The 9/11 Commission’s staff has come down decidedly on the side of the naysayers about operational ties between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. This development is already being met with unbridled joy by opponents of the Iraq war, who have been carping for days about recent statements by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that reaffirmed the deposed Iraqi regime’s promotion of terror.
The celebration is premature. The commission’s cursory treatment of so salient a national question as whether al Qaeda and Iraq confederated is puzzling. Given that the panel had three hours for Richard Clarke, one might have hoped for more than three minutes on Iraq. More to the point, though, the staff statements released Wednesday–which seemed to be contradicted by testimony at the public hearing within minutes of their publication–raise more questions than they answer, about both matters the staff chose to address and some it strangely opted to omit.
The staff’s sweeping conclusion is found in its Statement No. 15 (“Overview of the Enemy”), which states:
Bin Laden also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein’s secular regime. Bin Laden had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded Bin Laden to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Laden in 1994. Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.
Just taken on its own terms, this paragraph is both internally inconsistent and ambiguously worded. First, it cannot be true both that the Sudanese arranged contacts between Iraq and bin Laden and that no “ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq.” If the first proposition is so, then the “[t]wo senior Bin Laden associates” who are the sources of the second are either lying or misinformed.
In light of the number of elementary things the commission staff tells us its investigation has been unable to clarify (for example, in the very next sentence after the Iraq paragraph, the staff explains that the question whether al Qaeda had any connection to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing or the 1995 plot to blow U.S. airliners out of the sky “remains a matter of substantial uncertainty”), it is fair to conclude that these two senior bin Laden associates may not be the most cooperative, reliable fellows in town regarding what bin Laden was actually up to. Moreover, we know from press reports and the administration’s own statements about the many al Qaeda operatives it has captured since 9/11 that the government is talking to more than just two of bin Laden’s top operatives. That begs the questions: Have we really only asked two of them about Iraq? If not, what did the other detainees say?
The staff’s back-of-the-hand summary also strangely elides mention of another significant matter–but one that did not escape the attention of Commissioner Fred Fielding, who raised it with a panel of law-enforcement witnesses right after noting the staff’s conclusion that there was “no credible evidence” of cooperation. It is the little-discussed original indictment of bin Laden, obtained by the Justice Department in spring 1998–several weeks before the embassy bombings and at a time when the government thought it would be prudent to have charges filed in the event an opportunity arose overseas to apprehend bin Laden. Paragraph 4 of that very short indictment reads:
Al Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezballah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States. In addition, al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq.
(Emphasis added.) This allegation has always been inconvenient for the “absolutely no connection between Iraq and al Qaeda” club. (Richard Clarke, a charter member, handles the problem in his book by limiting the 1998 indictment to a fleeting mention and assiduously avoiding any description of what the indictment actually says.)
It remains inconvenient. As testimony at the commission’s public hearing Wednesday revealed, the allegation in the 1998 indictment stems primarily from information provided by the key accomplice witness at the embassy bombing trial, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl. Al-Fadl told agents that when al Qaeda was headquartered in the Sudan in the early-to-mid-1990s, he understood an agreement to have been struck under which the jihadists would put aside their antipathy for Saddam and explore ways of working together with Iraq, particularly regarding weapons production.
On al Qaeda’s end, al-Fadl understood the liaison for Iraq relations to be an Iraqi named Mahmdouh Mahmud Salim (a.k.a. “Abu Hajer al Iraqi”), one of bin Laden’s closest friends. (There will be a bit more to say later about Salim, who, it bears mention, was convicted in New York last year for maiming a prison guard in an escape attempt while awaiting trial for bombing the embassies.) After the embassies were destroyed, the government’s case, naturally, was radically altered to focus on the attacks that killed over 250 people, and the Iraq allegation was not included in the superseding indictment. But, as the hearing testimony made clear, the government has never retracted the allegation.
Neither have other important assertions been retracted, including those by CIA Director George Tenet. As journalist Stephen Hayes reiterated earlier this month, Tenet, on October 7, 2002, wrote a letter to Congress, which asserted:
‐Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians coupled with growing indications of relationship with Al Qaeda suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action.
Tenet, as Hayes elaborated, has never backed away from these assessments, reaffirming them in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee as recently as March 9, 2004.
