Bill Doyle believes that Saudi Arabia bankrolled the Sept. 11 attacks, and despite U.S. government opposition, he hopes to prove it
Published: September 7, 2011
On May 2, 2011, a U.S. Navy SEAL shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, ending a manhunt that had lasted nearly a decade.
Three days later, President Barack Obama flew to New York City to commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which were orchestrated by bin Laden. After laying a wreath at the former site of the World Trade Center towers, the president entered the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site to meet with 60 of the victims’ families over lunch. The president spoke briefly at a podium with a faulty microphone, then made his way through the hall to talk with those in attendance.
Eventually, Obama reached a heavyset man with a comb-over. This 64-year-old man, deeply tanned from half a decade of faithful attendance at the golf course, was Bill Doyle, a retired stock trader who lives in a Central Florida retirement community. Doyle’s youngest son Joey died on Sept. 11, after being trapped in the smoldering North Tower.
Doyle congratulated the president on the kill: “You got the mission accomplished,” he said, only half-jokingly. Then, with the sort of bluntness typical of a native New Yorker, he admonished the president: “You said that you were going to let those 28 pages be known,” he said. “I’m waiting for them.”
The pages Doyle refers to are part of a heavily redacted portion of a report published in December 2002 by a bipartisan Congressional Joint Inquiry established to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks. Leaks to the press following the report’s publication established that the subject of those pages was the nation of Saudi Arabia, America’s oldest ally in the Middle East and its second-largest source of oil. Though the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (aka the 9/11 Commission, which picked up its investigation where the Joint Inquiry left off) later cleared Saudi government officials of alleged links to al-Qaida in a 2004 report, the Joint Inquiry’s findings on the Saudi connection remain redacted to this day, and many interested parties, including Doyle, suggest that they may contain key information about who was truly behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
But then again, Doyle feels he already knows who the guilty parties are. Since the summer of 2002, Doyle and a group called 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism have been pressing to shut down the alleged financiers of al-Qaida through a trillion-dollar lawsuit filed by one of the rock stars of the trial-attorney world, Ron Motley. Many of the original defendants in the case are from Saudi Arabia, including three prominent princes who held important positions within the Saudi government. The case is awaiting a trial date.
In their efforts to bring these Saudi officials and businessmen to trial, however, Doyle and his allies have encountered a formidable foe: the U.S. government, which has urged the courts to drop the charges against the case’s most powerful defendants and has yet to give up the 28 pages that Doyle wants to see. So when Doyle had his chance to talk to President Obama, the conversation ended on a cautionary, rather than a congratulatory, note. “I’m going to stay on you on this,” Doyle said. “I promise you, I will.”
Four months into the Iraq War, former General Counsel of the U.S. Department of the Treasury David Aufhauser told the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security that Saudi Arabia was the “epicenter” of terrorism financing. For a casual student of the Sept. 11 attacks, this may seem to be an obvious conclusion: Osama bin Laden was a wealthy Saudi; his family, which owns a construction conglomerate valued in the billions, has enjoyed very close ties with the Saudi royal family since the 1930s. (Last month, the Saudi government awarded the Binladen Group $1.23 billion to build what will be the world’s tallest building, near the coastal city of Jeddah.) It also seemed likely that, in addition to bin Laden’s own fortune, the wealth of other sympathetic Saudis could have helped fund the attacks carried out by 19 Arab hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals.
Only a few months before Sept. 11, former FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill shared with French terrorism-financing expert Jean-Charles Brisard (the lead investigator for the plaintiffs in the 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism suit) his frustrations in extracting potentially valuable information from Saudi officials. “All the answers, all the clues that could enable us to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization, are in Saudi Arabia,” he told Brisard.
But in the months following the attacks, there was no retaliation—military, economic, or diplomatic—against Saudi Arabia. Instead, the United States bombed Afghanistan, a deeply impoverished country that bin Laden’s organization, al-Qaida, had used as a base (though al-Qaida’s operatives were, and still are, spread around the world), and Iraq, a nation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the first air strikes on Iraq in March 2003, the United States has spent $797.3 billion on the ensuing war and has seen 4,474 U.S. soldiers and more than 102,000 Iraqi civilians killed from the resulting violence. The war in Afghanistan, which by some accounts is now the longest military conflict in U.S. history, has only been marginally successful in its aims: Al-Qaida has found refuge in neighboring Pakistan, and the United States is now in the midst of talks with the Taliban, the fundamentalist group that then President George W. Bush declared in 2004 to be “no longer . . . in existence.”
