In a significant reversal, a federal appeals panel Thursday restored Saudi Arabia as a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that the desert kingdom financed and provided logistical support to members of al-Qaeda in the years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, facilitating the terrorist group's emergence as a global threat.
The lawsuit, filed by Center City's Cozen O'Connor, has been wending its way through courts since it was filed in 2003. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan ruled in 2008 that Saudi Arabia could not be sued under U.S. law. But in a highly unusual move, the court effectively acknowledged Thursday that its earlier decision was mistaken.
It restored not only Saudi Arabia, but also a government charity called the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which plaintiffs attorneys charge provided cash and logistical support to al-Qaeda units in the Balkans during the armed conflicts there in the 1990s.
"I think it is an eminently correct decision," Stephen Cozen of Cozen O'Connor said of the Second Circuit's opinion restoring Saudi Arabia as a defendant. "The kingdom and the Saudi High Commission deserved to be back in the case as defendants, and we are prepared to meet any of their legal and factual arguments with substantial legal and factual arguments of our own."
The decision marked the second advance in the last week for lawyers representing 9/11 victims, their families, and insurers that lost billions covering businesses and properties damaged or destroyed when two hijacked commercial airliners slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Scores of people from the Philadelphia region lost their lives in the attacks.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the Obama administration to weigh in on an appeal by Cozen, asking for the reinstatement of another group of defendants - dozens of individuals and financial institutions accused of funneling money to al-Qaeda before the attacks. The request suggests that the court views the matter as having some importance and increases the odds that it may agree to hear the appeal.
Cozen O'Connor and several other law firms sued the government of Saudi Arabia, various Islamist charities, and alleged terrorism financiers in 2003, charging that they provided financial support to al-Qaeda over 10 years before the 9/11 attacks. The firms alleged that Saudi Arabia provided tens of millions of dollars to charities that in turn bankrolled al-Qaeda units in the Balkans, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Senior U.S. government officials warned Saudis before the 9/11 attacks that government-funded charities were bankrolling terrorist units, but, they said, the Saudis failed to react.
A federal district judge in Manhattan dismissed the Saudi government and members of the royal family as defendants in 2005, saying the government was within its right to finance the charities and was not responsible for what the charities might have done with the money.
That was upheld in 2008 by the Second Circuit. But the court said Thursday that it had decided to reverse its decisions because it had allowed a related lawsuit to go forward on the same grounds cited in the suit against the Saudis.
"It means that the Second Circuit realized that it had made a mistake and did what courts are expected to do, which is fix it," said Jerry S. Goldman, a Philadelphia lawyer with the firm Anderson Kill, who represents the estate of John O'Neill, a former head of counterintelligence at the FBI.
O'Neill, who was raised in Atlantic City, sounded some of the earliest warnings about Osama bin Laden. He was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, where he had gone to work as head of security after leaving the FBI only a few weeks earlier.
The case has had significant political impact, and has affected U.S.-Saudi relations.
Victims of the 9/11 attacks and their relatives have complained bitterly about the U.S. government's failure to turn over more information about its investigations of Saudi support for al-Qaeda and other jihadist organizations.
They are pushing for legislation that would reduce protections afforded by U.S. law to foreign governments against such lawsuits. The Saudis, meanwhile, have complained that lawsuits have disrupted relations between the two governments.