Is the commission staff saying that the CIA director has provided faulty information to Congress? That doesn’t appear to be what it is saying at all. This is clear–if anything in this regard can be said to be “clear”–from the staff’s murky but carefully phrased summation sentence, which is worth parsing since it is already being gleefully misreported: “We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.” (Italics mine.) That is, the staff is not saying al Qaeda and Iraq did not cooperate–far from it. The staff seems to be saying: “they appear to have cooperated but we do not have sufficient evidence to conclude that they worked in tandem on a specific terrorist attack, such as 9/11, the U.S.S. Cole bombing, or the embassy bombings.”
The same might, of course, be said about the deposed Taliban government in Afghanistan. Before anyone gets unhinged, I am not suggesting that bin Laden’s ties to Iraq were as extensive as his connections to Afghanistan. But as is the case with Iraq, no one has yet tied the Taliban to a direct attack on the United States, although no one doubts for a moment that deposing the Taliban post-9/11 was absolutely the right thing to do.
I would point out, moreover, that al Qaeda is a full-time terrorist organization–it does not have the same pretensions as, say, Sinn Fein or Hamas, to be a part-time political party. Al Qaeda’s time is fully devoted to conducting terrorist attacks and planning terrorist attacks. Thus, if a country cooperates with al Qaeda, it is cooperating in (or facilitating, abetting, promoting–you choose the euphemism) terrorism. What difference should it make that no one can find an actual bomb that was once in Saddam’s closet and ended up at the Cole’s hull? If al Qaeda and Iraq were cooperating, they had to be cooperating on terrorism, and as al Qaeda made no secret that it existed for the narrow purpose of inflicting terrorism on the United States, exactly what should we suppose Saddam was hoping to achieve by cooperating with bin Laden?
Of course, we may yet find that Saddam was a participant in the specific 9/11 plot. In that regard, the commission staff’s report is perplexing, and, again, raises–or flat omits–many more questions than it resolves.
Don’t Forget Shakir
For one thing, the staff has now addressed the crucial January 2000 Malaysia planning session in a few of its statements. As I have previously recounted, this was the three-day meeting at which Khalid al Midhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, eventual hijackers of Flight 77 (the one that hit the Pentagon), met with other key 9/11 planners. The staff’s latest report, Statement Number 16 (“Outline of the 9/11 Plot”), even takes time to describe how the conspirators were hosted in Kuala Lampur by members of a Qaeda-affiliated terror group, Jemaah Islamiah. But the staff does not mention, let alone explain, let alone explain away, that al Midhar was escorted to the meeting by Ahmed Hikmat Shakir.
Shakir is the Iraqi who got his job as an airport greeter through the Iraqi embassy, which controlled his work schedule. He is the man who left that job right after the Malaysia meeting; who was found in Qatar six days after 9/11 with contact information for al Qaeda heavyweights–including bin Laden’s aforementioned friend, Salim–and who was later detained in Jordan but released only after special pleading from Saddam’s regime, and only after intelligence agents concluded that he seemed to have sophisticated counter-interrogation training. Shakir is also the Iraqi who now appears, based on records seized since the regime’s fall, to have been all along an officer in Saddam’s Fedayeen.
Does all this amount to proof of participation in the 9/11 plot? Well, in any prosecutor’s office it would be a pretty good start. And if the commission staff was going to get into this area of Iraqi connections to al Qaeda at all, what conceivable good reason is there for avoiding any discussion whatsoever of Shakir? At least tell us why he is not worth mentioning.
One thing the staff evidently thought it was laying to rest was the other niggling matter of whether 9/11 major domo Mohammed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence officer Ahmed al-Ani in Prague in April 2001. The staff’s conclusion is that the meeting is a fiction. To say its reasoning is less than satisfying would be a gross understatement. Here’s the pertinent conclusion, also found in Statement Number 16:
We have examined the allegation that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague on April 9 . Based on the evidence available–including investigation by Czech and U.S. authorities plus detainee reporting–we do not believe that such a meeting occurred. The FBI’s investigation places him in Virginia as of April 4, as evidenced by this bank surveillance camera shot of Atta withdrawing $8,000 from his account. Atta was back in Florida by April 11, if not before. Indeed, investigation has established that, on April 6, 9, 10, and 11, Atta’s cellular telephone was used numerous times to call Florida phone numbers from cell sites within Florida. We have seen no evidence that Atta ventured overseas again or re-entered the United States before July, when he traveled to Spain under his true name and back under his true name.
