The people versus al-Qaeda
Story by Deborah Scroggins
9 October 2004
The Sunday Times Magazine
The lush green island of Kiawah, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, appears the perfect haven from America’s terrorist fears. On Kiawah’s white sand beaches, tourists drowse, forgetful of a Middle East they wish would forget them – even though Kiawah was created as a golf resort by Kuwaiti investors in the 1970s. What few visitors guess, though, is the role one of the island’s biggest and most heavily guarded mansions is playing in America’s war on terror.
This is the home of Ronald L. Motley, the trial lawyer who took on the American tobacco and asbestos industries and won. Now Motley is the self-styled general of a civilian army engaged in trying to bankrupt the people he believes are al-Qaeda’s financial backers. His 1675-square-metre Kiawah palazzo has become the unofficial headquarters for a multi-trillion-dollar civil suit accusing 200 defendants, including members of the extended Saudi royal family, several Arab petro-billionaires, some of the Middle East’s largest banks and charities, and the government of Sudan, with indirectly funding – even aiding and abetting – the September 11 attacks on Washington, DC, and New York City.
Although his law firm maintains a sleek glass office building just outside Charleston, Motley says he has been advised to stick to Kiawah for his own safety. A 160-kilogram bodyguard and the local police keep watch as a daily stream of lawyers, paralegals and detectives flows through the electronic gates of his estate, bearing boxfuls of court documents, bank statements, memos, photocopied cheques, hotel receipts, letters, notes; all in a babble of languages and sometimes marked “classified” or “confidential”.
“We do know that our phones have been tapped,” Motley drawls when asked about
the security measures. “We have to assume that everything we do in the office is going to end up in the hands of the enemy. But at Kiawah,” he adds, only half-jokingly, “the only way they can get me is to come by sea.”
Because of its size, complexity and potential for igniting international political explosions, this case is already creating drama. It has been filed in the individual names of the immediate family members of the September 11 victims and is named alphabetically after the first plaintiff, Thomas Burnett snr, whose son was one of those who fought the hijackers of United Airlines flight 93 in the final minutes of its flight over rural Pennsylvania.The plaintiffs call themselves “9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism”, and theirs is the largest in a flotilla of September 11-related civil complaints now anchored together in front of a federal judge in New York.
This particular claim charges some of the pillars of Saudi Arabia’s establishment with providing the money and material support that made the attacks possible. And it is well on the way to becoming the single biggest civil action in history. “Terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network do not exist in a vacuum,” the claim asserts. “They cannot plan, train and act on a massive scale without significant financial power, co-ordination and backing. Defendants herein, some of whom act in the shadows, are ultimately responsible for the damages caused by the actions of their terrorist agents and clients.”
Some lawyers and journalists call the families’ case quixotic. But Motley has been compared to Don Quixote before and, until now, he has mostly had the last laugh. In a career that has transformed this son of a petrol-station owner into an extraordinarily wealthy man, he tilted first at America’s asbestos industry and then at its cigarette manufacturers. Other lawyers said he was crazy to gamble millions of his firm’s hours and resources on what looked like lost causes.
But in the end, Motley won, forcing asbestos companies to settle for billions. And he secured a record-breaking $US246 billion settlement in 1998 from cigarette companies on behalf of several states who argued that they had been forced to pick up the medical bill for tobacco addiction. Still, even Motley admits that the September 11 suit makes all his earlier battles look like child’s play.
“This is the most intellectually and socially challenging case I’ve ever worked on,” he says. It may also be the most personally wrenching. The attacks took place when Motley was emotionally vulnerable. His 26-year-old son had died the year before and his third marriage had collapsed. He’s on his own out there at Kiawah, and friends say he is investing as much emotion as he is money in the case.
In the two years since the suit was filed, Motley and his firm, Motley Rice, have already spent more on their own private investigation of radical Islamist financing than the $15 million budgeted by the US Congress for the official 9/11 commission. They continue to spend at a rate of about $500,000 a month, excluding lawyers’ salaries. If the case goes forward – and it is a big “if” – it promises to expose sensitive information that could damage Saudi Arabia’s already tenuous relationship with the US and embarrass President George W. Bush and top officials in his Administration, partly because the depth and longevity of Washington’s links to the House of Saud could be an unpleasant surprise to the public in both countries, and partly because the Bush Government fears that the suit could further destabilise a crucial Middle Eastern ally.
