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The mystery surrounding 28 pages said to show links between 9/11 plotters and Saudi Arabia

One of the redacted pages in the "Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of Sept. 11, 2001" report, photographed in Washington on July 1. (J. David Ake/AP)

What is the official line on the Saudi role in the 9/11 attacks?

Of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks, 15 were from Saudi Arabia. They were all affiliated with al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden, the scion of a wealthy and connected Saudi family. The Saudi royal family also has been accused of tolerating extremist clerics within the kingdom in exchange for domestic stability and political support.

After the attacks in 2001, these facts contributed to a widespread suspicion that Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally for 70 years, had somehow aided the plotters, possibly with financing. However, when the 9/11 Commission released its final report on the attacks in 2004, it suggested only that the Saudi government had "turned a blind eye" to charities that funded the attack but was not directly involved.

The report's conclusion has served as the official line on any allegations of a Saudi government link to the attacks: "Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials within the Saudi government funded al Qaeda."

What are the 28 pages?

The source of the new speculation about the alleged Saudi role in the attacks is a report that came out in 2002, two years before the 9/11 Commission released its findings. This report was the product of a bipartisan joint congressional inquiry into intelligence failures that led to the attacks.

And the problem isn't so much what the publicly released version of this report said. It was what it didn't say.

Under the orders of then-President George W. Bush, 28 pages of the joint inquiry's final 838-page report were classified. They sit under lock and key in a vault. According to multiple accounts from those who have seen the pages, they contain an entire section on the alleged links between Saudi officials and the 9/11 hijackers.

Of particular notoriety are the alleged links between two of the hijackers and a Saudi network that helped them when they arrived in California. These hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, could not speak English and may have been expected to struggle with adapting to American life. However, they arrived in California more than a year and a half before the attacks took place.

Some suspect that Hazmi and Mihdhar would have needed help in California. Authorities have investigated whether Fahad al-Thumairy, an official at the Saudi consular office in Los Angeles, could have been someone who provided help. The two hijackers may have worshiped at a mosque where Thumairy was an iman. What is clear is that they met with Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi working for the country's civil aviation authority in California, at a restaurant in L.A.

Bayoumi, who says his meeting with the two men was simply a coincidence, later helped the pair get acquainted with San Diego, and loaned money for an apartment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation suspects Bayoumi and Thumairy met shortly before this meeting. According to the Guardian, in a 2004 interrogation in Riyadh, Thumairy denied knowing Bayoumi. However, investigators later suggested he may have been lying — phone logs showed 21 calls between the two over two years.

The government gave several reasons for not releasing the 28 pages, including national security. At the time, Saudi officials were among those who called for those pages to be released. "Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide," the Saudi ambassador to the United States at the time, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, said in 2003. "We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages."

Why are these 28 pages still so controversial?

Over the years, there have been some who have suggested that the 28 pages weren't quite as scandalous as they were often presented — in fact, as the New Yorker's Lawrence Wright has reported, the 9/11 Commission report attempted to substantiate the allegations contained in those 28 pages and apparently failed.

Recently, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters that the allegations in the 28 pages had been investigated and found false. "There is no there there,” he said in June, while reiterating Saudi calls for their release.

Yet the controversy surrounding the pages has remained; in fact, some point toward the 9/11 Commission report's cautious wording on the alleged Saudi link as evidence of a coverup. Groups, including families of the attack victims, have repeatedly called on the government to release the 28 pages. These groups have gained the support of several members of Congress and U.S. officials — Obama is reported to have made a promise to the families of victims in 2008 and 2009.

The whole controversy has been brought back in a big way recently by a "60 Minutes" documentary that aired April 10 — about a week before Obama was due to visit Saudi Arabia. In the segment, correspondent Steve Kroft spoke to a number of members of the 9/11 Commission, who said they wanted the 28 pages released.

"We certainly didn't pursue the entire line of inquiry in regard to Saudi Arabia," former U.S. senator Bob Kerrey (D) told CBS.

What happens if the 28 pages are released?

It depends a lot on what is actually in these pages. If they really do contain some kind of smoking gun that links the Saudi government to the 9/11 plot, there could be a large public outcry.

There has long been skepticism among the U.S. public about their government's relationship with Saudi Arabia — survey research from Gallup suggests that more Americans have had an unfavorable view of the country than a positive one since 2002 — but the recent rise of the Islamic State, a group partially inspired by the radical Islam many Saudi clerics espouse, has thrown the relationship into an especially harsh light.

To add to this pressure, in April the Senate passed a bill that could make it easier for families of victims to sue the Saudi government for any link to the 9/11 plot, despite reports that the Saudi government would sell off U.S. investments if the bill passed.

However, it may be more likely that the pages might contain some theories and suggestions for ways that the Saudi government could be linked to the 9/11 plot, but no hard proof. The net result here would be murkier, but it seems unlikely that this would satisfy those who suspect a conspiracy.

Either way, their release comes at an important time. The United States is in the middle of a complicated and controversial election season. Trump has spoken in favor of releasing the 28 pages and hinted at Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks. "It’s sort of nice to know who your friends are and perhaps who your enemies are," the presumptive Republican candidate said in April. "You’re going to see some very revealing things released in those papers.”

Meanwhile, the Saudis are having their own succession drama. The 90-year-old King Abdullah died last year, to be replaced by his half-brother King Salman. But the 80-year-old Salman has switched up the line of succession, bringing his son Mohammed bin Salman closer to holding power, raising fears of a power struggle in the kingdom.

More on WorldViews:

The facts — and a few myths — about Saudi Arabia and human rights

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic military alliance’ against terrorism makes no sense

What Saudi Arabia is (and isn’t) doing in the fight against the Islamic State