This week, Saudi Arabia is trying out a fascinating new argument to avoid accountability for its role in the 9/11 attacks.
The argument boils down to this: If state sponsors of extremism are punished for their actions, this will produce more extremism.
This novel claim comes after both houses of Congress unanimously passed a new bill called the Justice Against Foreign Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) last Friday. As the name suggests, the purpose of JASTA is to allow the victims of terrorism and their families to sue foreign governments that may have played a role in supporting terrorist attacks. Ordinarily, those governments would be protected from such suits by what is known as sovereign immunity; JASTA will narrow the circumstances in which sovereign immunity applies.
The most immediate effect of the legislation would be to allow victims of 9/11 another chance to sue Saudi Arabia for its involvement. Victims have attempted to sue the Saudi government before, but sovereign immunity provisions got in the way. Once that barrier is removed by JASTA, it is likely that the victims would prevail in a lawsuit against the Saudi government.
Naturally, the Saudi government has a strong interest in avoiding this outcome, and they are pulling out all the stops. Earlier this year, they threatened to sell off their holdings of US assets and government debt, which could destabilize bond markets around the world. Now, they are trying to play the terrorism card.
The new narrative was offered by a high-ranking Saudi official, Abdullah Al al-Sheikh in comments to a Saudi state news agency (emphasis added):
[JASTA risks] triggering chaos and instability in international relations and might contribute to supporting extremism, which is under intellectual siege, as the new legislation offers extremists a new pretext to lure youths to their extremist thoughts.
It is difficult to overstate how ridiculous this argument is.
First, extremists are usually defined by their use of violence, not their use of lawyers.
Moreover, it is nearly impossible to imagine a causal relationship whereby suing Saudi Arabia would increase the spread of violent extremism. But it is very easy to see how holding Saudi Arabia accountable is likely to reduce the prevalence of extremism.
Today, Saudi Arabia is one of the leading sponsors of extremist movements. We know this from many different sources. Perhaps the most telling citation is that the late Saudi foreign minister actually admitted to US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 that the Saudis were supporting ISIS. To the Saudis, this wasn’t about terrorism, it was about the regional rivalry with Iran. But the end result looks the same.
Saudi policy also contributes to extremism in more indirect ways. The ongoing Yemen War is a perfect example of this. In that conflict, Saudi Arabia is fighting the Houthis, who also happen to be the strongest opponents of ISIS and Al Qaeda in the region. By attacking the Houthis, the Saudis, with US backing, are effectively fighting on the same side as ISIS and Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Here are just two cases where it is clear that a 9/11 lawsuit against Saudi Arabia could improve matters considerably. Supporting terrorist groups and bombing a foreign country both take substantial financial resources. And with oil prices as low as they are, the Saudis are no longer immune to budgetary considerations. If the 9/11 lawsuit resulted in significant financial damages, this could reduce the amount of funds the Saudis have available for their more nefarious actions of late.
More importantly, the 9/11 lawsuits could bring a new public awareness about Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks. This could erode the US-Saudi relationship, and possibly cause the US government to reconsider its current policy of unconditional support. This might mean withdrawing support for the War in Yemen or blocking future US arms sales to the country. There have already been small pushes in Congress to question US support for Saudi Arabia. Imagine how much more compelling these arguments could be if everyday Americans knew that Saudi intelligence agents were paying the 9/11 hijackers.
In the end, it is somewhat surprising that Saudi Arabia would advance such an outlandish claim as the one above. As a leading sponsor of extremist movements, they ought to know perfectly well what contributes to the spread of extremism. But at least for now, they are pretending otherwise.