Nearly 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, questions linger about a San Diego man’s ties to two Al-Qaeda terrorists he helped settle in Clairemont as his neighbors who went on to crash a hijacked plane into the Pentagon.
Omar al-Bayoumi met Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar under dubious circumstances in a Los Angeles restaurant. Three days later he helped them move into his apartment complex, though he later insisted they were strangers. Bayoumi, married with four children, did not work, yet he seemed not to want for money. He was 42 at the time and claimed to be a student. However, nobody knew where he went to school, and he always seemed to be hanging around the Islamic Center of San Diego on Balboa Avenue, next to the 805 freeway.
Bayoumi usually walked around with a video camera, recording people at the mosque and cultural events. Long before the attacks, local Muslims suspected Bayoumi was a Saudi spy who kept tabs on Saudis living in San Diego; a belief buttressed when his wallet with Saudi government credentials was found in the mosque’s sanctuary. His frequent contacts with the Saudi embassy in Washington and consulate in Los Angeles were also well known.
After the attacks, FBI agents had their own suspicion about Bayoumi: was he an advance man for Hazmi and Mihdhar? So, who is Bayoumi and what was his role in the September 11, 2001, attacks? These questions remain unanswered. The release of the so-called 28 pages by Congress on July 15 offer new tidbits about him that only add to the mystery.
He lived in San Diego on and off for about seven years before moving to England one month before the attacks and now lives in Saudi Arabia.
The newly released document makes up a chapter missing from the 838-page report issued in 2002 by the joint congressional inquiry into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks. The inquiry’s task was to gather information and was not an investigation. President George W. Bush ordered the pages classified on national security grounds. President Obama authorized their release.
Bush’s decision to keep the document secret fueled speculation about Saudi government involvement in the terrorist attacks. However, while it mentions the “substantial assistance” that Bayoumi gave to the hijackers, the pages contain no smoking gun. Follow-up investigations by the FBI and 9/11 Commission were unable to prove that the Saudi government or Saudi citizens named in the document had advanced knowledge of or knowingly assisted the hijackers. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists were Saudis.
Still, investigators uncovered several disturbing coincidences that leave skeptics wondering what the Saudis, including Bayoumi, knew. One 9/11 Commission member called the coincidences “an incredible series of circumstances” that, among other things, allowed Hazmi and Mihdhar to live here unobtrusively. Bayoumi’s association with Hazmi and Mihdhar has been analyzed extensively and remains hotly debated.
Chapter V in the 9/11 Review Commission report notes there is “ongoing internal debate within the FBI” over whether Bayoumi and others gave witting assistance to the hijackers. The review commission was created by Congress to check the FBI’s progress instituting the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
Officially, the 9/11 Commission and FBI concluded that the hijackers did not have a support network in the U.S. and any support given to them was unwitting. Both agencies concluded that Bayoumi did not knowingly assist the terrorists. If this is true, then his ties to Hazmi and Mihdhar are intertwined in a series of compelling coincidences.
“The documentary evidence that Bayoumi provided assistance to Hazmi and Mihdhar is solid,” said the declassified document. It notes that he had “far more extensive ties to the Saudi government than previously realized.” The document reported almost 100 phone calls from Bayoumi to Saudi government offices in the U.S. between January (when Hazmi and Mihdhar arrived in Los Angeles) and May 2000.
Before the terrorists arrived here, Bayoumi was getting $465 in monthly Saudi government allowances. In March 2000, one month after Hazmi and Mihdhar moved to Clairemont, his monthly stipend increased to $3700 and remained so until reduced to $3200 in December 2000, when Hazmi left San Diego. Federal investigators suspected that the increase in Bayoumi’s government allowance was intended to assist Hazmi and Mihdhar, but this suspicion was never proven.
Much of what was learned about the attacks was uncovered in San Diego. San Diego County sheriff Bill Gore, head of the local FBI office during 9/11, said, “We know more about [Hazmi and Mihdhar] in San Diego and what they did and where they went from the time they came into the U.S. to the time they flew into the Pentagon than any other hijackers.” But he also added “some things we’ll never know the answer to; one of them being Bayoumi.”
Former Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), co-chair of the joint congressional inquiry, said San Diego provided “the blood sample of 9/11.” “In our understanding of 9/11, San Diego was absolutely critical because we were able to gather so much information there. It was almost analogous to having a physical exam and they draw blood and use a small amount of that fluid to be properly analyzed,” said Graham in a telephone interview.
Bayoumi met Hazmi and Mihdhar on February 1, 2000. He claimed it was a random encounter at the Mediterranean Gourmet restaurant on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, and then he invited them to move to San Diego. On February 4 he was helping them apply for an apartment that was one door down from his at the Parkwood Apartments, off Balboa Avenue and a block west of the Islamic Center. Bayoumi told FBI agents in an August 2003 interview in Saudi Arabia that Hazmi and Mihdhar were the only ones he ever helped find an apartment.
The terrorists moved in without furniture. Because they did not have a credit history, Bayoumi co-signed for them and they were allowed to list his address as a previous residence. Bayoumi also helped them open a checking account and drew a cashier’s check for $1500 at a Bank of America on Balboa Avenue in his name to cover their first month’s rent; Bayoumi was promptly reimbursed.