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La​w Firm Works to Link Saudis and Sept. 11

September 9, 2010 By:
​Laura Goldman, JE Feature
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Stephen Cozen

Nine years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and seven years after his law firm launched its first lawsuit to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, Stephen Cozen is not giving up.

But his attention has shifted, at least for now, from the courtroom to Congress to help advance the cause.

At a recent hearing of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on a bill that would amend the 1976 Sovereign Immunities Act, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said: "The evidence is very, very forceful about the involvement of Saudi money in promoting terrorism."

The bill, introduced by Sens. Specter, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would expand the ability of Americans to sue a foreign nation for acts committed on American soil. The bill was written in 2009 in response to a ruling by a federal appeals court that Saudi Arabia, due to its status as a sovereign nation, could not be held responsible in an American court for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The evidence of Saudi involvement that Specter referred to had been collected by Cozen with the help of several Israelis. Cozen, who built up the law firm of Cozen O'Connor from four lawyers in 1970 to 600 today, remembers watching the falling of the twin towers on television, along with most of the nation.

But he said that he could not ponder the momentous events of the day for long because he immediately started fielding calls from his clients -- some of the world's leading insurance companies, including Chubb, Ace, Allstate and more.

They were looking for advice on which third party, if any, they could hold responsible for their losses.

In a recent interview, Cozen said that he determined that "airports, airlines and airport security companies could not be held responsible because there was no way that they could have anticipated this event."

It seemed to his firm that the government of Saudi Arabia -- long in bed with terrorists -- could be held liable, but they needed to assemble irrefutable evidence of their guilt.

Access to Documents

For help, Cozen said that he turned to his old friend Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yoram ("Ya Ya") Yair, the former deputy chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force. They had become close after meeting at an army base in Mitzpe Ramon during a 1978 mission to Israel Cozen took with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Yair referred him to the International Institute of Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Jonathan Fighel, who served as governor of Ramallah during his time with the IDF, and Eitan Azani, a former IDF intelligence official, both from the center, collaborated with the Cozen O'Connor partners.

Cozen said that it became apparent to him that the institute "had access to documents that no one else had access to. They were able to explain to us the different structures of the vehicles used to finance terrorism; how often one hand did not know what the other hand was doing. They showed us how an account was originally established to pay for hospitals and instead the money ended up being funneled to Al Qaeda."

Sean Carter, a Cozen O'Connor partner who worked on the case, recalled that Fighel and Azani used their contacts in the international intelligence community to arrange for them to interview a former member of Al Qaeda jailed in Bosnia and a member of an Al Qaeda proxy in the Philippines.

"They were able to find documents in which the Saudi Islamist charities discuss Jihad activities in various regions of the world. They obtained the records of core legal proceedings in foreign countries, including in Jordan, where a Saudi charity official was tried on terrorism charges," he said.

With the Israelis' help, Cozen O'Connor uncovered evidence that they believed show the liability of Saudi Arabia that was missed by the 9/11 commission and Congress during its investigation. Subsequently, they filed a lawsuit seeking $10 billion in damages against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its royal family, banks, and Islamist charities on behalf of the corporate victims of Sept. 11, primarily insurance companies.

The case is such an irritant to Saudi Arabia that its cancellation was on the kingdom's short list of demands to the Obama administration after President Barack Obama became president.

The firm sued under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which pierces only for limited reasons the blanket legal immunity that sovereign nations enjoy. Rounds one and two in this David and Goliath legal battle went to the Saudi government.

A U.S. District Court in New York dismissed the case against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the royals because of their sovereign immunity. It found that there was enough evidence to allow the lawsuit to continue against the banks and some of the charities. The Supreme Court declined last year to hear the case at the urging of the solicitor general.

But the Supreme Court's rejection did not deter Cozen.

"I want my clients to have their day in court," he said.

He worked hard to get introduced into Congress the bill that was the subject of Specter's hearing in July. The Judiciary Committee is still debating the bill.

When asked about its chances for passage, Cozen said: "Never bet against the side of right."

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