Proposed legislation would allow 9/11 families to sue alleged Saudi financiers of attacks

For the cover of our Sept. 8 issue, we profiled Bill Doyle, a Central Florida retiree and one of the lead plaintiffs in the trillion-dollar “9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism” lawsuit. When the suit was first announced in 2002, it made headlines not only for its price tag and its thousands of plaintiffs (6,706, when we last checked), but by naming three prominent Saudi Arabian princes—including the former director of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud—as defendants. The suit alleged that Prince Turki in particular had “provided al Qaeda and the Taliban with generous financial assistance in exchange for a pledge by bin Laden and the Taliban that al Qaeda would not attack the Saudi royal family.” (These allegations are elaborated upon in our article, as well as this piece in the August issue of Vanity Fair.) In 2009, however, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, affirming a lower court’s decision to dismiss the families’ charges against Turki and two other Saudi princes, given that they are protected from standing trial in U.S. courts under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). That could change soon. New York Senator Charles Schumer—a friend of Doyle’sintroduced a bill last week called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which could allow the suit to re-introduce Saudi royalty and government officials as defendants in the case. (Jodi Flowers, one of the lead attorneys on the 9/11 lawsuit, told the Weekly today that her firm is “in the process of analyzing that possibility.”) According to New York radio station WYNC, the bill would work by clarifying the limits of the FSIA.

There are two exceptions to a state’s immunity under FSIA: if a country falls under the State Department’s designated list of state sponsors of terror, which Saudi Arabia is not among (Iran, Cuba, Syria and Sudan are the four on the list), or when a state commits a non-commercial tort, in other words they injure or do damage non-commercially.

The bill would make clear that FSIA tort exception applies to acts of terror in the U.S. and establish a 15-year statue of limitation under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which currently has a limit of four years.

In addition to Schumer’s proposed bill, the New York Times reported last Friday on a recent ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which “gave a green light to a lawsuit seeking to hold Afghanistan financially liable for the attacks because of that country’s role as a training ground for Al Qaeda.” The precedent set by this ruling, the story suggested, gives “victims perhaps their best chance in the 10 years since the attacks to press lawsuits against Saudi Arabia and other nations that they believe were financially complicit.”
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