America’s allies could find their trading relations with the oil-rich kingdom poisoned in the case of a judgement that ordered them to seize Saudi assets for a damages payout. In opening this Pandora’s box, critics say Motley threatens to finish off Osama bin Laden’s work and to disrupt the supply of cheap Gulf oil on which the world economy depends.
Motley’s case has outraged public opinion in the Arab kingdom, where the House of Saud flatly denies its allegations. When the suit was filed in August 2002, the influential daily Al-Riyadh thundered: “If America wants to open up the issue of compensation for those who died in the two towers, it must agree to the establishment of an international court that will examine [its own] war crimes, plundering, coups, what American intelligence did with drug barons, the policy of abductions and murder, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the claims still pending regarding the black slave trade, and the deliberate annihilation of the Indians – and apply this to all countries, without statute of limitations so that we feel we live on one planet that functions according to the same moral principle.” The dollar immediately dipped against the euro after the Financial Times reported that Saudis had moved $200 billion out of the US in reaction to the suit. (US Treasury figures suggest that the Saudis actually moved far less, but the damage to the dollar was done.)
The defendants, who include a virtual who’s who of fantastically rich Arabs, are sparing no expense to fight back against what they say is basically an anti-Muslim witch-hunt. They have secured a defence line-up of Washington’s top law firms, on retainers that reportedly start as high as $5 million. Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi minister of defence, hired Baker Botts, the Texas-based law firm whose partners include the former secretary of state and Bush family intimate James A. Baker, as well as the outgoing US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Jordan. Last November, Prince Sultan and Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain and former minister of intelligence, scored a victory when a US District Court judge dismissed the suit against them on the grounds that under international and US law the court lacked jurisdiction. Last August the same judge threw out about half of the charges against five other Saudi defendants for lack of evidence. Since then, the case has been removed to New York and consolidated with 26 other 9/11 civil suits before a new judge.
The house of Saud gained another advantage in July. The official 9/11 commission reported that although al-Qaeda had raised most of its money in the Gulf and particularly Saudi Arabia, they found “no evidence that any foreign government – or foreign government official – supplied any funding” for the September 11 plot. The commissioners added that they had been unable to determine the source of the $400,000 to $500,000 used to fund the attacks, and suggested that there was no point in trying to find out.
Motley dismisses the commission’s investigation as hopelessly superficial. “They had too little time, too little money and too broad a mandate to adequately investigate the financing of al-Qaeda. The full story is not out yet. We’re still in the process of finding it.”
He is known as a pitbull litigator who likes nothing better than to humiliate his corporate opponents before a jury. He wanted so badly to take before a jury the monster tobacco case he had been preparing for years that his partners have said they had to negotiate the famous 1998 out-of-court tobacco settlement behind his back.
After the settlement netted his company more than $2 billion, corporate America shivered in fear as the press speculated about whom he might go after next.
But a foray against the paint industry backfired. Critics accused Motley’s firm of colluding with Democratic politicians to squeeze money out of a dying sector. Then came September 11, 2001. Now Motley and his firm are betting their tobacco winnings to go after foreign targets whose existence they admit they’d never even suspected five years ago: the alleged financiers of terrorism.
To establish and run a sort of mini intelligence agency based in Switzerland, Motley has hired Jean-Charles Brisard, the French private investigator and co-author of Forbidden Truth: US-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy and the Failed Hunt for Bin Laden. Brisard and the book’s co-author, Guillaume Dasquié, have faced libel action in several countries and the book has been banned in Switzerland. American critics have ridiculed it for theorising that the Bush Administration may have provoked the September 11 attacks with its oil diplomacy. They also have accused Brisard himself of exaggerating his counter-terrorism credentials. That hasn’t stopped him and the rest of Motley’s team from assembling what they contend is a mountain of evidence against al-Qaeda’s alleged funders.
At the Motley Rice building on the Charles River, computer-data processors who jostle for space with translators of Arabic, Farsi and Urdu are busy converting the two million documents the firm’s investigators have already collected into digital format. They use a powerful computer program called Analyst’s Notebook to scan the digitised documents for hidden connections and links to suspected terrorist activity.
