Twenty years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, I was an eighth grader at Booker Middle School, just across a field from the elementary school where a White House adviser whispered in the ear of then-President George W. Bush that a second plane had collided with the second World Trade Center tower. In the years since, I have felt a peculiar sort of awe and disbelief that I was so close to one of the most significant events in American history. Who would have thought that my little Sarasota, land of grandmas and sunburned tourists, would be in the spotlight on the day the world changed forever?
But it wasn’t until years later that we would learn that Sarasota was more than just a footnote on that day. In fact, our town might hold the truth to what really happened on 9/11.
Considering the events of that day, it’s hard not to jump down 9/11 conspiratorial rabbit holes. The coincidences can feel overwhelming. What are the odds that as the two planes struck the towers, President Bush would be in the very same county where three of the 19 terrorists who piloted planes that day lived, trained and plotted? You might be forgiven for thinking there’s a conspiracy afoot.
But you’d go crazy trying to connect those dots, and people would dismiss you as just another tinfoil hatter anyway. And why bother, when the real conspiracy is hidden in plain sight? What happened in Sarasota is not theoretical; it’s factual—that a Saudi family with close ties to both the hijackers and the Saudi government mysteriously fled their Sarasota home days before the attacks, and the FBI, CIA and U.S. government have spent the better part of 20 years covering it up.
However conspiratorial you may or may not be, the Sarasota connection shows that the official U.S. narrative of 9/11—that a small group of non-state actors from the Middle East was wholly responsible for one of the most significant events in American history—is wrong, and that Saudi Arabia, one of our most important allies, is implicated in the attack. Why has the U.S. government worked so hard to protect them?
This is important, because not only did 9/11 kill nearly 3,000 Americans, it was the entire pretense that launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, destabilized an entire region while costing nearly $7 trillion, created a culture of fear over the threat of terrorism and spawned a pervasive ecosystem of security and surveillance in the U.S. and around the globe.
Over the past 20 years, in spite of obstructive FBI, CIA and U.S. government actions, a slow drip of evidence implicating the Saudi government has made its way to the public. On Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, we may know more. President Joe Biden is calling for the release of documents of 9/11 investigations that have been locked up for years. Tens of thousands of documents—that we know of—will still remain hidden.
It is unlikely that any of the information we have right now would have come to light had it not been for three independent journalists who discovered the alarming connections to Sarasota. It took them 10 years of hard investigating and multiple lawsuits, but their reporting shows how difficult it is to uncover the truth. Here’s what we know and what we may find out.
Discovery of the Sarasota Connection
In the years after 9/11, journalists Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan were troubled by the misinformation and conspiracies circulating around the events of that day. The husband-and-wife duo have written many books, typically tackling historical events like Pearl Harbor or iconic figures like JFK, Nixon and Frank Sinatra (it was their work that revealed Ol’ Blue Eyes’ ties to the mob).
“The country was just overrun with the 9/11 Truth Movement [individuals and organizations who believed the U.S. government was involved in 9/11] at that point,” Swan told me this summer.
Swan says the public’s skepticism of the government was not without merit. The unpopular war in Iraq and the unsavory revelations about how the U.S. conducted its War on Terror—our international military campaign after 9/11—had created an environment primed for conspiratorial thinking. “It was swaying the history of 9/11, so we thought that made it especially important that someone really go at this story and turn all these leads upside down and shake them around to see what stood up to close scrutiny and what did not,” she says.
The pair eventually wrote a book for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The book was The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11. It would go on to be a Pulitzer finalist.
But just as the book was sent off to the printer in the summer of 2011, two sources in Sarasota, a security guard named Larry Berberich and an anonymous counterterrorism officer, tipped off Summers and Swan that Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, the young Saudi couple living in Prestancia, a luxury gated community in Palmer Ranch in Sarasota, had mysteriously fled just before the attacks. The sources made it clear that this family might have something to do with 9/11.
This news was a shocking revelation. The 9/11 Commission had published its official conclusions in 2004. The Commission’s report made no mention of the family and “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.”
