Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

Zacarias Moussaoui, a convicted 9/11 co-conspirator, says members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family helped finance al Qaeda in the years just prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks. The Saudi government says that “there is no evidence to support Moussaoui’s claim,” citing U.S. government investigations. Who’s right?

We can’t say for sure, in part because a 2002 joint House-Senate report contains a 28-page section on al Qaeda’s “specific sources of foreign support” that remains classified. However, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission — which investigated the leads produced by the earlier congressional report — said in its 2004 report that it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization,” referring to al Qaeda.

Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for his role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including the passengers and crew of a hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The New York Times reported on Feb. 3 that Moussaoui gave a deposition in a lawsuit filed against the Saudi Arabian government by relatives of the 9/11 victims.

In his deposition, Moussaoui identified “prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family as major donors” to al Qaeda in the late 1990s, according to the Times.

Feb. 3, New York Times: 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.

The Saudi government released a statement denying Moussaoui’s claims and pointing to investigations that found no evidence for his accusations.

Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Feb. 3: There is no evidence to support Zacarias Moussaoui’s claim. The September 11 attack has been the most intensely investigated crime in history and the findings show no involvement by the Saudi government or Saudi officials. As confirmed by the 9/11 Commission, there is “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization [al Qaeda].”

Moussaoui is a deranged criminal whose own lawyers presented evidence that he was mentally incompetent. His words have no credibility.

His goal in making these statements only serves to get attention for himself and try to do what he could not do through acts of terrorism — to undermine Saudi-U.S. relations.

The definitive government report on the subject of financing al Qaeda is from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission.

The 9/11 Commission issued a report in July 2004 that said al Qaeda had an operating budget at the time of $30 million a year, and the 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000 (see Chapter 5.4). The report said al Qaeda had “fertile fund-raising ground in Saudi Arabia,” including from wealthy individuals and corrupt charities. But it found no evidence that the Saudi government or top government officials helped finance the terror group in the years before 9/11.

The 9/11 Commission, July 22, 2004: It does not appear that any government other than the Taliban financially supported al Qaeda before 9/11, although some governments may have contained al Qaeda sympathizers who turned a blind eye to al Qaeda’s fundraising activities. 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. (This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.)

The report also said “we have seen no evidence that any foreign government — or foreign government official — supplied any funding” for the cost of planning and conducting the 9/11 attacks.

Separately, the commission released a staff report on terrorist financing in August 2004 that elaborated on al Qaeda’s fundraising operations. The staff report blamed the Saudi government for failing to oversee corrupt charities, such as the al Haramain Islamic Foundation, and for creating an environment that allowed al Qaeda’s fundraising to flourish.

The 9/11 Commission, Aug. 21, 2004: Fund-raisers and facilitators throughout Saudi Arabia and the Gulf raised money for al Qaeda from witting and unwitting donors and diverted funds from Islamic charities and mosques. The Commission staff found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or as individual senior officials knowingly support or supported al Qaeda; however, a lack of awareness of the problem and a failure to conduct oversight over institutions created an environment in which such activity has flourished.

The staff report also said that prior to the terrorist attacks the U.S. sought the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to “stop the flow of money to al Qaeda entities.” But Saudi officials were “ambivalent and selectively cooperative in assisting the United States,” and the U.S. didn’t make it a priority.

The 9/11 Commission, Aug. 21, 2004: The U.S. government approached the Saudis on some narrow issues, such as locating Bin Ladin’s supposed personal wealth and gaining access to a senior al Qaeda financial figure in Saudi custody, with mixed results. The Saudis generally resisted cooperating more broadly against al Qaeda financing, although the U.S. government did not make this issue a priority in its bilateral relations with the Saudis or provide the Saudis with actionable intelligence about al Qaeda fundraising in the Kingdom. Other issues, such as Iraq, the Middle East peace process, economic arrangements, the oil supply, and cutting off Saudi support for the Taliban, took primacy on the U.S.-Saudi agenda.

The staff report does not mention by name any of the three princes singled out by Moussaoui, but it does clear Saudi Princess Haifa al Faisal of any wrongdoing. “Despite persistent public speculation, there is no evidence … Saudi Princess Haifa al Faisal provided any funds to the hijackers either directly or indirectly,” the report said.

After 9/11, the Saudi government “dramatically improved cooperation with the United States” on the financing of terrorism. “Managing this nuanced and complicated relationship will play a critical part in determining the success of U.S. counterterrorism policy for the foreseeable future,” the staff report said.

Now, prior to the 9/11 report, the Senate and House intelligence committees released a joint report in December 2002 that contained a 28-page section titled “Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain Sensitive National Security Matters” that remains classified. Former Sen. Bob Graham, chairman at the time of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called for the release of the 28 pages on the day the report was made public, Dec. 11, 2002, and still holds that position.

Graham told ABC News last month that the U.S. government’s refusal to release the 28 pages is an effort to protect Saudi Arabia, which he said is “the most responsible for that network of support.”

“The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11, and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier,” Graham told ABC News.

In redacting the 28 pages, the report says (beginning on page 415) that the committee reviewed “FBI and CIA documents suggesting specific potential sources of foreign support” for al Qaeda. But it also says the committee “did not attempt to investigate and assess the accuracy and significance of this information independently” because it was beyond its scope.

“It should be clear that this Joint Inquiry has made no final determinations as to the reliability or sufficiency of the information regarding these issues that was found contained in FBI and CIA documents,” the report says. It goes on to say an “investigation of these allegations could reveal legitimate, and innocent, explanations for these associations.” Or, the report says, quoting from a CIA memo, a further investigation could turn up “incontroverible evidence that there is support for these terrorists … [the rest of the sentence was redacted].”

Philip D. Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told the New York Times, according to a Feb. 4 story, that a team of commission investigators, including Senate and House investigators who worked on the joint congressional report, further investigated the material in “the famous 28 pages” and concluded there was no evidence that the Saudi government and its top officials helped finance al Qaeda.

“Those involved in the preparation of the famous 28 pages joined the staff of the 9/11 Commission and participated in the follow-up investigation of all the leads that had been developed earlier,” Zelikow told the Times. “In doing so, they were aided by a larger team with more members, more powers and for the first time actually conducted interviews of relevant people both in this country and in Saudi Arabia.” He added, “And what we found is reflected in the commission report.”

That would bring us full circle. Whether the 9/11 Commission report is the final word on the subject remains to be seen. But right now, that’s the best evidence we have.

— Eugene Kiely