The families of 9/11 victims say the FBI document validates their claim that Saudi Arabia played a role in the attacks.



It was called Operation Encore - a secret FBI investigation into connections between Saudi Arabia and the hijackers who carried out the attacks on 9/11. The families of the victims have wanted to see a 16-page document that summarized that investigation for years. And last night, they got it. The Biden administration made it public, or at least a redacted version of it, and it tells a complicated story and offers a fuller picture of the help that some of the hijackers received in this country earlier than official accounts. NPR's Laura Sullivan joins us now with the details. Good morning.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So remind us, what was Operation Encore looking into and why have the families felt it was so important?

SULLIVAN: Operation Encore was an FBI investigation that took a new look at the planning of the 9/11 attacks - I mean, specifically whether the hijackers had the help of the Saudi Arabian government. And at the end of it, agents put together this 16-page report. And the document does not draw a link between the Saudi government and the attacks or come to any conclusion on that, but it does add some new details that change how we understand how the attacks took place - I mean, namely how 19 hijackers, most of whom were Saudi and did not speak English or had spent any time in the West, pulled it off without help. The most authoritative report on 9/11 is still the 9/11 commission report published in 2004, which left many of these questions unanswered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how were these findings different in this new report?

SULLIVAN: So the 2004 report has these two main characters who are depicted in this almost sort of positive light. There's this one man, a Saudi government employee who allegedly stumbled into this chance meeting with the hijackers in a restaurant. He's described as gregarious and almost pro-American. This new report finds that that meeting was pre-planned and orchestrated and that he had multiple ties to extremists. He told a witness that the Islamic community was at jihad with the United States. And there's also this other man with Saudi diplomatic status in Los Angeles who comes across very different. The original investigation found no evidence that he provided any assistance. This new report found that he tasked an associate with helping hijackers. And it describes them - you know, he described them as very significant people, and this is more than a year before the attacks. The new report also basically found both men were just one or two people away from others on what was basically, like, a phone tree of known international terrorists.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hanging over this, of course, is what the government of Saudi Arabia knew. Families are suing the government of Saudi Arabia. So what has that government said about these allegations?

SULLIVAN: The Saudi government has long held that any connections that - you know, that come up like this are coincidental and that none of this points to Saudi government complicity. They said in a statement this week that they had no previous knowledge of the attacks and have been tremendous partners with the United States in fighting al-Qaida. The victims' families believe that this report vindicates what they've been saying, which is not only that there were Saudi nationals with government status that helped the hijackers but also that the U.S. government has had more information than it's acknowledged all along.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, are there more documents still to be released?

SULLIVAN: So there are, and the Biden administration has vowed to release all relevant records it has on the events leading up to the attacks and has promised to get the families - to get them to the families in the next six months. But, you know, it's been slow coming. They've been trying to get them for years, and we'll have to see what they end up being able to do in that time frame.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Laura Sullivan. Thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: Thanks so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.