9/11 Panel Says Iraq Rebuffed bin Laden
By HOPE YEN, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reported Wednesday that Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) met with a top Iraqi official in 1994 but found "no credible evidence" of a link between Iraq (news - web sites) and al-Qaida in attacks against the United States.
In a report based on research and interviews by the commission staff, the panel said that bin Laden explored possible cooperation with Saddam even though he opposed the Iraqi leader's secular regime.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official reportedly met with bin Laden in 1994 in Sudan, the panel found, and 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-Qaida also occurred after bin Laden had returned to Afghanistan (news - web sites), but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," the report said. "Two senior Bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qaida and Iraq."
The panel's findings appear to contradict Vice President Dick Cheney (news - web sites)'s assertion Monday that Saddam had "long-established ties" with al-Qaida.
In making the case for war in Iraq, Bush administration officials frequently cited what they said were Saddam's decade-long contacts with al-Qaida operatives. They stopped short of claiming that Iraq was directly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks but critics say Bush officials left that impression with the American public.
The commission's report was released at the beginning of the panel's final two-day hearing on the development of the Sept. 11 plot and the emergency response by the Federal Aviation Administration (news - web sites) and U.S. air defenses.
"We're going to talk about the evolution of al-Qaida and how they moved from one type of organization in the late 1980s to a more fast-acting, poisonous organization in the 1990s, more spread out and dispersed," Democratic commissioner Timothy Roemer said before the hearing.
"We'll be looking at the timeline as to whether or not we had an opportunity to deflect any of the airliners, and how decisions were made by the highest people in government," he said.
In its report, the commission reiterated an oft-repeated warning by the Bush administration, saying al-Qaida remains poised to attack the United States in a devastating chemical, biological or "dirty bomb" attack.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the terror group has become much more dispersed, with less funding following the arrests or deaths of key financiers. But the group has learned to operate on much smaller sums than the estimated $30 million spent annually prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the report said.
"Al-Qaida is actively striving to attack the United States and inflict mass casualties," the report said. The report noted in particular the group's "ambitious" biological weapons program and efforts in 1994 to purchase uranium.
"Al-Qaida and other extremist groups will likely continue to exploit leaks of national security information in the media, open-source information on techniques such as mixing explosives, and advances in electronics," it said.
In the preliminary report, the commission points to a series of attacks on the United States or its allies as early as 1992 that U.S. intelligence would determine by the late 1990s were linked to bin Laden or his terror group.
They included a December 1992 explosion outside two hotels in Aden, Yemen; the October 1993 killing of 18 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia; a November 1995 car bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and the June 1995 explosion at the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden's ties to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a failed plot to blow up commercial aircraft in 1994 in Manila, Philippines, are unclear, but they offered significant warning signs that Islamic terrorists were intent on demolishing American symbols and inflicting mass casualties, the panel said.
"What is clear is that these plots were major benchmarks in the evolving Islamist threat to the United States and foreshadowed later attacks that were indisputably carried out by al Qaeda under bin Laden's direction," the report stated.
Scheduled to testify Wednesday were field agents from the FBI (news - web sites) and CIA (news - web sites), as well as Patrick Fitzgerald, a former attorney in New York who prosecuted alleged terrorists in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
Other key findings from the commission:
_A month after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole (news - web sites) that killed 17 sailors, U.S. investigators learned that two senior al-Qaida operatives were involved. The one detail that could not be clearly determined at the time was whether bin Laden directly ordered the attack; that was not ascertained until April 2003.
_No convincing evidence shows that al-Qaida received state-sponsored financial support, although some governments such as Saudi Arabia may have "turned a blind eye" to the group's fund-raising activities.
_Bin Laden decided he wanted to attack the United States by 1992, and worked meticulously in building an organizational structure of senior operatives and a broader Islamic army from terror groups throughout Africa and the Mideast.
The commission, facing a July 26 deadline for a final report, is winding down its 1 1/2-year investigation after interviewing more than 1,000 witnesses, including President Bush (news - web sites) and Cheney, and reviewing more than 2 million documents.
Several commissioners have told The Associated Press that drafts of the final report detail the many communication gaps and missteps by FBI and intelligence officials in detecting the plot. But they said the drafts refrain from placing blame on individuals in the Bush and Clinton administrations to avoid charges of partisanship.
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