Reportedly, the US Government is using the same program for the same purpose. Unlike the Government, Motley says he plans to share what he finds with the public. “We believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant,” he says, leaning back behind a glossy oak desk in his vast office overlooking the river. Among mementos of his successes that he keeps there are an oil painting of his 47-metre yacht, the Themis, and a framed copy of the $15,220,250,000 cheque that he helped force tobacco firms write out to the state of Texas.
The families who have signed up for his current suit have been spurred on by the collapse of criminal prosecutions against al-Qaeda suspects in Germany, Italy, Indonesia and the US itself, where the biggest obstacle has been the Bush Administration’s refusal to let witnesses testify. In March, a German court released Mounir al-Motassadeq, the only man convicted of involvement in the attacks, after the Bush Government declined, on grounds of national security, to let captured suspects testify. Abdelghani Mzoudi was acquitted earlier this year for the same reason. The US prosecution of the alleged conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui has also stumbled because the Administration would not co-operate.
“At this point, not one single person has been held accountable in court for the death of my son and 3000 other people,” said Matthew Selitto, a retired New Jersey teacher whose son died in the World Trade Centre. “When we ask why, we get two words: national security. And that’s the end of the discussion. That’s not good enough for me.”
Seeking justice, the families turned to Motley and another fabled American lawyer, Allan Gerson. Legal costs are not an issue. With few caps on US civil-injury awards, American trial lawyers can – and do – earn up to 30 per cent of potentially unlimited damage awards, giving them an incentive to invest their own time and money in tort cases, as they’re known. And since the US has no “loser pays” rule, the families and their lawyers don’t run the risk of having to pay an opponent’s legal fees. Still, even in the US, only a handful of trial attorneys have the means to pay for
a worldwide investigation into terrorism.
Motley is one of them.
Motley’s legal claim to fame is to have virtually invented so-called “mass tort litigation”, in which thousands of claims against a group of defendants are bundled into a single high-stakes case. Motley came up with this strategy as he travelled across the south, representing ailing asbestos workers and smokers, in the 1980s. Defence lawyers say his innovation amounts to a form of blackmail in which potential damages are so high that targets dare not risk a verdict, no matter what the facts of the case. The fight over mass tort litigation has become an entrenched feature of American party politics, with the Republican Party and its corporate backers listing tort reform as one of their top priorities, while trial attorneys like Motley and his friend, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, have become some of the Democrats’ main funders.
Motley’s co-counsel in the 9/11 case, Allan Gerson, is a neo-conservative Republican who has made his own singular contribution to tort law. He crafted the legal strategy that, along with sanctions, eventually forced Libya to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of those killed in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. In the 1990s, he pushed the US Congress to pass legislation allowing the victims of terrorism to sue anyone who supports terrorism, even overseas. In the 9/11 case, he and Motley have combined their two specialties and political networks into a remarkable piece of fighting equipment. “Until this suit is finished,” Gerson predicts, “the Saudis will never have healthy relations with the US.”
Evidently the US Government fears he may be right. In 2002, there were hints that the Bush Administration was thinking about asking the courts to dismiss the case, on the grounds that it threatened national security and diplomatic relations. With the Administration anxiously seeking Saudi support for its proposed invasion of Iraq, Bush aides told reporters privately in November of that year that “this is not the time to jump up and down about Saudi Arabia”. But officials at the US Treasury and Justice departments disagreed, as did some members of Congress. And the September 11 families took out ads in newspapers, held vigils and generally put up such sustained opposition that Bush’s men were forced to retreat.
Can Motley spin the hearsay of intelligence reports into courtroom evidence? The burden of proof is not as great in civil as in criminal cases, but there is still reason to doubt that he will fare any better than the many prosecutors who have gone up against al-Qaeda since the September 11 attacks. The Bush Administration continues, for example, to block his requests to be allowed to question the FBI translator who says she has seen documents showing that Americans and others have been involved in laundering al-Qaeda money, or to subpoena the alleged September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other captives.
