A Saddam connection?

While the world focuses on Osama bin Laden, some experts argue that Iraq was a likely conspirator.


A Saddam connection?

Even as the Bush administration and the national media focus almost exclusively on Osama bin Laden as the seemingly preordained “prime suspect” in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, evidence is beginning to emerge that a more familiar enemy may also have been involved in the devastation: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The central trail of evidence appears to show bin Laden’s unquestionable complicity, but a second, subtler set of footprints may lead to Saddam’s door. That trail originates with the first World Trade Center bombing, with evidence that some analysts believe links the 1993 operation to Iraq. That theory has gained currency over the past few years among some intelligence experts, including former CIA director R. James Woolsey. In recent days, the administration has contended that the Sept. 11 attacks likely had some state-supported assistance, and others (including Israeli intelligence) have pegged Iraq as the likely co-conspirator. Moreover, there are reports of possible ties between at least one of the hijackers and Iraqi intelligence.

All of which raises a new and troubling possibility: that last week’s attacks were not just the insane acts of a small fringe fundamentalist network, but the completion of unfinished business — and that their ultimate intent is not merely terror, but revenge for the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent military actions against Iraq.

The case against Iraq is also being made against the political backdrop of a split among Bush advisors, reported in the New York Times — pitting hard-liners like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who has long advocated action against Iraq, against more cautious officials, like Secretary of State Colin Powell. And the hypothesis of an Iraqi connection may be being pushed by conservatives who, long irritated that the U.S. did not push on to Baghdad during the Gulf War and finish off Saddam Hussein, see an opportunity to conclude that unfinished business.

The specter of Saddam’s involvement in the series of hijackings and subsequent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was raised officially this week by administration sources who told reporters at CBS News and the Boston Globe that one of the known hijackers, Mohammad Atta, may have met with Iraqi intelligence officials during his travels to Europe this past summer. Those sources were quick to say the connection was not a “smoking gun,” and Iraqi officials immediately denied their government’s involvement.

This was not, however, the first indication of Iraqi complicity. A number of intelligence experts have questioned whether bin Laden’s organization possessed the intelligence capacity required to pull off the Sept. 11 attacks. They say that even though bin Laden may well have provided the personnel, the most likely suspect behind the logistics of the disaster is Saddam Hussein’s intelligence operation.

According to Woolsey, who was CIA director from 1993 to 1995, the model of terrorism currently at play in the media — in which a “loose network” of Islamic fundamentalists is solely to blame for the attacks — may well be incomplete, since it obscures the possibility of state sponsorship, and ignores the possibility that these small terror groups may in fact be useful front organizations for larger entities.

Woolsey and other intelligence analysts say that although the Sept. 11 attacks themselves were a relatively low-tech affair involving box cutters and knives used to hijack jets and convert the airliners themselves into potent bombs, the entire operation was in fact extremely sophisticated. The logistics, the planning, the coordination, the ability to apparently provide new identities for a large team of operatives and to hide them effectively within U.S. borders — all these point to the greater likelihood of a state-operated intelligence agency’s complicity.

“Unless it is bin Laden himself or one of his senior colleagues, this attack, this whole thing says to me that there was some integrated plan,” says Woolsey, who also wrote of Iraq’s possible involvement in the New Republic. “Terrorist groups are not — I mean, driving a truck bomb into the Marine barracks in Beirut is one thing, but an integrated plan is not the first thing you think of when you think of a terrorist group. Even a relatively wealthy terrorist group.”

The highly visible media campaign that has given bin Laden the widespread image as the world’s top terrorist strikes Woolsey as disinformation: “I mean, if you look at bin Laden sitting over there issuing fatwahs and making video tapes and reciting poems, sound bites about attacking the United States, and having his lieutenants talk openly and loudly and often on open telephone lines about attacking the United States, you begin to think that there might be somebody sitting back there who is just as happy as bin Laden is for him to be front and center, because he likes the fame and being the pin-up boy. And somebody else — possibly the Iraqis — may like the fact that somebody else is getting the attention rather than them,” Woolsey says. “They care about the damage, not the attention.”