The new al-Hijji connection was too late to include in Summers and Swan’s book, but they had no intention of letting the story go. They contacted longtime friend and fellow reporter Dan Christensen to help follow up on the new information.
Christensen, an award-winning investigative journalist, has been reporting on the South Florida region since the late 1970s. He first met Summers and Swan more than 30 years ago. When Summers reached out to Christensen in the summer of 2011, he was editing the Florida Bulldog, a nonprofit investigative publication he had founded in 2009.
“Tony called me and asked if I’d be interested in checking it out further,” Christensen remembers. “I said, ‘Yeah.’”
Christensen followed the lead Summers found about the Sarasota connection with some “old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting,” he says. Through interviews and record searches, the two uncovered a report detailing the state of the al-Hijjis’ home after the Saudi family’s abrupt and unexplained departure—fully stocked refrigerator, fruit on the table, brand-new car in the driveway, an emptied safe, dirty diapers in the bathroom. They also discovered phone records connecting the al-Hijjis to several of the hijackers. Even more damning were Prestancia’s gate records that revealed that Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, had personally visited the home at 4224 Escondito Circle multiple times.
In August 2011, Christensen and Summers took their discoveries to then-Sen. Bob Graham. Graham was the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and co-chairman of the joint congressional inquiry into U.S. intelligence gathering surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. From early on, he had been a leading advocate of more government transparency regarding 9/11. The three met at the Miami International Airport. For several hours, Summers and Christensen showed Graham what they’d found. (I reached out to the former senator, but was informed that Graham, now 84, has stepped back from public life and would not be available for an interview.)
On Sept. 8, 2011, with the support of Graham and solid reporting, Christensen and Summers’ story was on the front page of the Miami Herald. Immediately after the story came out, Sen. Graham called on then-President Barack Obama to use his executive authority to release intelligence reports pertaining to the Sarasota connection. “The key umbrella question is: What was the full extent of Saudi involvement prior to 9/11 and why did the U.S. administration cover this up?” Graham said in a TV interview reported on Democracy Now.
One day after the story was published, the FBI called the Herald. “The FBI told them that, essentially, everything we wrote was wrong,” Christensen said. Before publishing the Herald piece, Christensen told me he didn’t call the FBI for comment, but that he did call the U.S. Department of Justice, which told him there was nothing more they would comment on beyond what was in the 9/11 Commission report.
But by disputing the story, the FBI had acknowledged for the first time that they had investigated the al-Hijjis’ relationship with the hijackers. After admitting this, they claimed they found no connection between the family and the hijackers. In other words, the FBI acknowledged the existence of an investigation they had never made available to the public, not even to the 9/11 Commission, because, they said, there was nothing to see.
“We knew they weren’t telling the truth,” Christensen says, “so we filed a lawsuit.”
What followed was a long and costly legal battle between the Florida Bulldog and the DOJ and the FBI.
Christensen and Summers hired Thomas Julin, a First Amendment lawyer out of Miami, to file two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, two lawsuits and one Mandatory Declassification Review against the FBI and the DOJ. The results of the lawsuits and released documents not only vindicated Christensen, Summers and Swan’s reporting, they also revealed a significant amount of information that implicates Saudi government coordination and financial support of the hijackers and uncovered the FBI’s efforts to conceal that information and shield the Saudis.
For example, the lawsuit forced the FBI to release documents detailing a 2002 report by an FBI agent that stated the al-Hijji family had “many connections” to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Much of the report was redacted for “national security” reasons. When Julin questioned the FBI, “the FBI claimed that the agent who wrote the memo didn’t know what he was doing,” Julin said. “That it was unsubstantiated and poorly written.” The agency refused to identify or discipline the agent. Sen Graham would later identify the agent as Gregory J. Sheffield. The agent had been transferred to Honolulu and given specific instructions not to speak to Graham. After repeated attempts to meet with the agent, Sean Joyce, the deputy director of the FBI, told Graham to “get a life” and that there was nothing more to learn.
