The first lawsuit has been filed against Saudi Arabia for allegedly providing material support to Osama bin Laden and his team of terrorist hijackers prior to the 9/11 attacks. The filing comes days after Congress passed a law that allows US citizens to sue terror-supporting states.
Stephanie Ross DeSimone was pregnant with Navy Commander Patrick Dunn’s daughter when he was killed by American Airlines Flight 77, which was deliberately steered into the Pentagon building on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The hijackers at the wheel of that plane were Saudi nationals, as were 15 of the 19 who took control of the four planes, the crashing of which resulted in the deaths of almost 3,000 people in what remains the worst-ever terrorist attack on US soil.
DeSimone is suing Saudi Arabia for wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress, on behalf of herself and her now-teenaged child through a DC district court.
While DeSimone’s is nominally the first lawsuit filed, James Kreindler, a New York attorney who represents hundreds of victims’ families, which have attempted to gain compensation from Riyadh for over a decade, told the Wall Street Journal that his firm would also submit similar documents to a New York-based federal court by Monday at the latest.
The legal process has been made possible by a highly-controversial bill passed by both houses of Congress earlier this week.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) originally submitted in 2009, before being reintroduced last year, allows US citizens to sue not only states that are officially considered by the State Department to be State Sponsors of Terrorism – currently Sudan, Syria and Iran – but any government adjudged to have aided an attack, even if the country is an ally or an economic partner of the US.
Barack Obama vehemently opposed the bill, but his veto was overwhelmingly overruled in both chambers, thanks to a bipartisan effort from lawmakers – marking the first time in 12 occasions the current US President has had a veto overridden by Congress.
JASTA impinges on the long-standing principle of sovereign immunity, where states are protected from individual lawsuits in US courts. President Obama warned that the legislation could leave the United States vulnerable to retaliatory measures from countries all over the world, and accused Congress of pandering to popular opinion ahead of an election. Critics predict that JASTA could result in Washington having to defend itself from hundreds of lawsuits for controversial practices such as drone strikes all over world, to endangerment of US personnel and companies working abroad, and the worsening of ties with potential allies, which will now be subject to vagaries of legal systems all over the globe.
Saudi Arabia itself immediately expressed “great concern” about the bill and warned of “serious unintended consequences.” Indeed, Senate leader majority leader Mitch McConnell himself admitted on Thursday that “nobody had really focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships, and I think it was just a ball dropped,” and Congress has now said it could still dilute the contents of the bill, or restrict its scope.
Whether DeSimone and other victim families are likely to be successful is also not clear cut. A 2004 US report on the attacks “found no evidence that the Saudi government, as an institution, or senior officials within the Saudi government funded Al-Qaeda.” But classified US documents opened to public scrutiny this summer showed that “while in the United States, some of the 9/11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi government.” Even if top Saudi officials are implicated, it is also uncertain by what means Riyadh can be made to pay any damages.