WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Justice Department said on Thursday (Sept 12) that it would unmask the long-protected name of a Saudi official who allegedly had ties to the Al-Qaeda perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Responding to years of pressure from families of the victims of the attacks, the FBI and the Justice Department decided to declassify the name of the Saudi official "in light of the extraordinary circumstances of this particular case".
The case has long threatened to embarrass the Saudi government, which has repeatedly denied links to Al-Qaeda, and leave it exposed to claims of damages that could reach into the billions of dollars.
The person was the third of three main Saudi officials referred to in an FBI report into the attacks as having allegedly assisted some of the attackers after they arrived in the United States.
In all 19 men, 15 of them Saudis, took part in the plot to hijack four airliners and crash them into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and possibly the White House or Congress.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and families have sued seeking damages from the Saudi government.
An official report into the attacks in 2002 said that some of the attackers had received funds from Saudi officials, "at least two" of whom were "alleged by some to be Saudi intelligence officers". The two were Fahad al-Thumairy and Omar al-Bayoumi, both attached to Saudi Arabia's US embassy at the time.
Subsequent investigations rejected the claim that they were involved with the hijackers.
But in 2012, a redacted FBI report repeated the allegations and referred to a third person who may have directed them, but blacked out his name.
Rumours have tied the individual to the Saudi royal family. But his identity has always been kept classified as Washington and Riyadh worked closely after the attacks to root out Al-Qaeda's networks throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
"The FBI recognises the need and desire of victims' families to understand what happened to their loved ones and to hold those responsible accountable," the Justice Department said.
The Justice Department did not say when the name would become public; it plans to supply it to the court first.
But it suggested the individual might not have been involved with the Al-Qaeda plotters.
"The information referring to that individual refers to an investigative theory being pursued by the FBI at that time, and does not represent an objective statement of fact," it said.
Those involved in the lawsuit cheered the decision.
"The families are dedicated to getting to the truth, and we shouldn't have to beg for this sort of basic information, or be kept in the dark, about the Saudi role in the attacks," said Terry Strada, the national chairman of the group wich sued, the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism.