In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) which, for the first time, permitted lawsuits against Saudi Arabia over the September 11, 2001 attacks. The kingdom had previously been covered by sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine protecting nations against most lawsuits.
In recent months, as in the past, lawyers for the victims, their families, and businesses harmed by the attacks have alleged that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia channelled money through its charities to al-Qaeda. They have presented statements from two former FBI officials and former Florida Senator Bob Graham, an ex-chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, to the effect that Saudi officials in the U.S. provided support to the September 11 hijackers who killed 2,996 people and injured over 6,000 others.
The allegations are sufficient to win a hearing under JASTA and the victims should be permitted to seek additional evidence from Saudi Arabia, their lawyers said. JASTA was passed over a veto by President Barack Obama in the last months of his presidency.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, asked the U.S. to throw out lawsuits claiming it helped al-Qaeda carry out the September 11 terrorist attacks, arguing the victims haven’t provided any evidence to back their cases.
Michael Kellogg, one of the lawyers for the Kingdom, said reports from the 9/11 Commission, FBI, CIA, and 9/11 Review Commission found no proof Saudi Arabia backed the attacks. Kellogg submitted this declaration to U.S. District Judge George Daniels at the start of a daylong hearing in Manhattan on January 18th. Daniels has not ruled yet on the Saudi requests.
Commenting on the case Re: Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, 03-md-1570, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan), a crucial point has to be mentioned: The relationship between the lawsuit on the one hand and the notion of individual responsibility on the other.
The concept of individual responsibility means that people choose and cause their own actions. A corollary is that because we cause our own actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable. Suing a sovereign power seems to conflate the actions of individuals with the decisions taken by a government.
Obviously, to criticize this approach is not to suggest obstructing the search for justice for the victims and their families. It means choosing to investigate and find the ultimate facilitators, financiers, and organizers behind the attacks — even if they are Saudis — and with the help of Saudi Arabia.
This is especially true now, in the framework of the unprecedented efforts made by the Kingdom in fighting terrorism and terrorism financing as well as increasing political transparency.
It is undeniable that a number of Saudi citizens have had huge responsibilities in aiding and abetting terrorism and financing the biggest terrorist networks of the last three decades. Nevertheless, this issue has to be tackled by prosecuting individuals, single charities, and single donors, not a country as a whole.
This is a complex legal issue, in which subjects like international customary law, national sovereignty, anti-terrorism international conventions, and bilateral relations play a prominent role.
From a political perspective, however, things are changing in the Kingdom, and these changes should be positively exploited by foreign partners to demand and obtain further support in the search for justice and not to perpetuate stigmas on a fast-changing nation.