Throughout the term of President Bush, who was extremely close with the Saudi elite—in a book dedicated to this relationship, journalist Craig Unger compiled an appendix detailing $1.4 billion in transactions between the Saudi royal family and businesses tied to the Bush family—discussions with and about Saudi Arabia have generally been kept highly confidential. It appeared that a change was in order when President Obama was elected—only weeks into taking office, he met with family members of Sept. 11 victims, among them outspoken widow Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband was killed; Breitweiser told reporters that the president told her he was willing to have the pages declassified. But more than two years later, nothing of the sort has happened.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who co-chaired the Sept. 11 Joint Inquiry, thinks those pages should be declassified—a compelling viewpoint, given that he helped write them. Though Graham is forbidden to disclose the exact content of the pages, he asserts—with confidence—that the government of Saudi Arabia was “complicit” in the attacks. It’s a frequent theme in his writing: Both his nonfiction book Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America’s War on Terror and his recently released historical fiction Keys to the Kingdom focus heavily on the subject. The latter opens with the text of a fictional op-ed in The New York Times that warns that the Saudi kingdom may be concealing a nuclear weapons program. The column is written by a statesman eerily resembling Graham: a retired, Democratic U.S. senator from Florida in his 70s who had co-chaired a Congressional Joint Inquiry into the causes of Sept. 11. Less than two weeks later, the senator is mysteriously murdered and the protagonist, an ex-Special Forces operative, launches an investigation that eventually takes him deep into the Saudi kingdom. Graham maintains that 40 percent of his book is based on fact.
Graham points out that two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi, received substantial support from the Saudi government through a series of intermediaries. Originally stationed in Los Angeles, the two men relocated to San Diego at the behest of Omar al-Bayoumi, who was employed by a subsidiary of a contractor for the Saudi civil aviation authority. Al-Bayoumi did no actual work, yet he received a monthly allowance from the company, which was forbidden by the Saudi authority to fire him. After al-Bayoumi helped the future hijackers find an apartment and a mosque in San Diego, his monthly allowances increased eightfold. The two hijackers were also assisted financially by an imam with diplomatic accreditation from the religious arm of the Saudi government and a suspected Saudi spy, Omar Basnan, who in November 2002 was arrested for visa fraud and deported.
Those links, however, didn’t appear to be of much interest to the 9/11 Commission. “In our final report, we recommended that [the Commission] start where we ended in pursuing the Saudi involvement,” Graham says. “That never happened, and I’ve never been able to get an explanation of why they didn’t follow up on what seemed to be some pretty blazing red lights.”
These warning signs are elaborated upon in The Eleventh Day, a recently published history of Sept. 11 written by former BBC journalist Anthony Summers in conjunction with his wife, Robbyn Swan. In June, Vanity Fair published “The Kingdom and the Towers,” an excerpt from the book that details the Saudi connections to Sept. 11.
Why would the Saudi government, which has reaped billions of dollars from American oil dependency and which revoked Osama bin Laden’s citizenship in 1994, support the likes of al-Qaida? Summers and Swan find some clues in a June 1996 meeting in Paris between a handful of Saudi businessmen and a Saudi prince. That month, al-Qaida had bombed another American compound in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It was the second such bombing in less than a year; since the beginnings of the Gulf War in 1990, al-Qaida and its future devotees had virulently opposed the presence of U.S. military forces on Saudi soil. Six years and two domestic terrorist acts later, the authors argue, “the fear was that the Saudi elite itself would soon be targeted.” Thus, the group of prominent Saudis decided that “bin Laden was to be kept at bay with huge sums of protection money.”
Veteran Middle East reporter Seymour Hersh also argued in the Oct. 22, 2001 issue of The New Yorker that the Saudi royalty was paying “protection money” to terrorists, though he cited National Security Agency intercepts of high-level phone conversations between Saudi officials. Further along in the article, titled “King’s Ransom,” Hersh also wrote that “Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam . . . and its use of mutawwa’in—religious police—to enforce prayer, is rivalled [sic] only by the Taliban’s.” This religious doctrine helps to explain the support for bin Laden within the Kingdom. According to an Oct. 2001 survey conducted by the Saudi GID (the Kingdom’s equivalent to the CIA), 95 percent of the Saudis polled—educated adults ranging from 25 to 41 years of age—favored bin Laden’s cause.
