WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — In the weeks leading up to the 9/11 terror attack, a little-known Saudi diplomat made a special trip to Jersey City.
The official purpose of the visit by Mussaed Ahmed al-Jarrah was to deliver a $1 million gift from a Saudi prince to the Al-Tawheed mosque on Jersey City’s West Side Avenue. But now, advocates for 9/11 victims are asking whether the trip — and $1 million donation — are linked to the deadliest terror attack on American soil, which took place 19 years ago.
In a court filing earlier this year, the FBI disclosed that al-Jarrah, who was assigned to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., was one of a handful of Saudi officials who provided money, lodging and other help during the summer of 2001 to the 9/11 jihadists before they crashed hijacked commercial jetliners into the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and a farm field in Pennsylvania.
It was the first time that al-Jarrah had been linked to the 9/11 plot in any way.
Left unresolved was whether al-Jarrah’s visit to the mosque in Jersey City with a $1 million donation was linked to 9/11.
The $1 million represented a massive donation for almost any religious group under any circumstances. But it was especially significant for a relatively unknown mosque in one of Jersey City’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The donation did not get substantial media coverage. Only the Qatar-based Islamic news service, Al Jazeera, reported on the $1 million gift.
Questions about the gift were not even raised in 2003, when the mosque’s imam, Alaa Al-Sadawi, was convicted on federal currency manipulation charges after he was caught raising money for a questionable charity that reportedly helped support Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, which carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Now, however, questions are mounting. Lawyers representing the families of thousands of 9/11 victims in a massive, slow-moving lawsuit against the Saudi government plan to investigate whether the Jersey City trip — and perhaps the $1 million gift — were actually part of a secret effort by Saudi officials to assist the team of militant Islamists who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
That lawsuit being heard in federal court in lower Manhattan took a dramatic turn late Thursday when the magistrate judge hearing the case released a witness list that includes two dozen Saudi officials, among them several members of the royal family who may have known about the trip to Jersey City. Al-Jarrah was also approved to be a witness who can be interrogated by lawyers for the 9/11 families.
The 40-page ruling by Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn, dated Aug. 27 but released on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, is considered a major legal victory by the lawyers for the families.
Netburn rejected arguments by the Saudis that their officials had diplomatic immunity. But her ruling does not necessarily mean depositions will take place soon. The Saudis are expected to mount additional challenges to the witness list.
The potentially explosive allegation about the Jersey City mosque is yet another in a series of charges surfacing in recent months that some Saudi officials not only knew about the 9/11 plot but actively assisted the team of 19 operatives from al-Qaida before the attack took place.
In March, this columnist reported that lawyers for the 9/11 victims approached dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi a year before he was killed by Saudi operatives in Istanbul. The revelation about Khashoggi possibly assisting with the 9/11 victims’ lawsuit emerged during a court hearing in which the victims’ lawyers also claimed that some of the witnesses in their case had been threatened.
Lawyers for the Saudi government denied that any potential witnesses were threatened. They also said Khashoggi’s death was not linked to the 9/11 lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration stepped up efforts to block the 9/11 families from gaining access to secret FBI and CIA investigations about possible Saudi links to 9/11. The debate sparked a new onslaught of questions about the alleged Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks.
More recently, the revelations about al-Jarrah have added to those questions.
Al-Jarrah’s trip to Jersey City coincided with the arrival in New Jersey of two key members of the 9/11 plot, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who had been in California. Also arriving in New Jersey was 9/11 ringleader Mohamad Atta, who flew in from Florida.
Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi stayed for a short time at the Congress Inn, a motel on Route 46 in South Hackensack, according to the FBI. Atta took up residence at the Kings Inn, a motel on Route 46 in Wayne.
Did the hijackers meet with al-Jarrah?
FBI officials won’t say one way or the other. And an examination by The Record, NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey of a now-declassified FBI chronology of the hijackers’ movements before the attacks offers no indication of any such meeting.
For lawyers representing 9/11 victims, the coincidence is alarming — and intriguing.
“Is it a coincidence that Atta, Mihdhar and Hazmi are in the neighborhood?” said Andrew Maloney, a former federal prosecutor who is now part of the legal team representing the 9/11 victims’ families in their lawsuit.
