MANHATTAN (CN) – Saudi Arabia’s ties to the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history came under federal court scrutiny Wednesday, as a federal judge allowed 9/11 families to look into the kingdom’s ties to two men linked to the hijackers.
The watershed ruling marks the first time 9/11 survivors and families of the victims have been able to force an examination of the Saudi government’s role in the attacks.
Although 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, the kingdom had a shield of immunity from lawsuits until Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act two years ago.
That landmark legislation paved the way for Wednesday’s decision, which attorney Steven Pounian heralded as “a major victory for the families.”
“It’s the first case under the new legislation and it opens the door for the first time for the families to move forward in their case,” Pounian said in a phone interview.
For widow Terry Strada, whose bond-broker husband died while working for Cantor Fitzgerald inside the World Trade Center, the news of the ruling moved her to “tears of joy.”
“I’ve never had that experience in my life ever,” Strada said in a phone interview.
The national chair of the umbrella group 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, Strada has been fighting to probe Saudi ties to the attacks since a year after they happened. She said that she pushed members of Congress for four years to pass the law that took away the kingdom’s shield.
“Wow, JASTA works,” Strada said, referring to the law’s acronym.
With Wednesday’s ruling, Strada and other family members will have the opportunity to investigate two Saudi-linked men: reputed intelligence officer Omar al-Bayoumi and former consular official Fahad al-Thumairy.
Both men loom large in the 9/11 Commission Report’s declassified 28 pages, which show their contacts with hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.
Although the authors of that report stopped short of finding Saudi complicity, the 9/11 families argue new documents make these connections stronger.
The documents persuaded U.S. Judge George Daniels that the families had amassed enough evidence to move the case forward.
“Neither the 9/11 Commission Report, nor any other governmental report, adequately and specifically refutes plaintiffs’ allegations,” he wrote in a 41-page ruling.
Attorneys for Saudi Arabia did not immediately respond to telephone and email requests for comment, and it is unclear whether the kingdom will appeal.
If not, the families’ attorney Pounian said he will move ahead in seeking depositions and documents to help build their case.
His client Strada added that her phone has been ringing off the hook with other 9/11 family members excited about the road ahead, and the green light from the judge flooded her mind with memories of her late husband.
“It’s all about my husband and the battle for the justice for the truth for accountability,” she said.
In a statement, Strada’s advocacy group celebrated the ruling as an end to impunity.
“Instead of dealing with this issue honestly and confronting the compelling evidence the 9/11 families have amassed, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has paid an army of lawyers and lobbyists a fortune to help them duck, dodge and distract,” the group said.
“We are grateful that a federal court has listened to our case, upheld the constitutionality of JASTA and allowed our efforts to move forward,” they added.