- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

There is “no credible evidence” that Saddam Hussein had any connection to the September 11 attacks by the al Qaeda terrorist network, a federal commission said yesterday.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, during a Capitol Hill hearing, said while a senior Iraqi intelligence officer met with al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 1994 and there were later meetings between Iraqi and al Qaeda officials in Afghanistan, “they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.”

In two separate statements, the commission yesterday also outlined a chilling array of new information about the attacks and al Qaeda, including that the terrorist group is trying to duplicate the September 11 strikes, which killed about 3,000 people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Al Qaeda also is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon and is “extremely interested” in chemical, radiological and biological attacks, including the use of anthrax, the panel said.

The 10-member commission, which is expected to issue a final report in July in its $15 million investigation of the September 11 attacks, also discounted widespread reports that hijack ringleader Mohamed Atta met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in April 2001, just five months before the attacks.

“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 commission said.

The commission, which concludes its public hearings today, said two senior bin Laden associates “adamantly denied any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq” and there was “no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

But the Bush administration has long contended that Iraq was connected to and supportive of the al Qaeda network, a position reiterated Monday by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said in a speech at the James Madison Institute in Orlando, Fla., that Saddam had “long-standing ties with al Qaeda.”

CIA Director George J. Tenet, who has worked in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, said in an October 2002 letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda had been ongoing for more than a decade, there was “solid evidence” of the presence of al Qaeda members in Iraq, and there was credible information that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire weapons of mass destruction.

The letter was sent after Mr. Tenet modified a national intelligence estimate on Iraq to include the al Qaeda connection after a briefing from a special Pentagon unit that studied the Iraq-al Qaeda link.

In 1998, the Clinton administration also tied Iraq to al Qaeda, saying Saddam had provided technical assistance in the construction of a chemical production plant in Sudan, undertaken with al Qaeda. In retaliation for al Qaeda’s August 1998 truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton ordered the destruction of that chemical plant.

In its statements, the commission said al Qaeda initially planned to hijack 10 jetliners on September 11.

According to information obtained by U.S. interrogators from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the September 11 mastermind captured in March 2003, in addition to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the targets included CIA and FBI headquarters, unidentified nuclear power plants and the tallest buildings in California and Washington state.

The centerpiece of the plan, Mohammed said, was a tenth plane he would have piloted himself. Rather than crashing it into a target, he said he would have killed every male adult on board and then landed at a U.S. airport, where he would have denounced U.S. policies in the Middle East and then freed the women and children.

The “scale and complexity” of that proposal received a “lukewarm response” from the al Qaeda leadership, commission investigators said, and bin Laden later approved the use of four jets.

The statements also said:

• Since the September 11 attacks and the defeat of the Taliban, al Qaeda’s funding has decreased significantly. The organization also has changed from one with a centralized command, where bin Laden approved all al Qaeda operations, to one that is decentralized, where cell leaders make command decisions.

• The U.S. Capitol and the White House were both considered primary targets in the September 11 attacks. A fourth hijacked plane, which was headed to the District when passengers aboard confronted the hijackers, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

• There were “pilot hijackers” and the “muscle hijackers.” Those described as the muscle were assigned to storm the cockpits and control the passengers. Many were unemployed, lacked education and worked out in local gyms. The pilot hijackers booked first-class seats on cross-country flights to observe airline security procedures.

• The September 11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000, which included flight training, living expenses, vehicles, insurance and travel.

• Contrary to popular understanding, bin Laden did not fund al Qaeda through a personal fortune of $300 million inherited from his family, but through a global fund-raising network he created that routes $1 million a year to al Qaeda.

• Nine months before an explosives-laden boat damaged the USS Cole anchored in Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12, 2000, killing 17 sailors, an attempt by al Qaeda to attack a U.S. warship was made in January 2000, aimed at the USS The Sullivans, but failed because the attack boat was overloaded with explosives and sank.

• The quality of the training provided at al Qaeda and other jihadist camps was “apparently quite good,” with emphasis on ideological and religious indoctrination branding the United States and Israel as evil. The camps allowed trainees the freedom to think creatively about ways to commit mass murder.

Much of the Bush administration’s belief that al Qaeda and Iraq are connected centers on Abu Musab Zarqawi, a top al Qaeda leader linked to the Madrid train bombings and the beheading of American Nicholas Berg. Zarqawi, in Iraq since 2002, operated a terrorist camp in northern Iraq that specialized in developing chemical weapons.

According to a Zarqawi letter obtained by U.S. officials, he is determined to ignite a civil war in Iraq between his Muslim sect, the Sunnis, and the majority Shi’ites. The United States believes he is behind suicide bombings that have killed scores of Iraqis in the Shi’ite south.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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