WASHINGTON — In highly unusual testimony inside the federal supermax prison, a former operative for Al Qaeda has described prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family as major donors to the terrorist network in the late 1990s and claimed that he discussed a plan to shoot down Air Force One with a Stinger missile with a staff member at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
The Qaeda member, Zacarias Moussaoui, wrote last year to Judge George B. Daniels of United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, who is presiding over a lawsuit filed against Saudi Arabia by relatives of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He said he wanted to testify in the case, and after lengthy negotiations with Justice Department officials and the federal Bureau of Prisons, a team of lawyers was permitted to enter the prison and question him for two days last October.
In a statement Monday night, the Saudi Embassy said that the national Sept. 11 commission had rejected allegations that the Saudi government or Saudi officials had funded Al Qaeda.
“Moussaoui is a deranged criminal whose own lawyers presented evidence that he was mentally incompetent,” the statement said. “His words have no credibility.”
Mr. Moussaoui received a diagnosis of mental illness by a psychologist who testified on his behalf, but he was found competent to stand trial on terrorism charges. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 and is held in the most secure prison in the federal system, in Florence, Colo. Mr. Moussaoui’s accusations could not be verified.
The allegations from Mr. Moussaoui come at a sensitive time in Saudi-American relations, less than two weeks after the death of the country’s longtime monarch, King Abdullah, and the succession of a half-brother, King Salman.
There has often been tension between Saudi leaders and the Obama administration since the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the efforts to manage the region’s resulting turmoil. Mr. Moussaoui describes meeting in Saudi Arabia with Salman, then a prince, and other Saudi royals while delivering them letters from Osama bin Laden.
There has long been evidence that wealthy Saudis provided support for bin Laden, the son of a Saudi construction magnate, and Al Qaeda before the 2001 attacks. Saudi Arabia had worked closely with the United States to finance Islamic militants fighting the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and Al Qaeda drew its members from those militant fighters.
From left, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Prince Turki al-Faisal and Prince al-Waleed bin Talal were all said to be on a list of donors to Al Qaeda.
From left, Hassan Ammar / Associated Press; Mandel Ngan / Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; Jasper Juinen / Getty Images
But the extent and nature of Saudi involvement in Al Qaeda, and whether it extended to the planning and financing of the Sept. 11 attacks, has long been a subject of dispute.
Mr. Moussaoui’s testimony, if judged credible, provides new details of the extent and nature of that support in the pre-9/11 period. In more than 100 pages of testimony, filed in federal court in New York on Monday, he comes across as calm and largely coherent, though the plaintiffs’ lawyers questioning him do not challenge his statements.
“My impression was that he was of completely sound mind — focused and thoughtful,” said Sean P. Carter, a Philadelphia lawyer with Cozen O’Connor who participated in the deposition on behalf of the plaintiffs. He said that the lawyers needed to get a special exemption from the “special administrative measures” that keep many convicted terrorists in federal prisons from communicating with outsiders.
The French-born Mr. Moussaoui was detained weeks before Sept. 11 on immigration charges in Minnesota, so he was incarcerated at the time of the attacks. Earlier in 2001, he had taken flying lessons and was wired $14,000 by a Qaeda cell in Germany, evidence that he might have been preparing to become one of the hijackers.
He said in the prison deposition that he was directed in 1998 or 1999 by Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to create a digital database of donors to the group. Among those he said he recalled listing in the database were Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States; Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire investor; and many of the country’s leading clerics.
“Sheikh Osama wanted to keep a record who give money,” he said in imperfect English — “who is to be listened to or who contributed to the jihad.”
Mr. Moussaoui said he acted as a courier for Bin Laden, carrying personal messages to prominent Saudi princes and clerics. And he described his training in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
He helped conduct a trial explosion of a 750-kilogram bomb as a trial run for a planned truck-bomb attack on the American Embassy in London, he said, using the same weapon used in the Qaeda attacks in 1998 on the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He also studied the possibility of staging attacks with crop-dusting aircraft.
In addition, Mr. Moussaoui said, “We talk about the feasibility of shooting Air Force One.”
Specifically, he said, he had met an official of the Islamic Affairs Department of the Saudi Embassy in Washington when the Saudi official visited Kandahar. “I was supposed to go to Washington and go with him” to “find a location where it may be suitable to launch a Stinger attack and then, after, be able to escape,” he said.
He said he was arrested before being able to carry out the reconnaissance mission.
Mr. Moussaoui’s behavior at his trial in 2006 was sometimes erratic. He tried to fire his own lawyers, who presented evidence that he suffered from serious mental illness. But Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who presided, declared that she was “fully satisfied that Mr. Moussaoui is completely competent” and called him “an extremely intelligent man.”
“He has actually a better understanding of the legal system than some lawyers I’ve seen in court,” she said.
Also filed on Monday in the survivors’ lawsuit were affidavits from former Senators Bob Graham of Florida and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and the former Navy secretary John Lehman, arguing that more investigation was needed into Saudi ties to the 9/11 plot. Mr. Graham was co-chairman of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the attacks, and Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Lehman served on the 9/11 Commission.
“I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia,” wrote Mr. Graham, who has long demanded the release of 28 pages of the congressional report on the attacks that explore Saudi connections and remain classified.
Mr. Kerrey said in the affidavit that it was “fundamentally inaccurate and misleading” to argue, as lawyers for Saudi Arabia have, that the 9/11 Commission exonerated the Saudi government.
The three former officials’ statements did not address Mr. Moussaoui’s testimony.
The 9/11 lawsuit was initially filed in 2002 but has faced years of legal obstacles. It was dismissed in 2005 on the grounds that Saudi Arabia enjoyed “sovereign immunity,” and the dismissal was upheld on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
But the same appellate court later reversed itself, ordering that the lawsuit be reinstated. The Saudi government appealed to the Supreme Court, but it declined to hear the case, so it was sent back to Federal District Court in Manhattan. The filing on Monday was in opposition to the latest motion by Saudi Arabia to have the case dismissed.
Mr. Carter, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said that he and his colleagues hoped to return to the Colorado prison to conduct additional questioning of Mr. Moussaoui and that they had been told by prison officials that they would be allowed to do so. “We are confident he has more to say,” Mr. Carter said.
Correction: February 4, 2015
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the title of King Salman of Saudi Arabia when Zacarias Moussaoui alleges he met with Salman in Saudi Arabia before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Salman was a prince, he was not the crown prince. (He became the crown prince in 2012.)
Moussaoui Calls Saudi Princes Patrons of Al Qaeda – NYTimes.com.