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In the confrontation with ISIS, Donald Trump has staked out perhaps the hardest of the hard lines among the Republican presidential field. He has called for blocking virtually all non-American Muslims from entering the country. He said America should "take out" the families of terrorists.
During the Republican debate in Las Vegas on CNN, the moderator used a question from the public to press Trump on this policy.
"How would intentionally killing innocent civilians set us apart from ISIS?" asked Josh Jacob from Georgia Tech.
Trump did not repeat his call to "take out" family members but insisted the country has to be much tougher on family members because of what they know.
"When you had the World Trade Center go, people were put into planes that were friends, family, girlfriends, and they were put into planes and they were sent back, for the most part, to Saudi Arabia," Trump said. "They knew what was going on. They went home and they wanted to watch their boyfriends on television."
We reached out to the Trump campaign about the 9/11 terrorists’ close friends and family members leaving before the attacks and did not hear back. Trump has said this before, sometimes saying specifically that they were sent home a few days before the attack. He told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly "They take the wives, they put ‘em on planes, they send ‘em home. ‘Let’s go home and let’s watch Daddy tonight on television knock down the World Trade Center.' "
In North Carolina, Trump told his supporters "the people, the animals that did that, they sent their wives and their families back to Saudi Arabia. Most of them went back to Saudi Arabia. Those wives knew what their husbands were going to do."
The statement lacks any support.
The 9/11 hijackers
Trump needs two pieces to back up his statement. First, at least some of the hijackers needed to be married or have a girlfriend, and second, those people, or some family member, needed to be in the United States.
According to the 9/11 Commission report, not a single hijacker had a wife, girlfriend or family member in the country in the days and months before the terrorists executed their plan.
Only two of the 19 hijackers were married and only one had a girlfriend. Ziad Jarrah had a girlfriend in Germany, and hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Abdul Aziz al-Omari were married.
Philip D. Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told us that while the commision didn't learn the exact whereabouts of the wives, whether in Saudi Arabia, Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East, one thing is certain.
"They sure weren’t living in the United States," Zelikow said.
If no one was in America, there could be no flying home to "watch their boyfriends on television."
The commission found no evidence that any of these women knew about the plot in advance. The commission reported that most of the terrorists had "broken off regular contact with their families." The one clear exception was Jarrah, who traveled to Lebanon to see his father and vacationed with his girlfriend in Florida about eight months before the attack. Jarrah called her in Germany shortly before he boarded United Airlines flight 93, the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
Jarrah’s girlfriend was extensively interviewed by investigators who concluded she knew nothing.
To be complete, we turn to one episode that could be linked to Trump’s statement.
Bin Laden family members
Trump’s words might reflect some confusion with the hastily organized departures of members of Osama bin Laden’s extended family -- not any wives or girlfriends of bin Laden himself -- a few days after the attack.
Most of the bin Laden relatives were in high school or college in the United States. In an interview with the New York Times, Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan said that with the help of the FBI, his government arranged for these people to assemble in Washington where a chartered plane would take them back to Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden is one of 52 children of a man who built enormous wealth building roads and palaces. That gave him a large extended and affluent family.
The 9/11 Commission report said that the FBI dug into the backgrounds of every Saudi national who flew home soon after the attacks.
"They concluded that none of the passengers was connected to the 9/11 attacks and have since found no evidence to change that conclusion," the report said. "Our own independent review of the Saudi national involved confirms that no one with known links to terrorism departed on these flights."
Trump said that people close to the 9/11 hijackers -- friends, wives and girlfriends -- had knowledge of the pending attacks and were flown back to the Middle East so that they could "watch their boyfriends on television."
Trump provided no evidence. The 9/11 Commission investigation found that 13 of the 19 attackers were unmarried. Only two had wives, a third had a girlfriend, and none of those women were in the United States immediately before the attack. The commission further found evidence that the hijackers had cut ties with their families.
There is no substance behind the statement. We rate this claim False.
CNN, Fifth Republican debate, Dec. 15, 2015
CBS News, Trump: I would "go after the wives" of terrorists, Dec. 6, 2015
Time Magazine, Donald Trump Says He’d ‘Take Out’ Terrorists’ Families, Dec. 2, 2015
WTVD, Trump rally, Dec. 4, 2015
Washington Post, Trump’s false claim that the 9/11 hijackers’ wives ‘knew exactly what was going to happen’, Dec. 6, 2015
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Commission report, June 22, 2004
New York Times, A nation challenged: The family; Fearing Harm, Bin Laden Kin Fled From U.S., Sept. 30, 2001
Washington Times, Donald Trump: 9/11 attackers’ wives knew what was going to happen, Dec. 4, 2015
Tampa Bay Times, Why did the FBI detain Bob Graham?, Aug. 7, 2015
Tampa Bay Times, Saudi couple who left country quickly not a threat: FBI, Sept. 12, 2011
Snopes, Flights of fancy, Dec. 11, 2005
Email interview, Philip Zelikow, professor of history, University of Virginia, Dec. 17, 2015
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