SARASOTA — America’s veiled relationship with Saudi Arabia took another dark turn Friday when a Saudi national opened fire in a Naval Air Station Pensacola classroom and killed three student sailors.
When an FBI official described the violence that also left the gunman dead and two deputies wounded as “an act of terrorism,” it offered a reminder that, when it comes to transparency, the House of Saud enjoys a significant exemption from traditional oversight.
Just ask the family of entrepreneur Esam Ghazzawi. No wait. They fled Sarasota in a rush, before anyone had a chance to ask.
Details on what prompted 21-year-old Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Mohammed Alshamrani to start shooting are still being assembled. But between the tragedy in Pensacola, the coordinated assassination and dismemberment of dissident Saudi journalist/Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, questions about the monarchy’s ostensible Teflon coating refuse to abate.
The FBI’s refusal to declassify the full extent of what it knew, or knows, about the 9/11 hijackers’ links to Sarasota continues to fuel conspiracy theorists’ persistent contention that the federal government is shielding powerful foreign nationals from accountability.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge William Zloch ruled the FBI has, for the last seven years, unlawfully withheld certain details of its investigation into what went on at the home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hiji, the son-in-law and daughter of Ghazzawi. A consultant to the Royal Family, Ghazzawi bought the home in Sarasota’s gated Prestancia neighborhood in 1995.
The family abandoned their place on Escondido Circle at the end of August 2001, “quickly and suddenly,” according to an FBI analyst’s note. “They left behind valuable items, clothing, jewelry and food in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly without prior preparation or knowledge.”
A 2002 memo from an FBI field agent with the Southwest Florida Domestic Security Task Force noted “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and three of the pilot hijackers — Mohamed Atta, Ziad Jarrah and Marwan al Shehhi. The three learned to fly planes at flight schools in nearby Venice. Records reportedly list them as frequent visitors to the al-Hijji household.
But none of this information made it into the “9/11 Commission Report” released in 2004. Those records were procured through Freedom of Information Act requests by Florida Bulldog, an online investigative journalism watchdog, years after the official books were closed.
With support from former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Senate committee looking into 9/11, the Florida Bulldog continues to press for an end to the records censorship.
In 2012, Bulldog reporters Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers took the Justice Department to court for access to redacted information. Four months ago, Judge Zloch ruled the FBI was within its rights to retain 80,266 pages sought by The Bulldog. But he also ruled that one heavily censored passage about the al-Hijjis “is highly relevant to the plantiff’s request.”
Last month, Christensen reported that an attorney representing families and survivors of the 9/11 attack stated Khashoggi may have been murdered because of what he knew about 9/11.
James Kreindler said Khashoggi, who was killed at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018, had met with an investigator with the 9/11 plaintiffs in 2017 and “knew a lot about the Saudi government’s involvement” in the terror attacks.
“My belief,” Kreindler added, “is that Khashoggi was killed not because he was a dissident, there are lots of dissidents, but because he was holding this ax over the Saudis’ heads.”
Accused of ongoing genocide in Yemen and going after dissident exiles, the image-conscious Saudis have been on a charm offensive as they transition from an oil economy to a tourist economy. Earlier this year, at a Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning lecture in Sarasota, former ambassador to the U.S. Turki al-Faisal reminded his audience that travel restrictions were being lifted.
Al-Faisal, the youngest son of the late patriarch Faisal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, failed to mention the Khashoggi controversy in his speech. Backstage, he blamed the assassination on “rogue” elements in the government, and said he had no additional insights into the al-Hijjis’ presence in Sarasota.
“I have no idea what Mr. Ghazzawi has to do with this or that, or if he had anything to do with that, other than what was published in all of the texts that I’ve seen published in the paper,” al-Faisal said.
So far, the Royal Family and heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman have faced no repercussions for their perceived transgressions. Over the summer, the Senate failed to override President Trump’s veto of a bill that would have blocked in $8 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia.
Former U.S. Department of State Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith called “extremism Riyahd’s top export” in Foreign Policy magazine this year, and accused the regime of tying roughly $100 billion in foreign aid over “recent decades” to spreading Wahhabi religious fundamentalism.
“To that end,” wrote Pandith, “they are rewriting history, erasing evidence of the past to favor their own narrative – a move that ideologically aligned extremists in many parts of the world have since copied.”