Could it be that sympathetic and powerful Saudis had been donating money to al-Qaida, regardless of the government’s stated position? After all, the Islamic principle of zakat—tithing a percentage of one’s income to charity—is compulsory in Saudi Arabia (generally levied by the government at a rate of 2.5 percent), and oversight of where the resulting billions in revenue ultimately goes, say Brisard and other experts, is lax. The Saudi embassy in Washington would not return requests for an interview, though it did e-mail a point-by-point response to the Vanity Fair article.
Interestingly, the embassy’s response contends that the Saudi government “has repeatedly requested—directly to the President and publicly—that the United States release the 28 pages to cease the perpetuation of conspiracy theory.” When Bob Graham is presented with that argument, he points to page 131 of his novel, in which the phrases “another chapter in the U.S.-Saudi cover-up” and “third-rate soap opera” appear.
In a written response to this reporter from the White House, a senior administration official would not confirm whether the Saudi government directly requested the release of the 28 pages, nor did the official comment on reports that Obama had told the families of Sept. 11 victims that he was willing to release the 28 pages. Instead, the official pointed out that in May 2010, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body published a fatwa criminalizing terrorist acts. “Saudi Arabia is a strong partner in the fight against terrorism,” the official wrote.
On the night of Sept. 10, 2001, 25-year-old Joey Doyle and a dozen of his friends gathered at the home he shared with his parents in Staten Island, N.Y. The converted basement served as a sort of sports-themed lounge, replete with five TVs, a pool table, and a jukebox. The Doyle family lived comfortably—Bill Doyle had made enough money on Wall Street to retire at age 48.
That night, Joey announced to his friends and family that he had been promoted to the position of government bond supervisor at Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial firm that occupied the 101st through the 105th floors of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. “I’m well on my way,” Doyle recalls his son saying.
That same evening, Waleed al-Shehri, a 22-year-old from the Saudi Arabian city of Khamis Mushait (where U.S. F-117A stealth fighters were stationed during the Gulf War), was making final preparations in Room 432 of the Park Inn in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He had entered the United States through Orlando in April and had received a Florida driver’s license in May. At one point, al-Shehri had been studying to be a teacher, but by late 1999, he and his older brother, Wail, had drifted under the wing of a militant Islamic cleric in Mecca.
By the time al-Shehri settled into seat 2B on American Airlines Flight No. 11 at 7:45 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Joey was already at his office. The youngest Doyle child was a hard worker, says his father, and per his usual routine, he was already out of the house when his father woke up at 6 a.m. that morning.
At 8:46 a.m., the paths of Waleed al-Shehri and Joey Doyle crossed: Al-Shehri’s plane (the young Saudi did not pilot it, but rather was suspected of stabbing two flight attendants) crashed just two floors below Joey’s office; the explosion resulting from the impact of the Boeing 767 eventually caused the collapse of the North Tower. The South Tower was hit 17 minutes later by another 767 aircraft. Of the 10 hijackers, including al-Shehri, who caused the death of 2,606 people in New York City, eight of them were Saudis.
Joey’s mother says she “knew right away” that her son was dead, but his father thought differently. “If there’s a person who could get out, it’d be Joey,” Bill Doyle says. “He was a great athlete.” After four days of calling hospital triages with no luck, however, he accepted what his wife had already known. The only remains of his son found at Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill, where much of the debris from Sept. 11 was eventually dumped, were a driver’s license, a credit card, and two club cards.
After a month of grieving at home, receiving visits from friends and family, Doyle needed to get out. He did some driving. He frequented support groups across New York City and New Jersey, collecting information on counseling, burial, financial aid, and other resources for families affected by the attack. He became versed in Social Security and the inner workings of the health insurance system; his e-mails circulated in the human resources departments of financial firms that once occupied the towers. He wanted to make sure the victims’ families knew what resources they had access to. He soon became the go-to guy, the middleman, the glue.
Messages began pouring into Doyle’s inbox, from which he created a database of affected families, verifying names with the city of New York’s Community Affairs Unit. By the time New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided to convene lengthy meetings with select Sept. 11 family members near the end of 2001, Doyle’s slot was assured. “I don’t think there’s a family that doesn’t know Bill Doyle,” says Richard Sheirer, a close confidant of Giuliani’s who was New York City’s director of emergency management in September 2001. “He was a keystone in helping people. And I think it was cathartic for him also.”