If Iraqi intelligence is involved, Woolsey does not believe that necessarily absolves bin Laden. “I’m not comfortable with the formulation of one or the other having done it,” he says. “I’m more comfortable with the formulation that it was a partnership, and each one was doing what he does best. Who knows? It may have been that Iraqi intelligence handled part of the logistics, and bin Laden’s group provided the people.”

Woolsey and other intelligence analysts point to a number of other pieces of evidence linking Iraqi intelligence to Islamic terrorists, ranging from regular gatherings of such groups in Baghdad, to the way Saddam — whose ruling Baath Party is avowedly atheistic — has altered the Iraqi flag to include an Islamic blessing. But the trail of evidence most starkly goes back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The similarity of that attack to the Sept. 11 disaster extends beyond the target itself. Perhaps the most striking point is that the mastermind of that plot, when arrested two years later, had been in the process of organizing a highly coordinated mass hijacking of airliners.

And as it happens, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this man — contrary to the contention of the Clinton administration at the time — was an agent of Saddam’s elite intelligence unit.

A man who calls himself Ramzi Yousef is currently serving a 240-year sentence in federal prison for masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in which six people died, though even his trial judge noted at sentencing: “We don’t even know what your real name is.”

What is known about him is that he entered the United States in 1992 on an Iraqi passport bearing Yousef’s name, and then promptly sought political asylum. Shortly afterward, he began organizing a group of Islamic radicals in the Jersey City, N.J., area who had been planning to pipe-bomb government officials and Jewish leaders in retaliation for the imprisonment of one of their martyrs, Meir Kahane assassin El Sayyid Nosair. However, Yousef promptly escalated the plot into one with a bigger target — namely, the World Trade Center.

Yousef’s real identity has been the particular obsession of intelligence analyst Laurie Mylroie, whose 2000 book, “Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America,” which reads now like a prophecy about the Sept. 11 attacks, and is referenced by many, including Woolsey, who question whether bin Laden was solely responsible for the attacks. Mylroie has an extensive background in Middle East intelligence, and her book is largely based on a thorough examination of the trial documents in the World Trade Center cases.

Mylroie says Yousef’s operations were a classic “false flag” in which actions are carried out in a way that makes others look responsible — and Yousef, she believes, was almost certainly an Iraqi intelligence operative. She points particularly to the circumstances around his flight from the United States after his team of bombers set off their device in 1993 — which had been intended to kill 250,000 people, toppling one tower into the other and releasing a deadly cloud of cyanide, but which only created a ball of flame that instead burned up the cyanide — and in short order were arrested.

Yousef fled the country and flew to Karachi, Pakistan, with the passport of a Kuwaiti named Abdul Basit Karim. For the next two years he remained at large, but resurfaced in Manila when a batch of chemicals he was mixing for his next bombing plot caught fire. Forced to flee, he was apprehended a month later in Pakistan, thanks to information on a computer he left behind in the Philippines.

The details of the plot contained on that computer were chilling. Investigators found that Yousef was planning to plant bombs, comprised of a liquid explosive that could get past metal detectors, in coordinated fashion aboard a series of 11 American airliners scheduled to fly at roughly the same time over the Pacific Ocean.

Mylroie believes that even though Yousef was captured, at least some of the logistical planning behind this plan may have lived on with whomever his cohorts might have been, and may well have provided the groundwork for the Sept. 11 attacks on America.

“I don’t know if these attacks are part of the same plan — I haven’t seen any evidence of that — but there are clearly echoes of the logistical side of Yousef’s plot in it,” she says. “Even more striking is that he plotted to destroy the Trade Center as well. “I don’t think it’s hard to see the hand of Iraqi intelligence at work here. It’s clear a state was involved in the attack because it was so sophisticated, and Iraq is the most likely candidate. They are the only state we are at war with.”

The penultimate piece of evidence linking Yousef to Iraqi intelligence, Mylroie says, is his assumption of the identity of Abdul Basit Karim. There really was an Abdul Basit, who was a Kuwaiti educated in Britain, but who was living in Kuwait when Iraq invaded in August 1990. He also was four inches shorter than Yousef, who generally bears little resemblance to the man.