Nor has the Administration shared any of the hard evidence it claims to have about the assistance that individual Saudis and others are alleged to have provided to al-Qaeda. In Britain, the publications hauled into court to justify naming prominent Saudis accused of supporting terrorism have so far failed to do so, and the effort has cost them dearly. Africa Confidential, a private newsletter, spent more than £300,000 and six years defending an article reporting that one of the suspects in a 1995 assassination attempt against the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had claimed to work for the now-defunct Muwafaq charity.
In 2001, the newsletter was forced to apologise to the Saudi trustees of the charity.
Defence lawyers contend that Motley’s scattershot approach reflects his and his staff’s ignorance about the Middle East and Islam. The political trends and pathologies that led to al-Qaeda’s formation go far beyond the sinister conspiracy outlined in Motley’s complaint, they say. Motley admits he has no prior international legal experience, has never been to the region, and sometimes gets confused by the Arab names and aliases of the hundreds of defendants in the case. Even Gerson, an international lawyer and former diplomat, has said that he had never given any thought before September 11 as to who was behind bin Laden, or to the nature and structure of al-Qaeda.
When one of the families asked him to sue, he said his first question was: “Who’s the enemy?”
The defendants’ attorneys point out that nearly all the defendants are Muslim or Arab, although plenty of non-Muslim states, banks and individuals have done business with Islamist radicals over the years. “Why should my client be in the dock for [supposedly] giving Osama bin Laden money in the 1980s when the US Government did the same thing?” a lawyer representing a group of American Muslim defendants asked privately. Motley says he may well add more defendants, non-Muslim and Muslim, as the case unfolds.
“Be patient,” he says. “As our investigation unfolds, we will continue to add to the list.”
Jason McCue, the solicitor who represented the families of victims of the 1998 Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland in a civil action against the men they believe to be behind the attack, says perhaps the biggest benefit of cases like this is to warn anyone thinking of supporting terrorism that they could get locked into a hugely expensive class action. But Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who has testified before Congress about terrorism financing, cautions that Motley’s case could spawn a thousand new conspiracy theories as easily as it could cast light on new facts. “Investigations can obscure the truth as well as clarify it,” he points out.
He brought up the example of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney whose investigation of an alleged plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy emboldened conspiracy theorists around the world (including the director Oliver Stone, who made a Hollywood movie about it) even as experts debunked it.
Motley Rice and the 17 other plaintiffs’ firms in the case stand to receive 22 per cent of a settlement or 30 per cent of any damages award, if the case he is bringing is successful. But friends vehemently deny that money is Motley’s motive.
Pointing out that he is already extremely rich, they maintain he is driven by the righteous satisfaction of doing battle on behalf of the world’s most famous victims. “He just has an incredible desire and need to go after whoever he thinks are the bad guys,” says Mark Curriden, a lawyer and journalist who got to know Motley while covering the tobacco wars. Curriden says that Motley identifies so passionately with his clients that he almost seems to undergo a process of transference with each big case. Like a method actor, he draws on the experiences of his own life to share his clients’ pain and anger, and to convey it to a jury. During the tobacco wars, he wept with the families of dead smokers about his mother, a chain-smoker who died of emphysema. Now, with the September 11 families, he has shared his anguish over his son, who died four years ago after an operation to relieve epileptic seizures.
Many of the families see him as their last hope of uncovering who might have been behind the September 11 plot now that the official commission has finished its work. “Ron and his workers are the only people I think that truly care about finding out the truth,” says Joan Molinari tearfully. Her son Carl died in the twin towers. “He’s getting information that no one else has and he’s spending his own money to do it. Do I expect it to be resolved in my lifetime? No, I do not, and maybe not in Ron’s … But he’s not a quitter and he’s not going to let us down.”
Asked why he continues to pursue the case, Motley chooses his words with care. He says he considers it a civic obligation, and that, like his clients, he wants to dry up the flow of money that nourishes terrorism. But one senses that alongside outrage, the deepest drive of all may be his own insatiable desire to know what really happened: “Like any American, I was horrified by the events of September 11 and
I wanted to know, ‘Who did this?’” he says. “Now that I’m in a position to find out, by God, I’m going to find out … We’re going to spend whatever it takes to expose the people who funded bin Laden and al-Qaeda.”