By the beginning of 2002, Doyle was working full-time again—after returning home from a battery of daily meetings, he was on the phone and the computer constantly. That was just fine with his wife. “It’s completely different between a man and a woman when you lose a child,” Camille Doyle says. “I wanted to be alone.”
The Doyles moved to Florida in the fall of 2005, Camille says, because Joey’s friends were growing up, getting married. Attending those weddings, she says, was too painful. At one reception, the dress code mandated Hawaiian shirts—one of Joey’s favorite clothing items—and another wedding featured a video montage of Joey’s life. “Every time we went to a wedding, the focal point of the wedding was Joey,” she says. “It was a little much.”
By then, Bill Doyle had cemented his role as “the pillar of 9/11 families,” as the National Journal called him—the year prior, he had convinced New York health insurer GHI to create a reduced-rate coverage plan specifically for those who lost their benefits as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. The pace of Doyle’s work let up only slightly after the move, and the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11 anniversary are when he’s busiest, inundated with requests from reporters (he’s been in the New York Post nearly 50 times) and various pieces of news and information that he channels to the families. Today, Doyle is a gatekeeper for 7,113 people who lost loved ones on Sept. 11.
In 2004, Doyle’s e-mail blasts to hundreds of Sept. 11 victim families placed him on AOL’s spam list, but his account was promptly restored after U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) intervened. By then, however, what may prove to be Doyle’s most consequential e-mail—the one containing the phrase “9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism”—had long since been sent.
To call South Carolina trial attorney Ron Motley “a big deal” would be a vast understatement. In 1993, Motley extracted $215 million from companies that had potentially exposed more than 14,000 workers to asbestos; it was estimated that his firm and another firm co-litigating the case split more than $70 million in legal fees from the settlement. In 1998, Motley was a key player in wresting $246 billion from tobacco companies on behalf of 26 different government agencies. From that historic settlement, Motley’s firm reportedly took home a staggering $2 billion in fees.
But Motley’s most ambitious, challenging, and politically charged endeavor is still yet to be decided—a $1 trillion lawsuit against the alleged financiers of the Sept. 11 attacks.
First proposed by Tom Burnett Sr., a man whose son was among the passengers who resisted the hijackers of Flight 93, which crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pa., the potential litigation seemed well tailored to Motley’s expertise—emotionally wrenching, infinitely complex, and with thousands of potential plaintiffs. After meeting with the Burnett family in February 2002, Motley assembled a team of a dozen investigators to scour the globe for financial records connected to Sept. 11, an effort coordinated by French counterterrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard. Brisard is the author of “The Economic Environment of Osama Bin Laden,” an exhaustive study published in October 2001 that received critical acclaim from the CIA. When asked what proportion of bin Laden’s funding came from Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t take Brisard long to answer: “It would be more than 90 percent. No question about that.”
Some of Brisard’s most valuable discoveries came in the Eastern European country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where during the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, Muslim fighters called the mujahideen traveled from other countries to, as they saw it, protect Bosniak Muslim communities from encroaching Serbian forces. In a March 2002 raid by Bosnian police in the Sarajevo offices of the Benevolence International Foundation—a Saudi charity that the lawsuit alleges was a front for terror funding—investigators found a document dubbed the “Golden Chain,” the authenticity of which was acknowledged by U.S. intelligence officials the following year. Believed to have been written in 1988, the document outlines the top 20 financial sponsors of al-Qaida, all of them Saudis. The list included bankers, businessmen, and even two former ministers; their aggregate net worth, as Brisard last estimated in 2003, was $85 billion. One of the entities on the chain was listed only as “Bin Laden brothers.”
The lawsuit, now consolidated under the title In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2011, MDL 1570, was filed on Aug. 15, 2002. With the help of Bill Doyle—one of the first family members of a Sept. 11 victim to sign on to the suit after the Burnetts—the list of plaintiffs grew to what today is 6,706 people. “I’m going to throw my hat in the ring,” Doyle remembers telling Motley, “and the families are going to follow me.”
The original suit targeted 100 defendants, including dozens of wealthy Saudi nationals and eight prominent Saudi-backed charities, all of which were either incriminated by Brisard’s findings or were listed on what is now the U.S. government’s Specially Designated Nationals registry. What reaped the most headlines, however, was that three prominent Saudi princes—one of whom was alleged to have donated $6 million to charities that he knew financed al-Qaida—were also charged.