“That was the revelation that the first FOIA produced,” Julin says, “that the public statements that the FBI made … claiming that there was no connection between the al-Hijji family living in Sarasota and the 9/11 hijackers, that was directly contradicted by the FBI’s own documents.”
The Sarasota connections from the lawsuits didn’t end there. In 2014, dissatisfied with the FBI explanations and against the wishes of the DOJ, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered that the FBI do a more thorough search of its own documents pertaining to the Sarasota connections. Lo and behold, more than 80,000 pages of reports about 9/11 were lying around the FBI’s Tampa field office.
As Judge Zloch reviewed the pages, the FBI continued to insist there was no evidence that incriminated the Saudi government and that releasing the information would reveal secret techniques and procedures. In 2019, Zloch upheld up many of the FBI’s redactions and the 80,000 pages were not released to the public.
To the journalists, this was part of a pattern of deception from the FBI. “It went from being something where they found nothing to something of paramount importance to the FBI that they decided they weren’t going to disclose information,” Christensen says.
In 2016, as a result of the lawsuits and mounting pressure from families of the victims of 9/11, the secret document, famously called the “28 pages,” was declassified by the Obama administration. These pages were the final section of the report written by the Joint Inquiry chaired by Sen. Graham that looked into possible Saudi links to the attacks.
The contents of the 28 pages asserted that individuals connected to the Saudi government, including officers in the Saudi intelligence agency, financially supported at least some of the hijackers. Further leaked documents from these pages revealed there was “incontrovertible evidence” that officials from the Saudi government aided the hijackers financially and logistically. Two of the names in those documents have Sarasota connections: Mohamed Atta and the adviser to the nephew of King Fahd, Esam Abbas Ghazzawi.
Ghazzawi is Abulaziz al-Hijji’s father-in-law and was the legal owner of the house on Escondito Circle. He was not unknown to the U.S. government. He has been an important figure who met with world leaders long before the 9/11 attacks. Former President George H.W. Bush signed his picture, “To Esam A. Ghazzawi, Best Wishes, George Bush.” Ghazzawi had also been on an FBI watchlist before the attacks, but the files on him remain secret to this day.
The most tangible result of the lawsuit came from the revelation of another secret FBI probe conducted by agents who were not satisfied with the way the agency had handled the 9/11 investigation. The investigation, which was looking at Saudi government involvement in the 9/11 attacks, was called Operation Encore. “Although the 9/11 Commission concluded in 2004, we learned that an FBI investigation of 9/11 Saudi suspects continued as late as October 2012,” Julin said. FBI agents who did not accept that there was nothing further to look into continued to investigate leads, specifically two hijackers out in San Diego and two Saudi agents who aided them.
By uncovering Operation Encore, Christensen, Summers and Swan provided the 9/11 families evidence to use in their legal case against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This legal case is a civil lawsuit filed against the Saudi government, alleging official complicity in the 9/11 attacks. It is filed on behalf of thousands of families representing the victims of 9/11. The Saudi government’s attorneys are expected to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing to previous conclusions of U.S. government investigations that the Saudis claim exonerate them. The 9/11 families claim these investigations are inadequate, since they don’t currently include many thousands of unreleased documents. The cases are currently in court, but Operation Encore has given the 9/11 families ammunition. “The existence of Operation Encore has become the linchpin for the 9/11 families’ lawsuit,” Julin said. “If Dan hadn’t done what he had done, they would have had their case dismissed.”
Why Would the FBI Hide This Information?
“There was a time when I began my career when I thought the FBI wouldn’t lie to its own people,” Christensen says. “I found out that they do. The sad thing is they don’t care what we think.”
The most generous explanation for withholding information is that there are geopolitical priorities at stake. Saudi Arabia is one of our closest allies in the Middle East. This argument makes the point that disrupting our relationship with the Saudis would destabilize an already volatile region. (For many people, that’s a tough argument to make since the U.S. went on to invade, occupy and destabilize Afghanistan and Iraq, two of Saudi Arabia’s neighboring adversaries.)
