FBI: Saudi Arabia helps citizens charged with crimes flee the U.S.
When traffic slowed his gold Lexus in Portland, Ore., Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah swerved into a center turn lane and accelerated to about 70 mph, according to a county prosecutor, almost triple the speed limit.
Fallon Smart, a 15-year-old high school student, was crossing the street to meet her mother that hot August afternoon in 2016. Noorah — a college student from Saudi Arabia — hit and killed her, said Shawn Overstreet, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney. Indicted on a manslaughter charge, the Portland Community College student, then 20, had to surrender his passport and wear a GPS tracking device under house arrest after the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles posted $100,000 bail.
But two weeks before his trial in 2017, Noorah vanished. Retracing his steps and viewing security camera video, police concluded that a black SUV had pulled up near his home. The GMC Yukon XL Denali, which police have not been able to trace, proceeded to a Portland sand-and-gravel yard where a sheriff’s deputy found Noorah’s severed ankle monitor.
Six days later, U.S. law enforcement officials would learn, Noorah turned up in Saudi Arabia, beyond their reach.
Saudi Arabia has long denied involvement in Noorah’s case and others that appear to be extractions, as clandestine removals are called. But in a document declassified and released on Friday, the FBI said that officials of the Persian Gulf nation “almost certainly” help their citizens accused of committing crimes, including manslaughter, rape and possession of child pornography, to flee the United States.
“The FBI based this assessment on the key assumption [that] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia officials perceive the embarrassment of Saudi citizens enduring the U.S. judicial process is greater than the embarrassment of the United States learning the KSA surreptitiously removes citizens with legal problems from the United States,” the FBI intelligence bulletin said.
The FBI heavily redacted the seven-page document, which the agency was made to declassify under a requirement that U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) inserted in an appropriations bill signed by President Trump Dec. 20. Wyden said in an interview that the findings “make it clear that the Saudis have been lying,” adding that, “if these are our friends, who needs enemies?”
Wyden said that as a member of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, he saw the classified, complete version of the FBI document months ago and resolved to force the agency to make it public. He said that unless the Trump administration pressures Saudi Arabia to end the practice of extraction, “it’s going to happen again and again.”
The FBI reached much the same conclusion. Its bulletin said that Saudi Arabian officials are “unlikely to alter their practice of assisting the flight of Saudi citizens in legal trouble from the United States” anytime soon, unless the U.S. government directly addresses the issue with its ally. The two nations do not have an extradition treaty.
A State Department spokesperson had no comment Saturday when asked to respond to calls by Wyden and fellow Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley for the agency to act. In an interview Saturday, Merkley criticized the department and Trump for failing to confront Saudi Arabia concerning extractions, and regarding the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate.
The two senators have worked for more than a year to expose Saudi Arabian involvement in the disappearance of its citizens, at times employing legislative guerrilla tactics. In the same appropriations bill that Wyden used as a vehicle, Merkley added a requirement that Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo report to Congress by March 20 on his agency’s communications with Saudi Arabia concerning the practice of extractions.
“It’s very frustrating that there’s no sign our government is acting aggressively with the Saudi government to put an end to it,” Merkley said.
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The senators have filed legislation that would urge the administration to expel from the United States any Saudi diplomat involved in the removal of Noorah or Ali Hussain Alhamoud, another Saudi citizen who fled to his homeland after being indicted in Oregon on multiple sex crime charges. The bill would require the State Department and U.S. attorney general to investigate any involvement of the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles in the two men’s disappearances.
Fahad Nazer, a Saudi Embassy spokesman, said in an email that officials would consider whether to comment on the FBI conclusions, but he did not subsequently respond to questions from the Los Angeles Times concerning the findings and the senators’ accusations of lying. An embassy statement issued a year ago said: “The notion that the Saudi government actively helps citizens evade justice after they have been implicated in legal wrongdoing in the U.S. is not true.”
The declassified FBI document dated Aug. 29 doesn’t spell out what Saudi officials might have done, nor does it say how many citizens they may have helped flee the U.S.
An investigation by the Oregonian/OregonLive found criminal cases involving at least seven Saudi nationals who disappeared from Oregon before facing trial or completing jail sentences on charges including manslaughter and rape. The Portland-based news organization described similar cases in at least seven other states and Canada, concluding that more than two dozen Saudi suspects, many of them college students, were known to have fled.
Escaping a country undetected without presenting a passport was difficult even for a man of means such as Carlos Ghosn, the former auto executive smuggled through Japanese airport security last month inside an audio equipment box. An elite extraction team led by a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran reportedly orchestrated the daring escape in a private jet by Ghosn to his native Lebanon, eluding criminal charges.
But for Noorah, a young man on a Saudi government scholarship, the prospect of slipping a monitor and fleeing the United States without a passport would be daunting without state-backed support. U.S. Marshals Service investigators suspect that Saudi officials whisked him out of the country on a private flight.
Chris Larsen is one of three Portland attorneys who have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Noorah on behalf of Smart’s estate. He’s disappointed that the FBI, which was required to disclose everything it knew about the Saudi government’s suspected role in helping its citizens avoid U.S. prosecution, didn’t identify its specific sources of information or people involved.
Larsen said the FBI findings reveal “another link between the Trump administration and the Saudi government, showing they’re still very cozy.” He said Smart’s death has caused “trauma upon trauma upon trauma” for her mother, Fawn Lengvenis, whom he also represents.
Overstreet, the prosecutor in Noorah’s case, is haunted by Smart’s death. She was a choir singer and high school sophomore who was about to turn 16. The Saudi citizen’s escape from justice also troubles him. “This is the case that just sticks with you and you think about essentially on a daily basis,” he said.
When the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles prepared to post bail, Overstreet said that he went to court “in a frenzy” and got a judge to place conditions on Noorah’s release. He said that as a result, Noorah, who was initially accused of first-degree manslaughter, felony hit-and-run and reckless driving, had to give up his passport, wear the monitor and refrain from driving during the nine months of house arrest.
Overstreet, a former police officer, still wonders how Noorah escaped. “He didn’t fly commercial, ‘cause we checked,” he said. “And he didn’t have a passport, so how the heck did he get out of here?”
In 2018, Overstreet received an inquiry from a Saudi official who asked whether the district attorney’s office would be willing to transfer prosecution to Saudi Arabia. He said no, but asked for details and never heard back. “Our fear is, we give them our file, and they look at it and say, ‘Oh well, it doesn’t look like he committed a crime, have a good day,’” Overstreet said.
“I’ve lost trials, and I can walk out of there holding my head up high and say, that’s justice,” he said. “But to have somebody just take off on you and not be held accountable at all, it’s unfortunate.”
Staff writer Nabih Bulos in Baghdad contributed to this report.