Can a trillion-dollar lawsuit stop Saudi terror-cash flow?

Amount of damages sought by victims of 9/11 attacks is unprecedented. The goal: Cut off Al Qaeda's money.

It is becoming a common gambit after a terrorist attack: Families of victims file suit against those who supposedly financed the assault.

The aim isn't always to get money, but to curb those who support such incidents – in the hope of preventing future attacks.

That, at least, is the rationale behind the largest such action so far – a more than $1 trillion lawsuit filed by the families of hundreds of victims of the 9/11 attacks. They're seeking damages from a long list of Middle Eastern governments, princes, banks, and charities that they believe fund or support the Al Qaeda network.

While the suit may be well-intentioned, experts say prevailing in a case that implicates such a diverse group of nations and individuals will be difficult – and could have the unintended effect of complicating US relations with some governments in the Middle East.

The amount of money at issue is unprecedented – equivalent to nearly half of the US government's annual budget. Yet attorneys who filed the suit late last week say it's in line with past legal attacks against governments associated with terror.

Libya, for example, was sued for $10 billion in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland that killed 270 people. Lebanon hostage Terry Anderson was rewarded $340 million in a suit against Iran.

"If you hit people in the pocketbook, it will have a deterrent effect," says Allan Gerson, cocounsel in the suit and a lecturer at George Washington University's law school. "If you pay a lot of money, you won't sponsor terrorism in the future."

US law allows victims of terror attacks to recover from assets held in the US by foreign sponsors of terrorism identified by the State Department. Mr. Gerson says the trillion-dollar figure comes from multiplying the 3,000 victims in the Sept. 11 attacks by the average of $30 million recovered in such suits and then multiplying it by three as allowed under US law that provides for triple damages for terror victims.

THE suit filed Thursday actually called for damages totaling more than $100 trillion dollars, but lawyers now say that higher amount was a clerical error.

Gerson, coauthor of a book on the Lockerbie bombing, says this lawsuit began when two families that lost relatives on Sept. 11 contacted him searching for a way to punish those responsible for the attacks.

Gerson teamed up with South Carolina attorney Ron Motley, who helped states recover billions in tobacco settlements. They enlisted a team of five investigators around the world who spent much of the year probing Al Qaeda's financial links.

In all, the suit identified some seven dozen defendants, including seven banks, eight Islamic foundations, and three Saudi princes.

The suit alleges Saudi officials agreed in 1998 with Osama bin Laden to avoid seeking extradition of Al Qaeda officials or closure of terror training camps in exchange for bin Laden's promise not to undermine the Saudi government. The suit also claims a brother of King Fahd has donated millions to charities linked to Al Qaeda.

"The kingdom sponsors terrorism," Mr. Motley told reporters last week. "This is an insidious group of people."

A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington says the government has not yet commented on the lawsuit.

But a Saudi bank named in the suit labels it extortion, while newspapers and commentators in the country say it may force a reappraisal of relations with the US.

Whatever the potential impact on diplomatic relations, victims relatives said at a press conference announcing the suit last week that they're dedicated to cutting off the supply of terror money.

"We have justice and morality on our side," said Thomas Burnett Sr., whose son died when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.

• Wire service material was used in this report.

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