Not far from Baghdad, Coalition forces may uncover evidence linking Saddam Hussein’s regime with airline hijackings in general and the September 11 attacks in particular.
Salman Pak, a training camp on the Tigris River some 15 miles southeast of Iraq’s capital, could clarify this question. According to Iraqi defectors and U.S. intelligence analysts, this is where Hussein’s agents polished the air-piracy skills of foreign Islamist terrorists.
Details on this facility and its al Qaeda ties recently emerged in a Manhattan federal courtroom. Former CIA Director James Woolsey and Iraq scholar Laurie Mylroie offered sworn expert testimony in a largely overlooked lawsuit filed by the families of two people killed on 9/11. They are suing Iraq’s government, among other rogue entities and individuals, for allegedly helping to murder their loved ones.
“I believe it is definitely more likely than not that some degree of common effort in the sense of aiding or abetting or conspiracy was involved here between Iraq and the al Qaeda,” Woolsey said on March 3. President Clinton’s CIA chief from 1993 to 1995 added: “Even if one cannot show that…any of the individual 19 hijackers were trained at Salman Pak, the nature of the training and the circumstances suggest, to my mind, at least, some kind of common aiding, abetting, assistance, cooperation — whatever word you might want to take.”
Mylroie, a Pentagon terrorism consultant and Iraq-policy adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign (and author of The War Against America), also testified March 3. She believes “It took a state like Iraq to carry out an attack as really sophisticated, massive and deadly as what happened on September 11.”
Top Iraqi defectors amplify these American suspicions.
“There have been several confirmed sightings of Islamic fundamentalists from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf states being trained in terror tactics at the Iraqi intelligence camp at Salman Pak,” Khidir Hamza, Iraq’s former nuclear-weapons chief, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last July 31. “The training involved assassination, explosions and hijacking.”
“This camp is specialized in exporting terrorism to the whole world,” former Iraqi army captain Sabah Khodada told PBS’s Frontline in an October 14, 2001 interview. Khodada worked at Salman Pak. He said that instruction there was “all for the general concept of hitting and attacking American targets and American interests.” He added: “We saw people getting trained to hijack airplanes…They are even trained how to use utensils for food, like forks and knives provided in the plane…They are trained how to plant horror within the passengers by doing such actions.” A map of the camp Khodada drew for Frontline closely matches satellite photos of the base, thus bolstering his story.
“I was the security officer in charge of the unit,” at Salman Pak, an ex-Iraqi lieutenant general told Frontline anonymously in a November 6, 2001 interview. “This unit was under the direct supervision and control of the Iraqi Intelligence Service,” he added. “And the fact that the training was concentrated on a plane made it even stranger as far as I was concerned.”
Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Aldouri, denied this to Frontline that October 29. “I am lucky that I know the area, this Salman Pak. This is a very beautiful area with gardens, with trees,” Aldouri said. “It is not possible to do such a program there, because there’s no place for planes.”
Oddly enough, that satellite photo shows no rose bushes. But clearly evident is the Russian-built Tupolev 154 airliner on which these Iraqi emigres report hijackings were rehearsed.
“We were told it was for counterterrorist training,” former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer said in the Scotsman newspaper on February 18. “We automatically knocked off the word ‘counter.’” Duelfer and his team saw the jet on a January 1995 visit.
Meanwhile, in a February 24 letter to James Beasley, Jr., the attorney in the aforementioned lawsuit, Czech U.N. Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek affirms an October 26, 2001 statement by Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross: “In this moment we can confirm, that during the next stay of Mr. Muhammad Atta in the Czech Republic there was the contact with the official of the Iraqi intelligence, Mr. Al Ani, Ahmed Khalin Ibrahim Samir, who was on 22nd April 2001 expelled from the Czech Republic on the basis of activities which were not compatible with the diplomatic status.” Atta flew from Virginia Beach, Virginia to Prague on April 7, 2001. Car-rental records place him in the Czech capitol the next day. He flew home to Florida that April 9.
“If he [Atta] goes there and meets with an Iraqi intelligence officer, and then turns right around and comes right back, it looks an awful lot to me like it was an operational meeting,” Woolsey said in court. “Certainly he and Mr. Al-Ani were unlikely to be discussing or looking at the lovely architecture of Medieval Prague.”
Czech officials sent Al-Ani packing just two weeks after his meeting with Atta when they caught the Iraqi casing and photographing Radio Free Europe’s Prague headquarters, some believe in hopes of bombing it.
Iraq also is tied to the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Chief conspirator Ramzi Yousef reached America bearing an Iraqi passport, although he fled to Pakistan on a Pakistani passport issued to one Abdul Basit Karim, a Pakistani-born resident of Kuwait whose identity Mylroie surmises that Yousef assumed, perhaps with the help of Iraqi intelligence agents who had access to immigration files before U.S. and allied forces drove them from Kuwait.
For his part, Indiana-born and Iraqi-reared Abdul Rahman Yasin — indicted for mixing the chemicals in the bomb that shook the Twin Towers, killing six and injuring roughly 1,000 people — returned to Iraq after the explosion, stopping first at the Iraqi embassy in Amman, Jordan. He lived freely in Baghdad for a year. Iraqi officials say they have kept him in custody since 1994, though they neither have prosecuted him nor extradited him to face American justice.
Also, according to the State Department’s “Patterns of Global Terrorism — 2001,”released May 21, 2002, “Iraq was the only Arab-Muslim country that did not condemn the September 11 attacks against the United States.” That day, an official Iraqi broadcast said America was “…reaping the fruits of [its] crimes against humanity.”
Some have dismissed the notion that supposedly secular Saddam Hussein would conspire with Muslim extremists like Osama bin Laden and the men of al Qaeda. Woolsey and Mylroie note that Hussein sometimes embraces Islam for political purposes. The Iraqi flag, for instance, has borne the Arabic words Allahu akbar (“God is great”) since 1991, the year Hussein lost Gulf War I. Terrorists often invoke this Islamic incantation before blowing themselves apart. Whatever their differences on Heaven, Hussein and bin Laden share a common foe on Earth: America.
Said Woolsey, “I’ve used the analogy a number of times about the Iraqi government and al Qaeda as being like two Mafia families who hate each other, kill each other’s members from time to time, insult one another, but are still capable of cooperating against what they consider to be a greater enemy — namely, us.”
Are these apparent ties tough to prove? You bet. Iraq’s work with homicidal zealots does not resemble a municipal bond deal, with contracts registered at City Hall. As Woolsey noted, “This is putting together pieces of a puzzle in which quite likely both parties are doing everything they can to keep these pieces from being fitted together.”
So why has the Bush administration not highlighted these ominous connections? One theory is that showcasing pre-9/11 evidence of Salman Pak might make people wonder why nothing was done about it before the atrocity. Another view is that federal officials who implemented President Clinton’s light touch towards Iraq are in no hurry to remind Americans of how foolish their policy was.
In either case, we soon may know much more about Salman Pak — assuming it has not been thoroughly sanitized. Baghdad’s liberation should snap open government file cabinets and loosen captured officials’ tongues. Before long, they may reveal the extent of Saddam Hussein’s complicity in the September 11 massacre.
— Mr. Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.