and New York.

Arrangements for the flights were made with lightning speed. One flight, a Boeing 727 that left Los Angeles late on the night of Sept. 14 or early in the morning of Sept. 15, required FAA approval, which came through in less than half an hour. "By bureaucratic standards, that's a nanosecond," said a source close to the flight.

Payments for the charter flights were made in advance through wire transfer from the Saudi embassy. A source close to the evacuation said such procedures were an indication that the entire operation had high-level approval from the U.S. government. "That's a totally traceable transaction," he said. "So I inferred that what they were doing had U.S. government approval. Otherwise, they would have done it in cash."

According to the same source, a young female member of the bin Laden family was the sole passenger on the first leg of the flight, from Los Angeles to Orlando. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, boarding any airplane was cause for anxiety. But now that the name Osama bin Laden had become synonymous with mass murder, boarding a plane with his family members was another story entirely. To avoid unnecessary dramas, the flight's operators made certain that the cockpit crew was briefed about who the passengers were -- the bin Ladens -- and the highly sensitive nature of their mission.

However, they neglected to brief the flight attendants.

On the flight from Los Angeles, the bin Laden girl began talking to an attendant about the horrid events of 9/11. "I feel so bad about it," she said.

"Well, it's not your fault," replied the attendant, who had no idea who the passenger really was.

"Yeah," said the passenger. "But he was my brother."

"The flight attendant just lost it," the source said.

When the 727 landed in Orlando, Khalil Binladin, whose estate in Winter Garden, Fla., was nearby, boarded the plane. After a delay of several hours, it continued to Washington.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the Saudis had chartered a customized DC 8 that belonged to the president of Gabon and was equipped with two staterooms (bedrooms) and 67 seats. According to a source who participated in the operation, the Saudis had hoped to leave Las Vegas on Sept. 14, but were not able to get permission for two days. "This was a nightmare," said a source. "The manifest was submitted the day before. It was obvious that someone in Washington had said OK, but the FBI didn't want to say they could go, so it was really tense. In the end, nobody was interrogated." According to the passenger list, among the 46 passengers were several high-level Saudi royals with diplomatic passports. On Sunday, Sept. 16, the flight finally left for Geneva, Switzerland. The FBI did not even get the manifest until about two hours before departure. Even if it had wanted to interview the passengers -- and the Bureau had shown little inclination to do so -- there would not have been enough time.

At the same time, an even more lavish Boeing 727 was being readied for Prince Ahmed bin Salman and about 14 other passengers who were assembling in Lexington. If they felt they had to leave the country, at least it could be said that they were leaving in luxury. The plane, which was customized to hold just 26 passengers, had a master bedroom suite furnished with a large upholstered double bed, a couch, night stand and credenza. Its master bathroom had a gold-plated sink, double illuminated mirrors and a bidet. There were brass, gold and crystal fixtures. The main lounge had a 52-inch projection TV. The plane boasted a six-place conference room and dining room with a mahogany table that had controls for up and down movement. The plane left Lexington at 4 P.M. on Sunday, Sept. 16, and stopped in Gander, Newfoundland, en route to London.

And so they flew, one by one, mostly to Europe, where some of the passengers later returned home to Saudi Arabia. On Sept. 17, a flight left Dallas for Newark at 10:30 P.M. On Sept. 18 and 19, two flights left Boston, including the 727 that had originated in Los Angeles. According to a person with firsthand knowledge of the flights, there is no question that they took place with the knowledge and approval of the State Department, the FBI, the FAA and many other government agencies. "When we left Boston every governmental authority that could be there was there," says the source. "There were FBI agents at every departure point. In Boston alone, there was the FBI, the Department of Transportation, the FAA, Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Massachusetts state police, the Massachusetts Port Authority and probably the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. There were more federal law-enforcement officials than passengers by far."

In Boston, airport authorities were horrified that they were being told to let the bin Ladens go. On Sept. 22, a flight went from New York to Paris, and on Sept. 24, another flight from Las Vegas to Paris. According to passenger lists for many but not all of the flights, the vast majority of passengers were Saudis, but there were also passengers from Egypt, England, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Norway, the Philippines, Sudan and Syria. "Not many Saudis like to do menial work," said a source, explaining the other nationalities.

Passengers ranged in age from 7 years old to 62. The vast majority were adults. There were roughly two dozen bin Ladens.

