WASHINGTON - More than 600 families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 filed a lawsuit yesterday against three Saudi princes, seven international banks, the government of Sudan and eight Islamic charities for allegedly supporting terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.
The suit, which seeks "hundreds of billions" of dollars in damages, claims, "These entities, cloaked in a thin veil of legitimacy, were and are the true enablers of terrorism."
It was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington. To date, the record for damages is the settlement agreed to by tobacco companies in 1998, worth $206 billion in the first 25 years.
Yesterday's legal action, loosely modeled after a suit against Libyan government agencies for their alleged role in the 1988 Pan Am 103 disaster, is intended to punish the Sept. 11 attacks' backers, the plaintiffs said.
"We will move terrorist financing schemes out of the shadows and into the light of the day," said lead plaintiff Thomas Burnett of Bloomington, Minn., whose son, Thomas Burnett Jr., died when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.
"As my son, Tom, told his wife, Deena, from the cabin of Flight 93, `We're going to do something,'" Burnett declared at an emotional news conference called to announce the suit.
"Today, we're going to do something."
The complaint, based on information from an investigative team paid for by the plaintiffs, names three prominent members of the Saudi royal family: Princes Turki al Faisal al Saud, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud and Mohammed al Faisal al Saud. It alleges Prince Sultan, the Saudi minister of defense and aviation, has donated at least $6 million since 1994 to four Islamic charities that allegedly supported al-Qaida.
The suit also alleges Turki al Faisal al Saud, a former Saudi intelligence chief, worked against the proposed extradition of bin Laden and other al-Qaida members from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia in 1998. In return, the suit alleges, bin Laden agreed not to try to undermine the Saudi government.
Ronald Motley of Mount Pleasant, S.C., lead attorney in the case, said he had "every reason to believe that the defendants ... are still funneling, laundering and sending money to al-Qaida."
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, Tariq Allagany, said the kingdom's lawyers had just begun to study the suit and would have no immediate comment.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudi nationals, and in recent months some unnamed officials have been critical of the extent of Saudi cooperation in counterterrorism initiatives. Last month, a briefing by the private RAND Corp. claimed Saudis were involved at "every level of the terror chain."
Bush administration officials have insisted the Persian Gulf kingdom remains a stout U.S. ally against terrorism. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker reiterated that view when asked about the suit.
"We've been fully and very satisfied with the support we've gotten from Saudi Arabia in the many aspects of this war against terrorism," Reeker said. He also noted, "American citizens have rights to take their own steps through our judicial system."
The case won't be an easy one to win, said David J. Garrow, a professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. He dubbed it "a significant long shot" and predicted the U.S. government would eventually move for the case's dismissal on grounds that it interferes with the government's right to conduct foreign policy.