The Corner

Iraq & Al Qaeda

Kathryn, here’s the exchange from the 9/11 hearing yesterday morning between Commissioner Fred Fielding and Chicago U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald (who indicted bin Laden in 1998 as a Manhattan federal prosecutor), regarding the allegation in the 1998 bin Laden indictment about an understanding between Iraq and al Qaeda:

FIELDING: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

For the panel, I really have very specific questions about a specific subject.

One of the hazy questions that surrounds Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida is really its relationship, if any, with Iraq and with Saddam Hussein.

We’ve often heard that Osama bin Laden would not have been a natural ally, for religious reasons, for the composition and nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime. And our staff report, as you just heard, basically says there’s no credible evidence of any cooperation between the two. However, there seems to be some indicia that there may have been.

And, Mr. Fitzgerald, I’m delighted you’re here, because this first question really I wanted to ask specifically to you, because it relates to the indictment of Osama bin Laden in the spring of 1998.

This is before the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa and the administration indicted Osama bin Laden. And the indictment, which was unsealed a few months later, reads, “Al Qaida reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that Al Qaida would not work against that government, and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, Al Qaida would work cooperatively with the government of Iraq.”

So my question to you is what evidence was that indictment based upon and what was this understanding that’s referenced in it?

FITZGERALD: And the question of relationship between Iraq and Al Qaida is an interesting one. I don’t have information post-2001 when I got involved in a trial, and I don’t have information post-September 11th. I can tell you what led to that inclusion in that sealed indictment in May [1998] and then when we superseded, which meant we broadened the charges in the Fall, we dropped that language.

We understood there was a very, very intimate relationship between Al Qaida and the Sudan. They worked hand in hand. We understood there was a working relationship with Iran and Hezbollah, and they shared training. We also understood that there had been antipathy between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein because Saddam Hussein was not viewed as being religious.

We did understand from people, including Al-Fadl — and my recollection is that he would have described this most likely in public at the trial that we had, but I can’t tell you that for sure; that was a few years ago — that at a certain point they decided that they wouldn’t work against each other and that we believed a fellow in Al Qaida named [Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, aka Abu Hajer al-Iraqi], tried to reach a, sort of, understanding where they wouldn’t work against each other. Sort of, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

And that there were indications that within Sudan when Al Qaida was there — which Al Qaida left in the summer of ‘96 or spring ‘96 — there were efforts to work on joint — you know, acquiring weapons.

Clearly, Al Qaida worked with the Sudan in getting those weapons in the national defense force there and the intelligence service. There were indications that Al-Fadl had heard from others that Iran was involved. And they also had heard that Iraq was involved.

The clearest account from Al-Fadl as a Sudanese was that he had dealt directly with the Sudanese intelligence service, so we had first-hand knowledge of that.

We corroborated the relationship with Iran to a lesser extent but to a solid extent. And then we had information from Al-Fadl, who we believe was truthful, learning from others that there were also was efforts to try to work with Iraq. That was the basis for what we put in that indictment. Clearly, we put Sudan in the first order at that time as being the partner of Al Qaida.

We understood the relationship with Iran but Iraq, we understood, went from a position where they were working against each other to a standing down against each other. And we understood they were going to explore the possibility of working on weapons together.

That’s my piece of what I know. I don’t represent to know everything else, so I can’t tell you, well, what we’ve learned since then. But there was that relationship that went from opposing each other to not opposing each other to possibly working with each other.

FIELDING: Thank you. That’s very helpful.

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