Over the 20th anniversary of 9/11, significant media attention was focused on the decision by the Biden Administration to authorize the release of FBI documents concerning Operation Encore. Encore was an investigation into the role of certain Saudi intelligence officials in facilitating 9/11 hijackers. A coalition of 9/11 family members had urged Biden to release the documents.
Unfortunately, the documents seem to provide very little new information.
The FBI release, which consists of 16 heavily redacted pages, focuses primarily on interviews with an unidentified subject about the behavior of Omar al-Bayoumi, a suspected Saudi intelligence officer who allegedly facilitated two 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, and Saudi consular officer Fahad al-Thumairy.
The documents go into some detail about al-Bayoumi’s meeting with the hijackers at the Mediterranean Gourmet Grill, an event detailed in FBI documents originally released as part of the 9/11 Commission. While Bayoumi maintained the meeting occurred by chance, the newly released documents provide reasons why this claim is taken to be unlikely, including evidence that other individuals associated with the restaurant had ties to Islamic terrorism. The documents note:
An investigation was predicated against___________ based upon ______ close association with __________. _________ worked as a facilitator of Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and was associated with members of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in the US. _______ is referenced in multiple FBI investigations [Author’s Note: GIA and GSPC have evolved into Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)]. Another Individual _______ __________ ______ a close associate of Thumairy who is described in source reporting as a hardcore militant individual who supported the events of 9/11, was also associated with the restaurant, but later identified as not the official owner at the time of the meeting between BAYOUMI and HAZMI and MIDHAR.
Unfortunately, the heavy redactions make it difficult to determine the significance of this finding or to determine what else might be available in open-source reporting about the individuals in question.
One interesting reference in the newly released documents relates to the Islamic African Relief Agency (IARA). The documents note Bayoumi’s frequent phone conversations with Mutaib al-Sudairy, another alleged Saudi operative. Al-Sudairy’s roommate, Ziyad Khaleel, was a former employee of IARA. Khaleel arranged wire transfers from IARA to bank accounts controlled by Osama bin Laden. Contacts between Khaleel and Anwar al-Awlaki would lead to the U.S.-born Yemeni Al Qaeda cleric coming under investigation. Awlaki’s role in supporting the San Diego hijacker team has also previously been disclosed.
Unmentioned in the FBI documents, but of interest, is that Khaleel also worked on behalf of the Hamas front the Islamic Association of Palestine (IAP) and had shared residential addresses with Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook prior to Marzook’s deportation.
The IARA was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for financing Islamic terrorism in 2004. IARA reappeared in the news when then President Barack Obama made his first appearance before a U.S. Mosque at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, whose Imam Mohamad Adam el-Sheikh had served as a regional coordinator for IARA. In July of the same year IARA officially pleaded guilty to sanctions violations.
In 2018, it was revealed that the Obama Administration had knowingly allowed a transfer of USAID funds to IARA in 2015 despite its being a designated terrorist entity.
Taken together with already existing 9/11 Commission released documents and the previously declassified “28 pages,” the documents make clear that an extensive Islamic terrorism support apparatus existed in the United States well in advance of the 9/11 plot and facilitated support for a wide variety of jihadist groups.
Yet though these newly released documents expound slightly on some of the incidents recorded in previous releases, they do not significantly add to the base of available knowledge.
The case that al-Bayoumi and other Saudi officials may have been intelligence officers and played a role in supporting the 9/11 hijackers in the United States was reasonably established by the release of the “28 Pages” document.
While the Saudi government’s historic support for Islamist organizations, including those known to support terrorism is well-known, the kingdom has made some significant strides since the elevation of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (popularly known as MBS) in targeting Saudi institutions supporting Islamists. These steps have included banning Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist material in Saudi mosques and schools and arresting noted Saudi Islamist clerics on terror-related charges as well as cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism finance efforts through the joint founding of the Terrorism Financing Targeting Center.
For their part, the Saudi government has said it supports declassification of all the relevant documents.
There is a certain irony in the Biden Administration releasing documents intended to be critical of Saudi Arabia, which include reference to a group that the Obama-Biden Administration knowingly allowed to receive government funds in contravention to the existing law. This might remind us that while we should certainly seek full transparency and accountability when it comes to the events of 9/11, in the ensuing years America’s policy towards Islamist groups and their support for jihadist terrorism has grown increasingly convoluted and unjustifiable.
The U.S.-backing of Al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria and Libya and the nature of the apparent agreement struck with the Taliban along with the refusal by subsequent administrations (both Republican and Democratic) to address the full extent of the American-based Islamist infrastructure, highlights yet again that the United States has in significant ways fallen behind the rest of the world in combating jihad and the ideology which inspires it.