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Bin Laden Family

Bin Laden Family Allowed to Fly Home Shortly After 9/11

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Author(s): Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, Date: September 20, 2001
Page: A29, Section: National/Foreign

Boston-area relatives of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born terrorist who stands accused of masterminding last week's suicide hijackings, flew back to Saudi Arabia in the last two days because of concerns for their safety, according to the Saudi government.

Dozens of Saudi citizens were flown back to Saudi Arabia at their government's expense, while the bin Ladens are believed to have paid their own way, according to a Saudi diplomat. All of those who took up the Saudi government's offer to fly home were reportedly questioned by the FBI before being allowed to board the flights. A Saudi diplomat told The Boston Globe that the relatives of bin Laden had been advised by both the Saudi government and the FBI to return to Saudi Arabia at least temporarily for their own safety.

All of Osama bin Laden's relatives, members of one of Saudi Arabia's richest families, have publicly disowned him and renounced his extremist views and his Al Qaeda terror organization, which advocates the killing of Americans in a jihad, or holy war.

In Washington last night, an FBI spokesman refused to confirm or deny that the FBI approved the Saudi government's repatriation program or had advised the bin Ladens to return to Saudi Arabia. Nor would the spokesman say if the FBI was interviewing anyone who took part in it to rule them out as suspects in the biggest criminal investigation in US history.

Special Agent Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the Boston FBI office, also declined to comment.

It was unclear how many members of bin Laden's family flew home over the last two days, but aviation sources said a flight that left Logan on Tuesday night contained only five passengers, all of whom were said to be members of bin Laden's family.

A Saudi government spokesman said the plane used by the bin Ladens was privately chartered by the family. Sources familiar with that plane said it was a Boeing 727 that had been reconfigured so that it had only about 30 first-class seats.

A second flight, paid for by the Saudi government, was scheduled to depart Logan last night, after making stops in other cities, including Los Angeles and Orlando.

A Saudi government spokesman said that, as of yesterday afternoon, more than 20 Saudi citizens had accepted the offer for a free trip home, but he said the number could grow. A source at Logan said that the FBI was "all over these planes" prior to takeoff, but the Saudi government said no one has been refused permission by the FBI to return to Saudi Arabia.

While the FBI has repeatedly searched Flagship Wharf, the Charlestown condominium complex where one of bin Laden's brothers, Mohammaed, owns six luxury apartments, and where some of the relatives live, a Saudi diplomat yesterday said there is no indication that bin Laden's relatives are considered suspects.

The diplomat, who spoke from the Saudi Embassy in Washington on the condition he was not named, said the FBI would not have allowed the relatives to leave the United States if there was any evidence that would link them to the plot.

Barry Scheer, a lawyer for Mohammaed M. bin Laden, said he does not know how many members of the family left the Boston area.

Osama bin Laden has 51 siblings and is the scion of a large, wealthy family whose father was a favored contractor for the Saudi royal family. Several of Osama's relatives have resided on and off in Boston during the past decade.

After Osama bin Laden was implicated last year in the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen that left 17 sailors dead, the FBI searched some of Mohammaed M. bin Laden's condo units at Flagship Wharf. After last Tuesday's suicide hijackings, the FBI returned to the Charlestown complex, and began asking questions about the relatives.

A Saudi government spokesman said the FBI interest in the bin Laden relatives was "routine," and was aimed at ruling them out as suspects rather than the product of any evidence suggesting their involvement.

Another brother of bin Laden, Abdullah M. bin Laden, is a 1994 graduate of Harvard Law School and lives in Cambridge. He did not return telephone messages left at his home.

There are several bin Laden relatives attending college in Boston and other parts of New England. Earlier this week, Faisal bin Laden, Osama bin Laden's nephew, left the University of New Hampshire, where he is a freshman. But he told friends he planned to return to the Durham campus, sources said.

The Saudi government is worried about an anti-Arab backlash against its citizens. Those concerns are heightened because many of the 19 hijackers used either Saudi passports or affiliations with the Saudi national airline, Saudi Arabian Airlines, to gain entry to the United States and access to the flight schools.

The Saudi government, one of the staunchest Arab allies of the United States, stopped sending its citizens to the United States for medical treatment after last week's attack. One diplomat said a Saudi citizen with the same name as one of the hijackers called him in tears from his hospital bed yesterday, saying he feared for his life.

"It's terribly sad," the diplomat said.

The Saudi diplomat said his government had advised Saudi citizens, including some 3,000 students attending universities and medical schools around the United States, to be vigilant against possible retaliatory violence.

A 20-year-old Saudi man who is studying at Boston University was stabbed early Sunday morning outside a Back Bay nightclub, Club Nicole, at the Back Bay Hilton. His wounds were not life-threatening, police said. Police are trying to determine whether the attack was motivated because of the victim's nationality.

The Saudi diplomat said that while his government and the FBI had advised the bin Ladens to return home for their safety, they had not recommended that other Saudis return home.

"We have advised our citizens to be careful, but to go on with their lives," he said. "We told them to use common sense, to avoid bars. Don't go to areas where people might get rowdy."

He said the Boston knife attack was the only case the embassy knows of violence directed at Saudis, but there have been reports of verbal assaults across the nation.

In addition, the Saudi diplomat said three Saudi citizens were briefly detained last week after a high-profile storming of a hotel room at the Copley Place Westin Hotel. He said police went to the hotel after one of the Saudis used a credit card to rent a car at the hotel. The name on the card was Attar, which was similar to the name of Mohamed Atta, the man who authorities believe was the ringleader of the Boston hijackers.

The three Saudis, who were released after the FBI interviewed them, have retained a lawyer and are well-connected: They are relatives of the Saudi health minister and the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, according to a Saudi diplomat.

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