This is ground, again, that I’ve recently covered. To rehearse: Czech intelligence has alleged that Atta was seen in Prague on April 8 or 9, 2001. Atta had withdrawn $8,000 cash from a bank in Virginia on April 4 and was not eyeballed again by a witness until one week later, on April 11. The new detail added by the staff is that Atta’s cell phone was used in Florida on three days (April 6, 9 and 10) during that time frame. Does this tend to show he was in Florida rather than Prague? It could, but not very convincingly. Telling us Atta’s cell phone was used is not the same as telling us Atta used the cell phone.
Atta almost certainly would not have been able to use the cell phone overseas, so it would have been foolish to tote it along to the Czech Republic–especially if he was traveling clandestinely (as the large cash withdrawal suggests). He would have left it behind. Atta, moreover, had a roommate (and fellow hijacker), Marwan al-Shehhi. It is certainly possible that Shehhi–whom the staff places in Florida during April 2001–could have used Atta’s cell phone during that time.
Is it possible that Atta was in Florida rather than Prague? Of course it is. But the known evidence militates strongly against that conclusion: an eyewitness puts Atta in Prague, meeting with al-Ani; we know Atta was a “Hamburg student” and represented himself as such in a visa application; it has been reported that the Czechs have al-Ani’s appointment calendar and it says he was scheduled to meet on the critical day with a “Hamburg student”; and we know for certain that Atta was in Prague under very suspicious circumstances twice in a matter of days (May 30 and June 2, 2000) during a time the Czechs and Western intelligence services feared that Saddam, through al-Ani, might be reviving a plot to use Islamic extremists to bomb Radio Free Europe (a plot the State Department acknowledged in its annual global terror report notwithstanding that the commission staff apparently did not think the incident merited mention).
I am perfectly prepared to accept the staff’s conclusion about Atta not being in Prague–if the commission provides a convincing, thoughtful explanation, which is going to have to get a whole lot better than a cell-phone record.
What is the staff’s reason for rejecting the eyewitness identification? Is the “Hamburg student” entry bogus? Since the staff is purporting to provide a comprehensive explanation of the 9/11 plot–the origins of which it traces back to 1999–what is their explanation for what Atta was doing in Prague in 2000? Why, when the staff went into minute detail about the travels of other hijackers (even when it conceded it did not know the relevance of those trips), was Atta’s trip to Prague not worthy of even a passing mention? Why was it so important for Atta to be in Prague on May 30, 2000 that he couldn’t delay for one day, until May 31, when his visa would have been ready? Why was it so important for him to be in Prague on May 30 that he opted to go despite the fact that, without a visa, he could not leave the airport terminal? How did he happen to find the spot in the terminal where surveillance cameras would not capture him for nearly six hours? Why did he go back again on June 2? Was he meeting with al-Ani? If so, why would it be important for him to see al-Ani right before entering the United States in June 2000? And jumping ahead to 2001, if Atta wasn’t using cash to travel anonymously, what did he do with the $8000 he suddenly withdrew before disappearing on April 4? If his cell phone was used in Florida between April 4 and April 11, what follow-up investigation has been done about that by the 9/11 Commission? By the FBI? By anybody? Whom was the cell phone used to call? Do any of those people remember speaking to Atta at that time? Perhaps someone would remember speaking with the ringleader of the most infamous attack in the history of the United States if he had called to chat, no?
Are these questions important to answer? You be the judge. According to the 9/11 Commission staff report, bin Laden originally pressed the operational supervisor of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM), “that the attacks occur as early as mid-2000,” even though bin Laden “recognized that Atta and the other pilots had only just arrived in the United States to begin their flight training[.]” Well I’ll be darned: mid-2000 is exactly when Atta made his two frenetic trips to Prague immediately before heading to the United States to begin that flight training.
The commission staff next says, “[i]n 2001, Bin Laden apparently pressured KSM twice more for an earlier date. According to KSM, Bin Laden first requested a date of May 12, 2001,” and then proposed a date in June or July. Well, what do you know: all those dates are only weeks after Atta may have had some reason to drop everything and secretly run to Prague for a meeting with al-Ani.
Or maybe it’s just a coincidence.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is an NRO contributor.