Maloney added that he believes it’s “highly likely” that Atta, Mihdhar and Hazmi visited the Al-Tawheed mosque in Jersey City, though he has no firm evidence.
“These guys have their support networks,” Maloney said.
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Khalid al-Shamma, the chairman of the board of directors at Al-Tawheed, could not be reached for comment. The mosque said he was traveling in Egypt.
But Kamel Hadd, the Al-Tawheed manager, said in an interview that the mosque was not linked to the 9/11 plot and that the $1 million donation was strictly used to expand the mosque’s floor space and build a school.
“This million dollars was in the news a long time ago,” Hadd said.
He added that Al-Tawheed’s main mosque, which had been financed by the $1 million gift, was heavily damaged by a fire in 2014. A new mosque, with two minarets, is now under construction at another site a block away on West Side Avenue.
Hadd said he was unaware of recent revelations that al-Jarrah may be linked to the 9/11 plot.
Jersey City Public Safety Director James Shea, a former deputy chief of New York City’s police department, also said he was unaware of the possible Saudi link to 9/11 plotters through the mosque. He wondered, however, whether some members of the Al-Tawheed community — or even the larger Muslim community of North Jersey — may have helped the hijackers without knowing it.
“Could people have helped them and not realized it?” Shea asked. “I could see that happen much more than I could see any intentional aid.”
The question that Shea asks has infused the 9/11 narrative almost since the day of the attacks, and when America began to understand what had taken place.
How had 19 militant Islamists — 15 of them Saudi citizens — slipped into the U.S.? With most unable to speak English, how did they manage to rent cars, take flying lessons, open bank accounts and find lodging in motels?
9/11 hijackers’ movements in North Jersey
The FBI chronology of the 9/11 hijackers’ movements shows them going about their business in North Jersey as if they had lived here for years.
Consider some of the exploits of one hijacker, Hani Hanjour, who was at the controls of American Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
On May 29, 2001, Hanjour visited Air Fleet Training Systems at Teterboro Airport. According to the FBI, Hanjour met with a flight instructor. Then the two took a “check ride” on a “Hudson tour.” The next day, Hanjour withdrew $101 from an ATM in Little Ferry.
A week later, Hanjour, after withdrawing $161 from the Sovereign Bank in Fairfield, rented a plane at the Caldwell Flight Academy at Essex County Airport.
What Hanjour did was replicated by other members of the 9/11 plot. By tracing credit cards, bank deposits, car rental receipts and motel reservations, the FBI established an extensive history of how the hijackers made their home in New Jersey, Florida, California and Northern Virginia.
What the FBI’s chronology does not show, however, is whether the hijackers received any help from local residents — even unwittingly.
That question lies at the center of the lawsuit by 9/11 families against the Saudi government.
The FBI found that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi — two known al-Qaida operatives tracked by the CIA — received extensive help from two Saudi-linked officials when they arrived in Los Angeles.
In one of the most controversial pieces of the 9/11 story, the CIA acknowledged that it did not tell the FBI when al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi landed in Los Angeles. Otherwise, the FBI might have been able to monitor their activities.
A 2012 report by the FBI indicated that another, more influential Saudi official oversaw the operation in Los Angles. But the FBI did not disclose that official’s name — until earlier this year. They revealed that it was al-Jarrah.
The court filing with the revelation, first reported by Yahoo News, was quickly withdrawn by the FBI. It has since been described as a mistake that an FBI official made in submitting court papers.
With al-Jarrah’s name suddenly public, questions mounted about his role in the 9/11 plot.
Al-Jarrah’s whereabouts are unknown. The Saudi Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
But the revelation of al-Jarrah’s trip to Jersey City in August 2001 has raised even more questions about his role and whether he may be called as a witness in the lawsuit by the 9/11 victims’ families.
“I would say that it’s a big mystery,” said James Kreindler, one of the chief attorneys for the victims.
The problem, said Kreindler, is whether he can continue to bring pressure on the Saudis — and on U.S. authorities — to release more documents that may offer insight on the whole 9/11 story.
“When the handwriting is on the wall and political pressure mounts,” he said, “we’re going to break through.”
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mikekellycolumn
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: 9/11 victims’ families still seeking answers, could NJ have them?