9/11 +20: Time for the Truth about the Saudis’ Role

Getting at the truth of 9/11 has never been easy. James Kreindler, the lead attorney for the 9/11 families’ lawsuit against the Saudis, has called the 9/11 commission the “greatest cover up in our nation’s history.” Families of the victims, including my family, have had to fight hard, every step of the way, for information. The Biden Administration has prioritized transparency in our relations with China and Russia. With the recent collapse of the US supported government in Afghanistan exposing 20 years of failed intervention, can we also finally expose the truth about the Saudi role in 9/11?

It’s been twenty years since my mother was murdered in the 9/11 attacks. Twenty years of daily choices about what to say to those who don’t know how she died, what lies and misinformation to correct, which battles to fight. For twenty years, that nagging sense of dread come late August. With the twentieth anniversary now coming up, we are once again about to see an onslaught of media coverage of the event, remembering the horrific details, sentimentalizing the victims’ lives, reviving the pain of the families in order to create a media event, and so on. Amidst all that, we will hear of how their lives were ‘lost,’ that they died, that they passed. But their lives were not lost. They did not “pass”. They were murdered. It is a word that is rarely used when we talk about 9/11. And our refusal to use the word is just one of many ways in which, 20 years on, we continue to avoid the hard reality of what happened, and why, on 9/11.

The mainstream 9/11 narrative is about the heroes, and of course there were many, but this sentimentalized narrative masks the essential truth of the experience. In the midst of a surge of patriotism and flag-waving, families pushed for an investigation. The Bush administration refused to cooperate with that investigation until forced, and the attempts to cover up certain aspects of our government’s complicity or failures lives on today.

In the course of the 9/11 Commission, we learned that the US had teamed up with the Saudis to fund the Afghan mujahedeen to fight the invading Soviet forces in the 1980s. Saudi Arabia was only one of three countries to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia provided the Taliban with money and weapons to continue fighting against other Afghans and to suppress women and minorities. From 1996 on Bin Laden operated from inside Taliban controlled Afghanistan. This is why a month after 9/11, we invaded Afghanistan. Ostensibly, to keep the Taliban from protecting Al Qaeda.

The US government never took any responsibility for the Taliban and helping build Bin Laden’s jihadist army. There is still so much more that we do not know. Our government covered up national security mistakes in Afghanistan leading up to 9/11, but even worse, they have consistently and to this day, covered up the Saudis role. Fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The 9/11 Commission concluded that they “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded Al Qaeda to conspire in the attacks” even though the report identifies Saudi Arabia as the primary source of Al Qaeda funding.

In litigation filed in 2017, 9/11 families have sought to hold the Saudis accountable. The following year we subpoenaed the FBI. After three years of stalling, the FBI is now claiming to have lost previously identified relevant materials arising out of the investigation of the 9/11 attacks, including a video of a Saudi Government official hosting a party for two of the 9/11 hijackers shortly after their arrival in California. The FBI also “lost” key proof about individuals who provided support inside the US to the 9/11 hijackers. We have filed a complaint pending with the Department of Justice Inspector General asking for an investigation. President Biden’s recent Executive Order about releasing 9/11 documents will not solve this problem.

Twenty years later, I ask a larger question. The Biden Administration has gotten us out of Afghanistan. With the swift collapse of the US supported government in Afghanistan exposing twenty years of failed US intervention and as the FBI pretends to have lost critical documents implicating the Saudis, can we finally tell the untold stories and get to the truth and accountability for all the 9/11 families? The hijackers who murdered my mother had the support of the Saudi government and the US has covered it up for decades. Our elected officials owe us the truth. They need to hold the CIA and FBI accountable. A long overdue reckoning, 9/11, the Saudis, Afghanistan and Truth.

Harriet and Robert H. Heilbrunn Professor and Chair, Population and Family Health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health