By March 2004, the case had swollen to encompass 205 defendants, and had already cost Motley’s firm $12 million, according to The New York Times. But despite Motley’s deep pockets and experience, the case floundered. After the suit was consolidated with similar litigation in other districts, it was transferred in early 2004 to the Southern District of New York. There, the case was assigned to an elderly judge, Richard Casey, who was blind and had to have documents dictated to him. The discovery phase, unsurprisingly, moved at a glacial pace, which didn’t improve much after the case was handed to a different judge following Casey’s death in March 2007. The new judge, George Daniels, was described in a 2004 profile by the New York Times as the “unchallenged king of delayed decisions.”
When the case finally inched forward in 2009, however, Motley and his team encountered another formidable adversary: the White House. In May of that year, the Justice Department’s then Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, asked the Supreme Court to throw out the case against the Saudi royalty, citing the protections afforded them by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and the possibility of “potentially significant foreign relations consequences of subjecting another sovereign state to suit.” The Supreme Court dismissed the charges against the Saudi royalty in June, and Kagan herself is now a Supreme Court justice.
The Saudi princes were only a small portion of the others granted reprieve from the lawsuit: Since the case’s original filing, dismissals have been granted for scores of other defendants. In addition, 127 defendant individuals and organizations have defaulted; six defendants, including Osama bin Laden, have died. Today, only 24 defendants remain on Motley’s list.
Jodi Flowers, an attorney co-leading the case with Motley, says that she is still hoping for a 2012 trial date. “Delay is not a friend of the plaintiff here,” Flowers says. “It is frustrating to be nine years out and still not have a trial date.”
The case still has the potential to yield a monumental decision, however—defendant Muslim World League, for example, is a vast and influential nongovernmental organization highly regarded in the Arab world. (The MWL’s attorney, Martin McMahon, did not respond to a request for comment.) The country of Sudan, where bin Laden lived comfortably for four years, is also a defendant. Since it is designated by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of terror, it is not protected by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which determines whether a nation can be sued in a U.S. court. And the well-heeled Binladen Group is still on the list; Brisard, as well as Summers and Swan, indicate that the bin Laden family’s “disowning” of Osama in 1994 was only superficial.
Flowers does not like to talk much about dollar amounts—a CNN report once misrepresented the legal action as a “$116 trillion lawsuit,” and she acknowledges that the suit is about bankrupting the defendants, not enriching the plaintiffs, the majority of whom have already been compensated by the federal government’s compensation fund. “For some families, it has been therapeutic to seek redress in a civil action,” Flowers says. “It’s not as if they can go out and hunt these people down themselves.”
Despite the setbacks the suit has suffered, Bill Doyle still holds Motley’s effort in high regard. “I don’t think there’s a 9/11 family out there who questions his ability,” Doyle says. “How many other law firms would stay for 10 years and still fight?”
For a man who lost so much on Sept. 11, Bill Doyle doesn’t seem very angry, at least in person. The condition of his wife, who has the autoimmune condition scleroderma, rapidly worsened after Sept. 11; less than a week after the Doyles’ interview for this story she was scheduled to have an ablation on her heart. (The surgery was later aborted, as doctors deemed it too dangerous.) “She can’t walk 15 steps from here,” Doyle said of his wife, matter-of-factly, when a reporter visited his home in early August. “You’ll see her in a minute—she’ll be in a go-go cart.”
Doyle takes the same detached tone when telling the story of how, some weeks after the attacks, he discovered a fireman’s severed foot (still wearing a boot) that had somehow escaped the wreckage sifters at the Fresh Kills landfill. It’s possible that Doyle has been steeped for too long in the aftermath of death, destruction, and despair, and hence, desensitized. But then again, the outrage may still be buried there, somewhere in the fact that the once-Republican retiree is now a registered independent, or perhaps, it’s in the slightly agitated tone of voice he assumes when talking about those responsible for the murder of his son—not the hijackers, nor even Osama bin Laden, but those still alive and thriving today who, thanks to an uninterested or unwilling U.S. government, feel little need to hide from anybody or anything.
“They’re getting off scot-free,” Doyle says. “We’ve got to hold those people who financed the hijackers accountable—instead of protecting them.”
This story originated with City Paper sister publication Orlando Weekly.
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