Thursday, July 15, 2004

A British government report made public yesterday provides new information showing that al Qaeda terrorists had contacts with Iraqi intelligence in developing chemical arms and that the group worked with a Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist.

The special report by former top civil servant Robin Butler on British prewar intelligence found gaps in reporting on Iraq’s weapons and also disclosed new details of terrorist activities of al Qaeda associate Abu Musab Zarqawi, who is leading attacks in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

On al Qaeda’s efforts to obtain nuclear arms, the report stated that Osama bin Laden set up a laboratory in Afghanistan in 1999 and that a former Pakistani nuclear scientist, Bashir Mahmoud, was “associated with the Taliban or al Qaeda.”

For al Qaeda’s chemical arms development, the report said, intelligence reports from 1999 identified al Qaeda member Abu Khabbab as “an explosives and chemicals expert who ran training courses which included information on how to make and use poisons.”

Those reports were confirmed after the ouster of the Taliban, when U.S. troops found videos showing chemical arms tests on animals and chemical arms training manuals.

The British report also said Khabbab was developing biological agents, a claim that was confirmed by the discovery of a laboratory in Kandahar and evidence that scientists had been recruited for weapons work.

A March 2003 British intelligence report stated that Zarqawi “has established sleeper cells in Baghdad, to be activated during a U.S. occupation of the city.”

“These cells apparently intend to attack U.S. targets using car bombs and other weapons,” the report said, noting that “it is also possible that they have received [chemical-biological] materials from terrorists in the [Kurdish Autonomous Zone].”

The report also said that “al Qaeda-associated terrorists continued to arrive in Baghdad in early March.”

The report traced the history of intelligence on al Qaeda’s interest and actions in seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons from the late 1990s.

A January 2000 intelligence report stated that bin Laden in the autumn of 1999 “had recruited … chemicals specialists.”

“Our assessment remains that [bin Laden] has some toxic chemical and biological materials and an understanding of their utility as terrorist weapons. But we have yet to see hard intelligence that he possesses genuine nuclear material.”

Then after the September 11 terrorist attacks, British intelligence warned that bin Laden’s suicide-attack philosophy “had changed the calculus of threat.”

The spy service concluded that terrorists now sought to “cause casualties on a massive scale, undeterred by the fear of alienating the public or their own supporters” that had been a constraining factor in the 1990s, the report said.

“In the context of [bin Laden’s] jihad, casualties and destruction could be an end in themselves as much as a means to an end,” the report said, quoting a 2001 intelligence report. “He has no interest in negotiation and there is no indication that he can be deterred.”

British intelligence assessments of connections between al Qaeda and Saddam’s government were similar to U.S. intelligence assessments, the report said, adding that there were “contacts between al Qaeda and the Iraqi Directorate General of Intelligence since 1998.”

“Those reports described al Qaeda seeking toxic chemicals as well as other conventional terrorist equipment,” the report said. “Some accounts suggested that Iraqi chemical experts may have been in Afghanistan during 2000.”

The British concluded that the contacts did not lead to “practical cooperation” because of mutual distrust.

“Intelligence nonetheless indicates that … meetings have taken place between senior Iraqi representatives and senior al Qaeda operatives,” the report said. “Some reports also suggest that Iraq may have trained some al Qaeda terrorists since 1998. Al Qaeda has shown interest in gaining chemical and biological expertise from Iraq, but we do not know whether any such training was provided.”

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