Washington, Oct. 3: A senior Saudi Arabian official, now minister for the holy places, stayed at the same hotel as three September 11 hijackers the night before the suicide attacks.
American investigators are trying to make sense of the disclosure that Saleh Ibn Abdul Rahman al-Hussayen, who returned to Saudi Arabia shortly after the attacks, stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn in Herndon, Virginia.
Three of the attackers stayed at the hotel that night and crashed a plane into the Pentagon the following day.
His nephew’s American lawyer, David Nevin, denied any sinister aspects to the older man’s travels.
Nevin told The Washington Post that the Saudi minister was a backer of Saudi charities abroad and said his visit to the US was “utterly and completely innocuous and without connection to anything improper”.
The hotel is close to several Islamic foundations which he planned to visit.
Hussayen became president of the affairs of the Holy Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, the two most sacred sites in Islam, five months after the attacks.
Sources said he was already a prominent figure in the world of Saudi-funded charities.
An extended business trip taken by Hussayen in the US and Canada in the run-up to the attacks is under scrutiny by agents and prosecutors nationwide.
Hussayen was interviewed by FBI agents who went to the hotel after the attacks. According to allegations in an FBI file, he “feigned a seizure, prompting the agents to take him to a hospital, where the attending physicians found nothing wrong with him”.
FBI agents recommended that the Saudi should not be allowed to leave until he was questioned further, but as soon as flights resumed on September 19, Hussayen and his wife flew home.
He is not now suspected of breaking any laws and there is no evidence that he met the hijackers at the Virginia hotel.
But investigators are pooling what they know about his trip to North America, during which he allegedly visited or contacted several Saudi-sponsored charities now accused of links to terrorist groups. There is no suggestion that he knew of any such links.
US prosecutors say Hussayen was a financial backer of a Michigan-based group, the Islamic Assembly of North America, which is accused of disseminating the teachings of two Saudi clerics who advocate violence against the US.
His nephew, Sami Omar Hussayen, a computer student, is in federal detention in Idaho on charges of visa fraud, accused of failing to disclose his role as an internet webmaster for IANA.
US court filings say the younger Hussayen administered an internet site for IANA that expressly advocated suicide attacks and using airliners as weapons.
IANA received about £2 million from abroad since 1995, court papers allege, including about £60,000 from Saleh al-Hussayen.
Saudi envoys confirmed Hussayen’s high rank to reporters this week and told The Wall Street Journal that they were willing to make him available to the justice department.
That offer was welcomed yesterday by Kim Lindquist, a US assistant attorney working on the federal prosecution of the younger Hussayen in Boise, Idaho.
Lindquist said: “We’re investigating the IANA. We have the money flowing to the IANA through the nephew from the uncle. We have the uncle visiting the US just prior to September 11, and upon his return to the East Coast he’s in the same hotel as the hijackers. According to FBI agents he feigns a seizure. It is something that we cannot ignore.”
Lindquist said he was unwilling to “take the extra step” of linking Saudi officials to the September 11 hijackings.
“But it raises the eyebrows,” he said.
His journeys and contacts are seen as a “road map” of how Saudi money has poured into the US in support of Wahhabism, the puritanical and intolerant form of Islam backed by the Saudi royal family.