Despite that, Yousef’s fingerprints appear in Basit’s official Kuwaiti file. Mylroie collected an array of evidence, including missing pages and a strikingly out-of-place notation, that the file was tampered with extensively, all indicating that Yousef had assumed the identity of someone killed during the Iraqi invasion. Creating such identities is common for agents involved in “wet” operations by Soviet-style intelligence agencies.

And in the case of Yousef/Basit, the only such organization that could have done so was Iraq’s.

Saddam Hussein rose to power through the ranks of Iraqi intelligence, and consolidated his grip on the nation in the 1970s by dramatically expanding the power and scope of his intelligence and security forces. Over the years, that power has if anything grown and intensified, particularly in the wake of Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf War.

Today’s Iraqi intelligence agencies cover a broad range of activities, from Saddam’s personal protection force to handling political dissent. But by far the most powerful and feared of these is the Iraqi Intelligence Service, or Mukhabarat. Its powers range from electronic surveillance to counterintelligence and special operations; notably, its mysterious “Office Sixteen” exists solely for training agents for clandestine operations abroad, including lessons in the use of terror techniques.

The Mukhabarat received considerable notoriety in 1994, when U.S. intelligence uncovered proof that Iraqi agents had attempted to assassinate former President George Bush during his visit to Kuwait. In retaliation, President Clinton ordered a missile attack on the Mukhabarat headquarters in Baghdad.

The missiles found their mark, but the response was nonetheless inadequate in impressing Saddam, since few of the spy agency’s personnel were lost. “The only thing the Clinton administration did was launch a few cruise missiles at an empty building in the middle of the night,” says Woolsey, who was CIA chief at the time. “That probably made him laugh even harder.”

Woolsey believes Saddam was already laughing at the Americans because of their failure to uncover his likely involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. At the time, the plot’s mastermind, Yousef, was still at large, and investigators were still focusing on the sacrificial lambs he had left behind — one of whom, desperate for airfare, had actually attempted to redeem his deposit on the truck used in the bombing.

The FBI’s chief in New York at the time, Jim Fox — who had a background in counter-terrorism — was in fact doggedly pursuing the likelihood of Iraqi complicity in the bombing. Several of his agents had uncovered what he believed were strong indications that Mukhabarat agents had enacted the plot, including information from foreign intelligence agencies.

But Fox was replaced in mid-1994 for ostensibly bureaucratic reasons, and his successors chose not to keep pursuing the state-sponsorship angle, saying they had found no evidence of it. Instead, they focused on convicting the perpetrators they had in hand, including a second set of bombing conspirators associated with a blind Muslim cleric in Jersey City named Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman.

Mylroie believes the Clinton administration made a conscious effort to downplay the Iraqi connection because it was wedded to a policy designed to “contain” Saddam rather than confront him. Woolsey demurs, suggesting that the problem was more a pragmatic one, given the American system of justice and the difficulty often associated with obtaining conspiracy convictions.

Despite their often overlapping interests, a high bureaucratic wall exists between American security and law-enforcement agencies, and that wall proved crucial in the World Trade Center cases, particularly Ramzi Yousef’s. With the Justice Department firmly in charge, national security concerns such as the possibility of state sponsorship of the terrorism took a back seat to the reality of prosecuting the case in U.S. courts.

“There’s nothing nefarious about that,” says Woolsey. Conspiracy cases in particular can be quite complex and difficult for obtaining convictions, and he thinks the prosecutors were mostly intent on trying to keep the case simple for the sake of putting the men behind bars: “They were only doing what good prosecutors do.”

But in the process, the chance of establishing whether or not Yousef was an Iraqi intelligence agent carrying out Saddam’s orders was lost. If the Iraqi dictator was in fact involved, then the message he got was clear: He could sponsor covert terrorism in America and get away with it.

It might still be possible to determine whether or not Ramzi Yousef is really Abdul Basit Karim; the latter had friends in London who could identify him, and Scotland Yard possesses papers with Basit’s fingerprints from 1988. If those prints match those in the tampered Kuwaiti file, then it would confirm he is indeed Basit. If they don’t, then it means within a high degree of certainty that he is an Iraqi agent. However, that simple test has never been conducted by U.S. agencies.

