September 11, 2002 8:00 a.m.
The bin Ladens’ Great Escape
How the U.S. helped Osama's family leave the country after 9/11.

ill Carter, the FBI spokesman, is adamant. "We were given full access to the individuals on that plane," he says, "and we were satisfied that we did not believe any of those individuals had anything to do with the 9/11 plots."






 

The plane to which Carter refers was an aircraft chartered by the Saudi government in the days after the terrorist attacks. The individuals were two dozen members of Osama bin Laden's extended family who had been living in the United States. Saying they were afraid that family members might suffer retribution in the U.S., the Saudis asked for American assistance in getting them out of the country. With the help of the FBI, the Saudis and the bin Laden family chartered an aircraft to pick up family members in Los Angeles, Orlando, and Washington, D.C. The bin Laden plane then flew the relatives to Boston, where — one week after the attacks — the group left Logan Airport bound for Jeddah.

At the time, the massive 9/11 investigation was just beginning. The government had begun detaining hundreds of people who were held for days, weeks, or months while U.S. agents performed extensive background checks and interviews. In addition, the government announced its intention to question thousands of men from Muslim countries who might simply have known something of interest to the investigation. "The Department of Justice is waging a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives," Attorney General John Ashcroft said on November 27.

But the bin Ladens did not have to worry about that. While FBI agents looked into bin Laden family members in the Boston area immediately after September 11, it appears that the agents' first chance to interview them — or other family members who lived elsewhere in the country — came on the day they left the U.S. Each family member was given the all-clear on the basis of a single, day-of-departure interview — conducted, in Bill Carter's words, "at the airport, as they were about to leave."

Asked by National Review whether the FBI had conducted a full and thorough investigation of all the family members before allowing them to go, Carter repeated his earlier statement: "The FBI had an opportunity to interview the individuals on that plane, and we were satisfied with the information they provided." Asked again, he said the same thing. "Unless you have evidence to stop them from leaving the country, they have every right to do that," Carter explained. "The bin Laden family is very large, and for the most part are involved in legitimate enterprises. The fact of the matter is that because of September 11, some of these individuals felt it would be better to leave the country. They have every right to do that."

But some law-enforcement experts found the abbreviated investigation puzzling. "That's highly unusual, and they could not have done a thorough and complete interview," said John L. Martin, the former chief of internal security for the Justice Department. "It was obvious at the time that the Bureau did not have the kind of intelligence to know who was behind [the September 11 attacks], how they were financed, and what the U.S. connections might have been." Also, Martin said, "It is an absolute rule of law enforcement that the agent or officers conducting the interviews control the interview, and that the persons of interest, suspects, or prospective defendants do not set the ground rules for the interview."

In addition, it is a routine law-enforcement practice to question — sometimes repeatedly and in great detail — family members of suspects in murder cases. Investigators do not usually presume that a relative has no connection or knowledge of a crime; instead, they usually conduct an investigation to make sure the relatives can be eliminated as suspects or witnesses. While that is going on, the instincts of law enforcement are normally to freeze all potential suspects and witnesses in place until the investigation has reached some conclusions.

What raises even more questions about the FBI's handling of the bin Ladens is that in the days immediately after the attack, law-enforcement agencies were nearly overwhelmed by the task of unraveling the plot and uncovering al Qaeda's complex worldwide financial network. Investigators were still trying to retrace the hijackers' steps and learn who might have assisted them along the way. They were also facing the enormous job of trying to uncover any other terrorist cells that might be in the country. The FBI in particular was almost back on its heels, suffering from (it was revealed later) a lack of communication between its various offices about key evidence in the case.

And the bin Ladens seemed an obvious choice for intensive investigation. Most press accounts of the family state flatly that the relatives are estranged from Osama bin Laden and condemn his work. But bin Laden has more than 50 siblings, and it is perhaps overly optimistic to think that every single one of them not only does not approve of his actions but also has no knowledge of his support and financing. Besides, there are several published reports that suggest otherwise.

In October 2001, ABC News interviewed a sister-in-law of Osama bin Laden, who was asked whether bin Laden family members had given money to Osama. "I don't know that," Carmen bin Laden answered, "but my opinion is yes . . . I think they would say, okay, this is — for Islam they would give. You know, for Islam they would give." Carmen bin Laden is the estranged wife of Osama bin Laden's brother Yeslam, who runs the Saudi Investment Company in Switzerland. Family friends have contradicted her account, but in March of this year, French police searched Yeslam bin Laden's villa in Cannes, reportedly looking for evidence of terrorism-related money laundering involving the Saudi Investment Company. Swiss police also searched other properties connected to the firm.

In addition, investigators believe that another bin Laden relative, Osama's brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, is thought to be an important figure in al Qaeda. Khalifa has been linked to Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as well as to the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Khalifa is also thought to have provided crucial start-up money to Abu Sayyaf, the Philippine terrorist group.

Then there are the bin Ladens' alleged ties to a Bahamas-based bank that is suspected of laundering money to terrorist groups. And, finally, there are Osama bin Laden's communications with his stepmother, Al-Khalifa bin Laden. He reportedly called her days before September 11 to tell her that "something big" would soon take place.

It may turn out that no one among the bin Ladens in America knew anything about any of the people involved or any of their businesses. It is true that the family members had been the subject of some scrutiny in the past. "That family had been looked at very, very carefully in the two-year period leading up to September 11," after the al Qaeda bombings of American embassies in East Africa, said retired CIA official Vince Cannistraro. But the fact that the September 11 attacks occurred raises obvious questions about how thorough the U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies' investigation of bin Laden was. In light of that, how much did the FBI know about the bin Laden family when it allowed them to leave the country? And could investigators have learned everything they needed to know on the basis of the day-of-departure airport interviews?

It's hard to reconstruct precisely how the departures were arranged. The only public statement the Saudis have made was in October 2001, when Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., said on CNN, "His Majesty said it's not fair for these innocent people to be subjected to any harm. On the other hand, we understood the high emotions. So with the coordination with the FBI, we got them all out." Otherwise, officials at the Saudi embassy in Washington decline to comment.

When NR called an official at Logan Airport, he said, "You have to talk to the State Department. They're the ones who set it up." But a State Department source said the department "played no role" in the matter. "This is not something we would have brokered," the source said. "Bandar does not need Foggy Bottom to get a phone call returned by the White House." That seemed a clear hint that the White House was involved, but the White House declined immediate comment, saying it would look into the matter.

However it happened, the bin Ladens are long gone. Some have returned, at least for visits — they live in an international set that divides its time among Jeddah, London, Paris, and New York. Others have stayed away. Now, a year after 9/11, should U.S law enforcement ever need them, investigators will know where they are — in Saudi Arabia, out of reach.

 
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