The full ramifications of allowing all these members of the Saudi royal family and the bin Laden family to leave the country would only become clear several months later, when the war in Afghanistan was in full swing. On March 28, 2002, acting on electronic intercepts of telephone calls, heavily armed Pakistani commando units, accompanied by American Special Forces and FBI SWAT teams, raided a two-story house in the suburbs of Faisalabad, in western Pakistan. They had received tips that one of the people in the house was Abu Zubaydah, the 30-year-old chief of operations for al-Qaida who had been head of field operations for the USS Cole bombing and who was a close confidant of Osama bin Laden's.

On Sunday, March 31, three days after the raid, the interrogation of Zubaydah began. For the particulars of this episode there is one definitive source, Gerald Posner's "Why America Slept," and according to it, the CIA used two rather unusual methods for the interrogation. First, they administered thiopental sodium, better known under its trademarked name, Sodium Pentothal, through an IV drip, to make Zubaydah more talkative. Since the prisoner had been shot three times during the capture, he was already hooked up to a drip to treat his wounds and it was possible to administer the drug without his knowledge. Second, as a variation on the good cop-bad cop routine, the CIA used two teams of debriefers. One consisted of undisguised Americans who were at least willing to treat Zubaydah's injuries while they interrogated him. The other team consisted of Arab-Americans posing as Saudi security agents, who were known for their brutal interrogation techniques. The thinking was that Zubaydah would be so scared of being turned over to the Saudis, infamous for their public executions in Riyadh's Chop-Chop Square, that he would try to win over the American interrogators by talking to them.

In fact, exactly the opposite happened. "When Zubaydah was confronted with men passing themselves off as Saudi security officers, his reaction was not fear, but instead relief," Posner writes. "The prisoner, who had been reluctant even to confirm his identity to his American captors, suddenly started talking animatedly. He was happy to see them, he said, because he feared the Americans would torture and then kill him. Zubaydah asked his interrogators to call a senior member of the ruling Saudi family. He then provided a private home number and cell phone number from memory. 'He will tell you what to do,' Zubaydah promised them."

The name Zubaydah gave came as a complete surprise to the CIA. It was Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the owner of so many legendary racehorses and one of the most westernized members of the royal family.

Zubaydah spoke to his faux Saudi interrogators as if they, not he, were the ones in trouble. He said that several years earlier the royal family had made a deal with al-Qaida in which the House of Saud would aid the Taliban so long as al-Qaida kept terrorism out of Saudi Arabia. Zubaydah added that as part of this arrangement, he dealt with Prince Ahmed and two other members of the House of Saud as intermediaries, Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, a nephew of King Fahd's, and Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, a 25-year-old distant relative of the king's. Again, he furnished phone numbers from memory.

According to Posner, the interrogators responded by telling Zubaydah that 9/11 changed everything. The House of Saud certainly would not stand behind him after that. It was then that Zubaydah dropped his real bombshell. "Zubaydah said that 9/11 changed nothing because Ahmed ... knew beforehand that an attack was scheduled for American soil that day," Posner writes. "They just didn't know what it would be, nor did they want to know more than that. The information had been passed to them, said Zubaydah, because bin Laden knew they could not stop it without knowing the specifics, but later they would be hard-pressed to turn on him if he could disclose their foreknowledge."

Two weeks later, Zubaydah was moved to an undisclosed location. When he figured out that the interrogators were really Americans, not Saudis, Posner writes, he tried to strangle himself, and later recanted his entire tale.

As for Prince Ahmed, on July 22, 2002, he died mysteriously of a heart attack at the age of 43, so he was never interviewed about his connections to al-Qaida and his alleged foreknowledge of the events of 9/11. Not that the FBI didn't have its chance at him. On Sept. 16, 2001, after the Bush administration had approved the Saudi evacuation, Prince Ahmed had boarded that 727 in Lexington, Ky. He had been identified by FBI officials, but not seriously interrogated. It was an inauspicious start to the just-declared war on terror. "What happened on Sept. 11 was a horrific crime," says John Martin, a former official in the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. "It was an act of war. And the answer is no, this is not any way to go about investigating it."

Coming Friday -- "The Number": How much money has flowed from the House of Saud to individuals and entities closely tied to the House of Bush? At least $1,477,100,000.

By Craig Unger

Craig Unger is the author of 'Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power' (Scribner, September 2012). He is also a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, and wrote the New York Times bestseller, 'House of Bush, House of Saud.' For more about Boss Rove, and to buy the book, go to

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