Judge tosses 9/11 suit against Saudi Arabia, citing sovereign immunity

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud at the Royal Palace in Jeddah on September 11, 2014. © Brendan Smialowski
A US District Court judge has dismissed claims against Saudi Arabia that it provided material support to Al-Qaeda ahead of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, ruling that the country has sovereign immunity.

In the aftermath of 9/11, some relatives of the more than 3,000 deceased victims sought billions of dollars in damages from companies, countries ‒ including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ‒ and organizations accused of aiding Al-Qaeda and other terror groups in carrying out the hijackings. In 2003, the 9/11 Commission found that there was no evidence that Saudi Arabia helped finance Al-Qaeda.

In 2005, a US District Court judge held that Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina (SHC) were foreign sovereigns immune from a lawsuit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). That ruling was affirmed by the Second Circuit Court in 2008, but for a different reason than Casey listed. However, the Second Circuit overruled its previous decision in December 2013, saying a legal exception existed and the circumstances were extraordinary. The plaintiffs then filed to reinstate Saudi Arabia and the SHC as defendants in their suit.

A second District Court judge again dismissed the claims against the two defendants on Tuesday.

"The allegations in the Complaint alone do not provide this court with a basis to assert jurisdiction over defendants," Judge George Daniels wrote in his ruling. “Dismissal of the Complaint as to Saudi Arabia and the SHC based upon sovereign immunity is proper.”

The “tortious conduct” by Saudi Arabia and the SHC “predominantly concern torts committed abroad,” he noted.

“To strip a presumptive sovereign of immunity, the tortious conduct must be that of the sovereign itself ‘or of any official or employee of that foreign state while acting in the scope of his office or employment,’” Daniels wrote.

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The plaintiffs “have not alleged a tortious act or omission by Saudi Arabia or the SHC, or of any official or employee [of either] while acting in the scope of his office or employment, that was committed in the United States.” Instead, they claim that the acts were committed by “Saudi charity alter-egos” and four people acting on behalf of Saudi Arabia or the SHC. Daniels concluded that the “alter-egos” were not acting in an official capacity.

For one of the men, Abdul Rahman Hussayen, plaintiffs cited his declaration that he was a Saudi government official. But Daniels refuted that claim, noting that the only connection he had to the September 11, 2001 attacks was that he entered the US five days beforehand and moved from his hotel to another, where three of the hijackers were staying.

“Even if this Court were to assume that Hussayen was a Saudi government official, there is no allegation ‒ let alone evidence ‒ that he assisted the hijackers within the scope of his employment or otherwise,” the judge wrote.

Likewise, Daniels similarly found that the other three men ‒ Osama Basnan, Omar al Bayoumi and Fahad al Thumairy ‒ either did not assist the 9/11 hijackers or did not do so in an official government capacity.