By Aaron Zitner ~ Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON - In a potential complication for U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, more than 600 relatives of Sept. 11 terrorism victims filed a lawsuit Thursday that accuses seven foreign banks, eight Islamic foundations and three members of the Saudi royal family of financing Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network.
The relatives said their lawsuit, which seeks $1 trillion, aims to crush the financial pipeline that supports terrorism. The lawsuit also names as defendants the Sudanese government and the Saudi construction conglomerate run by bin Laden's family.
"We will leave them high and dry, their bankrollers broke and bereft," said William Doyle, whose son worked in the World Trade Center.
The U.S. government is conducting its own effort to freeze the assets of businesses and charities that support terrorism. But the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, could complicate the Bush administration's broader war on terrorism.
Foreign relations dilemma
It comes while U.S. officials are working to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia as they consider a possible attack on its neighbor, Iraq. Saudi officials object to any notion that their nation fosters terrorism.
Attorneys for the victims' families said they hired their own investigators, including Jean-Charles Brisard, co-author of a controversial French best seller that claims Saudi Arabia played as big a role in the spread of Islamic terrorism as did the Taliban.
"I had nothing against the Saudis, but that's where the evidence pointed," said Allan Gerson, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit, aiming directly at the Saudi royal family, says that the former chief of the Saudi Secret Services, Prince Turki al-Faisal al Saud, helped broker a 1998 deal in which Saudi Arabia agreed not to seek the extradition of bin Laden and other al-Qaida members from Afghanistan, or the closure of terrorist camps there, in return for bin Laden's agreement not to use the infrastructure in Afghanistan to undermine the Saudi government.
"Prince Turki also promised to provide oil and generous financial assistance to both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan," the lawsuit states. "After the meeting, 400 new pickup trucks arrived in Kandahar for the Taliban, still bearing Saudi Arabia license plates."
In accusations against a second member of the Saudi royal family, the lawsuit says that since 1994 Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a brother of King Fahd, has donated at least $6 million to charities that provided financing to al-Qaida.
The lawsuit says Prince Sultan should have known the character of the charities because he headed the Saudi council that reviews aid requests from Islamic groups. Prince Sultan is also Saudi Arabia's second deputy prime minister and minister of defense and aviation.
A third member of the royal family, Mohammed al-Faisal al-Saud, is cited as chairman of firms that owned shares of a Sudanese bank that allegedly supported bin Laden's activities.
The lawsuit claims that Prince Mohammed is also the former chairman of a Swiss charity that is "involved in al-Qaida financing through several subsidiaries."
A Saudi press official in Washington declined to comment on the lawsuit. But Saudi officials have strenuously denied accusations that they have supported terrorism or been slow to combat it. They have noted that Saudi Arabia stripped bin Laden of his citizenship years before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We are fighting communism, we are fighting terrorism, we are working assiduously with the United States in this regard," the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said in an Aug. 11 interview with ABC television. "We have a committee on which we share information. We have a committee that also deals with the freezing of the assets of anybody who finances this terror. And in spite of all these things, we're still accused of aiding the terrorism that is against Saudi Arabia."
Under U.S. law, foreign governments have a broad immunity from lawsuits, including those alleging cooperation in wrongful deaths or other injurious actions. Several lawyers said that immunity is not likely to apply in this case, however, because the actions occurred on U.S. soil.
Moreover, Congress set more liberal terms for suing nations designated by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism, a list that includes Sudan. It is unclear whether members of the Saudi royal family could successfully argue that their government roles confer some type of immunity.
State Department officials would not comment on the lawsuit Thursday. Spokesman Philip Reeker said the department was "very satisfied with the support we've gotten from Saudi Arabia in the many aspects of this war against terrorism - the financial aspects, the intelligence and information sharing, the law-enforcement actions." Still, relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained in recent months. The Bush administration is planning for a possible effort to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but Saudi officials say they would not join a war.
Of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, 15 were Saudi citizens, a fact that has prompted criticism from some Americans but that the Saudis say was a deliberate attempt by bin Laden's group to drive a wedge between the two countries.
Criticism of Saudi Arabia was aired in high levels of the U.S. government in July when the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon, heard a presentation from an outside analyst that called Saudi Arabia "the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent" in the Middle East. Laurent Murawiec, a Rand Corp. analyst, said: "Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies." The Bush administration disavowed the remarks.
The lawsuit accuses the government of Sudan of fostering al-Qaida during the 1990s.
"It is obvious that Sudan has not been involved in any way in the tragic incidents or attacks on Sept. 11," said Abdelbagi Kabeir, deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese embassy in Washington. "We have not got any citizens involved. We were not linked in any way."