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9-11 Hijackers: A Saudi Money Trail?

The FBI is investigating whether the Saudi Arabian government--using the bank account of the wife of a senior Saudi diplomat--sent tens of thousands of dollars to two Saudi students in the United States who provided assistance to two of the September 11 hijackers, according to law-enforcement sources.

The bureau, they say, has uncovered financial records showing a steady stream of payments to the family of one of the students, Omar Al Bayoumi. The money moved into the family's bank account beginning in early 2000, just a few months after hijackers Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi arrived in Los Angeles from an Al Qaeda planning summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to the sources. Within days of the terrorists' arrival in the United State, Al Bayoumi befriended the two men who would eventually hijack American Flight 77, throwing them a welcoming party in San Diego and guaranteeing their lease on an apartment next door to his own. Al Bayoumi also paid $1,500 to cover the first two months of rent for Al Midhar and Alhazmi, although officials said it is possible that the hijackers later repaid the money.

Sources familiar with the evidence say the payments--amounting to about $3,500 a month--came from an account at Washington's Riggs Bank in the name of Princess Haifa Al-Faisal, the wife of Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and the daughter of the late Saudi King Faisal. After Al Bayoumi left the country in July 2001--two months before the September 11 terror attacks--payments for roughly the same amount began flowing every month to Osama Basnan, a close associate of Al Bayoumi's who also befriended the hijackers. A federal law-enforcement source told NEWSWEEK that Basnan--who was recently convicted of visa fraud and is awaiting deportation--was a known "Al Qaeda sympathizer" who "celebrated the heroes of September 11" at a party after the attacks and openly talked about "what a wonderful, glorious day it had been."

Administration officials stressed repeatedly in interviews that they do not know the purpose of the payments from Princess Haifa's account. It is also uncertain whether the money was given to the hijackers by Al Bayoumi or Basman. White House sources also raised a number of other cautionary notes, saying that it was not uncommon for wealthy Saudis to provide financial assistance to struggling Saudi families in the United States. "The facts are unclear, and there's no need to rush to judgment," said one administration official.

But other sources describe the financial records as "explosive" and say the information has spurred an intense, behind-the-scenes battle between congressional leaders and the Bush administration over whether evidence highly embarrassing to the Saudi government should be publicly disclosed--especially at a time that the White House is aggressively seeking Saudi support for a possible war against Iraq. "This is a matter of the foreign-policy interests of the United States," said another administration official, who cited the need to prevent a rift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

A spokesperson for Princess Haifa said "she will cooperate fully with the United States." The princess hasn't been asked about the payments by any representatives of the U.S. government, and she wasn't aware of the allegations until today, her spokesperson said.

Administration officials expressed concerns that premature disclosure of the evidence of the financial payments could jeopardize the ongoing FBI probe, especially the bureau's efforts to apprehend and develop a case against Al Bayoumi. Upon leaving the United States last year, Al Bayoumi flew to Great Britain where he enrolled in a graduate-level business program at Birmingham's Aston University. He was arrested by New Scotland Yard after September 11 but adamantly denied any connection to the attacks or knowledge of the hijacker's links to Al Qaeda and was released a week later for lack of evidence. He is now believed to be back in Saudi Arabia. Law-enforcement officials say they are still intensely investigating his activities, suspecting that he may have served as an "advance man" for the hijackers.

The leaders of a joint House-Senate Intelligence Committees investigation have vigorously pushed for the release of a classified report that lays out the evidence of the Saudi money flow. But Bush administration officials, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, have adamantly refused to declassify the evidence upon which the report is based. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Bob Graham declined to discuss the evidence gathered by the joint inquiry, but he said he was upset over the Bush administration's intransigence. "This one stinks of people using classified information" for political purposes, said Graham.