Attorney Julin thinks the geopolitical argument is plausible. “It always looks like a deliberate attempt to avoid producing any documents that would point fingers at the Saudi government and royal families as having supported the 9/11 attacks,” Julin says. “My own feeling is the U.S. government doesn’t want to implicate the Saudi government because of the jeopardy that would cause to our essential relationship with them.”
Swan and Summers don’t believe there is some great conspiracy hiding an evil deed. “Rather, there are other reasons for keeping quiet,” Swan explains. “There are legitimate national security reasons for withholding information, there are mistakes and ‘cover-their-ass syndrome,’ or perhaps the right questions aren’t being asked.”
“I don’t want to speculate, man,” Christensen told me. He did say Sen. Graham would always refer to the Saudis as “our perfidious ally,” and he agreed with that description. Christensen wonders why America would be geopolitically aligned with a totalitarian government. “Something’s amiss there,” he says. “I’ve talked to a number of 9/11 family members and survivors and one of the things that bothers them most is when they go to court, the government, our government, is sitting on the Saudi side opposing them. Opposing their own citizens who were murdered. I can understand why it bothers them. It bothers me.”
On Sept. 3, President Biden followed through with a campaign promise to the 9/11 families and issued an executive order calling on the FBI to make public government investigations into the 9/11 attacks. “The president’s order was a remarkable about-face on the government’s position,” Christensen says, since the effort to keep the truth under wraps has been a 20-year bipartisan effort.
The Bush administration initially redacted many documents and was deeply secretive about 9/11. President Obama attempted to veto the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, the law that redefined sovereign immunity and allowed civil suits to be filed against foreign countries. Obama also dragged his feet and only released promised information at the tail end of his second term in office. President Trump promised to release documents pertaining to the 9/11 families’ court case, but instead his Justice Department broadly invoked the “state secrets privilege” and blocked the families’ access—although it did provide the documents to the Saudi legal defense team.
“As they say, the proof will be in the pudding,” Christensen says of the release of the 16-page report coming on Saturday, Sept. 11. The documents will only release what has been discovered in Southern California, but they could also help to uncover the Sarasota connections. Christensen thinks that if the report implicates Saudi Arabia—and if the courts reject the Saudi lawyers’ motion to dismiss the 9/11 families’ lawsuits—that will open up discovery to look at what happened in Florida. While we might never get the whole truth about what happened in Sarasota, Christensen is confident we will find out more.
Modern State of Distrust
In spite of Biden’s call for the release of more information, there is still a long way to go to win back the confidence of a wary American public. Without faith in our government, we’re all living in a culture of distrust that radiates beyond the truth about 9/11.
The 9/11 Commission bowed to the wishes of the FBI and kept Congress and the American people in the dark. “You would think that the FBI would not have Congress in its thrall here, but they did,” Christensen says. “Congress was not allowed to release part of its own report because of FBI objections that were put in place at the outset because the FBI said they wouldn’t share certain information with Congress if they didn’t agree to its conditions. Isn’t that something that’s turned ass backwards here? Shouldn’t Congress be the supreme authority when it came to dealing with the FBI?”
The cure for what ails us? A radical openness.
“As much transparency as humanly possible,” Swan says.
But what happens if all the documents are released? What are the consequences if we prove that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia provided direct support to al Qaeda and helped orchestrate the 9/11 attacks? What does it mean if our government has spent 20 years protecting this ally? Would the Middle East become further destabilized? Would the American people revolt? I wonder what’s worse: an incompetent national security institution that is incapable of protecting its own people, or a nefarious establishment that serves other masters.
Julin told me that Sen. Graham had given careful consideration to this.
“Graham’s position was always to be more trusting of the judgment of the public than solely relying on who was in charge of the White House," he says. "The greater risk of harm to the U.S. and world was to continue to conceal what actually happened here."