“I think that there are very good indications that [Saddam] was involved in ’93, and it’s a testable hypothesis by looking at the fingerprints that Scotland Yard has,” says Woolsey. “And if he was involved in ’93, that substantially enhances the possibility that he was involved Sept. 11 — because it means he was sitting over there for eight years laughing at us because he got away with the first one, and continuing to undervalue us, as he did in 1990 when he invaded.”

It is difficult to say whether or not the Bush administration, in its seemingly single-minded pursuit of bin Laden, will take the time to examine the matter, despite assurances it is investigating all potential aspects of the Sept. 11 attacks. So far, officials have shied away from connecting Saddam to the disaster, though there are indications that may change soon.

On last Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Vice President Cheney was asked if there was any evidence linking Iraq to the attacks, and he flatly stated, “No,” adding: “In the past, there have been some activities related to terrorism by Saddam Hussein. But at this stage, you know, the focus is over here on al-Qaida [bin Laden's organization] and the most recent events in New York. Saddam Hussein’s bottled up, at this point, but clearly we continue to have a fairly tough policy where the Iraqis are concerned.”

The only rumblings to the contrary have come from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who paused for five seconds at a press briefing this week when asked about the possibility of “state sponsorship” of the attacks. He finally answered that he would leave the question to Justice officials, but added: “I know a lot, and what I have said … is that states are supporting these people.”

The chief reason intelligence analysts have given for dismissing the notion of a specific Saddam/bin Laden connection has been the supposed enmity between the two men, based on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which bin Laden violently opposed. But Mylroie is skeptical, pointing out that the invasion occurred more than 10 years ago, which is an aeon in diplomatic years. Woolsey, too, has his doubts.

“First of all, that may be a cover story,” he says. “Secondly, they have the same chief hatred, which is for us. Thirdly, bin Laden is Sunni, so there’s not any of the Sunni-Shi’a tension that there would be if the allegation were that he was working with Iran.

“And finally, Saddam has gotten reasonably close in the last few years to some of the fundamentalist terrorist Sunni groups. They have meetings in Iraq — I can’t point to any personal meetings or any personal link between bin Laden and Saddam, but if you just look at his relationships with the terrorist groups generally, and particularly the fundamentalist Sunni ones, it’s striking. Some of them call him ‘the new Caliph’ [an Islamic term for a temporal and spiritual leader].”

Certainly, identifying Saddam Hussein as one of the co-perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attack would drastically change the landscape of the “crusade” Bush has proposed against terrorism. Making such an identification would require an all-out response. Instead of focusing solely on capturing bin Laden and crushing his organization, U.S. forces would simultaneously be faced with the far more formidable task of a full-scale military assault on Iraq.

That daunting prospect might intimidate the Bush team into withdrawing from pushing the issue, preferring to continue the current course of “containing” Saddam. Laurie Mylroie says a number of key intelligence players within the administration are fighting to bring the Iraqi issue forward, but she fears that politics may ultimately hold them back.

“My main concern is that the administration will put this off and choose to just focus on bin Laden, for policy considerations,” Mylroie says. “I think we run the risk of focusing on the individuals and not looking at the states — forgoing security concerns for the sake of prosecuting criminals. If the states go untouched, we’ll just have more of the same.”

Woolsey contends that even if no further evidence links Saddam to the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration should at least look into the evidence now in hand, and determine if he was behind the 1993 bombing. “If they determine that Iraqi intelligence was behind ’93, that should be enough. We got Al Capone not for the many murders that he contracted for, but for income-tax evasion.

“In the ’93 bombing, although six people died, it was certainly not as major a thing as what happened on Sept. 11. There’s no statute of limitations on terrorism, and as far as I’m concerned, if he did the ’93 bombing, that’s enough to get him on the list of folks who need to have their regimes changed.”

David Neiwert is an investigative journalist and author based in Seattle, whose most recent book is And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (Nation Books). He has won a National Press Club award for his reportage on domestic terrorism, and is also known for his work as the senior editor of the popular political blog Crooks and Liars.

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