Terror Watch: Friends of Al Qaeda

While rejecting claims that Al Qaeda had collaborated with Saddam Hussein's regime on strikes against the United States, the federal panel investigating the September 11 attacks today disclosed intriguing new evidence that Osama bin Laden's organization may have cooperated with Iraq's volatile next door neighbor: Iran.

A commission report released at a public hearing Wednesday suggests for the first time that bin Laden played a behind-the-scenes role in the deadly 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers U.S. military compound in Saudi Arabia--an attack that the FBI, after an agonizing investigation that created tensions with the Clinton White House, later concluded was planned and funded by Iranian intelligence agents.

While the link to Iran has been publicly known for some time, the 9/11 commission has uncovered evidence that in the mid-1990s Osama bin Laden cast aside religious differences with the Iranians and arranged to have his terror operatives conduct training in explosives and security at Iranian-backed camps run by Hizbullah in Lebanon.

"We have seen strong but indirect evidence that [bin Laden's] organization did in fact play some as yet unknown role in the Khobar attack," the commission report states.

The panel's suggestion of an Al Qaeda-Iran link is far more than a historical footnote. Together with a rash of other new details about the rise of Al Qaeda and the origins of the September 11 plot, the commission's findings have potentially significant implications--both for U.S. diplomacy and presidential politics.

The commission found that throughout the decade prior to the September 11 attacks, bin Laden's organization forged alliances with officials in a number of foreign governments, including Iran, Sudan and Pakistan.

Indeed, the commission said there are "strong indications" that "elements of both the Pakistani and Iranian governments frequently turned a blind eye" to a flow of recruiters, travel facilitators, and document forgers who flew in and out of bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan throughout the late 1990s.

By contrast, the commission found little evidence of any collaborative relationship with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq--which the Bush administration chose to invade last year at least in part because of claimed links to Al Qaeda.

With its justification for war under continued scrutiny, the White House has been loath to give any ground. Only this week, in a campaign speech, Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that Saddam Hussein had "long established ties with Al Qaeda." President Bush yesterday asserted that the apparent activities in Iraq of Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi--a sometime ally of bin Laden--was "the best evidence of connection to Al Qaeda."

But the commission portrays a far more tenuous link to Al Qaeda--and a much more complex picture of bin Laden's organization--than has been publicly presented by the administration.

While there were indeed contacts between bin Laden and Saddam's regime in the early 1990s--the staff report says an Iraqi intelligence officer made three visits to Sudan and met with bin Laden there in 1994--the attempts to forge an operational alliance apparently failed.

"Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps [in Iraq], as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded," the staff report states.

While there have been reports of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in May 1996, "they did not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," the report states. The report notes that two senior bin Laden associates adamantly denied any ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda and then concludes: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

In a separate report on the 9/11 plot, the commission also seemed to shoot down conclusively a persistent claim made by some proponents of an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection: that lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta flew to Prague to meet with an Iraqi intelligence agent on April 9, 2001. The staff report notes Atta's cell phone was used repeatedly in Florida the week in question and there is no evidence that he left the country during this period. "We do not believe such a meeting occurred," the staff report states.

The commission staff report also pours cold water on another alleged foreign link to the attacks--a claim by the House-Senate Intelligence Committee last year suggesting there may have been some form of Saudi government sponsorship of the hijackers, especially two, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who had settled in San Diego. The House-Senate inquiry had focused on an apparent money trail that went from the Saudi Embassy in Washington to an associate of the hijackers in San Diego, another Saudi student named Omar al-Bayoumi. But while finding evidence that Bayoumi did in fact help the 9/11 hijackers settle in San Diego, the commission said it had not uncovered any evidence that he did so "knowing that they were terrorists" and there was no evidence that the hijackers received any funding from Bayoumi, an associate named Osama Bassnan or any Saudi government officials.

But the commission's suggestion of a link to the Khobar Towers attack and, by implication, the government of Iran may prove far more politically volatile. The Justice Department, in June 21, 2001, announced it had indicted 14 members of what an FBI press release described as the pro-Iran Saudi Hizbullah group for carrying out the Khobar attack, which killed 19 Americans. The indictment alleged that the plot which led to the bombing was in the works for years and involved elaborate surveillance of Americans in Saudi Arabia; reports of the results of this surveillance, the FBI said at the time, were supplied to "officials in Iran."

According to an article last year for The Wall Street Journal by Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who clashed repeatedly with the Clinton White House over his conduct of the probe, the "entire operation was planned, funded and coordinated by Iran's security services ... acting on orders from the highest levels of the regime in Tehran."

According to 9/11 commission investigators, the initial belief of U.S. investigators was that because of historical animosity between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam, the confirmation that a branch of the Iranian-supported Hizbullah was behind the Khobar bombing tended to rule out the likelihood that the Sunni-dominated Al Qaeda would have also been involved. However, according to the commission, later intelligence showed "far greater potential for collaboration between Hizbullah and Al Qaeda than many had previously thought."

According to the commission, a few years before the Khobar attack, bin Laden's representatives and Iranian officials discussed putting aside theological disputes to cooperate in their campaign against Westerners. It was then that bin Laden dispatched his operatives to Iranian-backed Hizbullah camps in Lebanon. One particular attraction for him, the commission said, was his interest in the truck-bombing tactics perfected by Hizbullah when 241 American soldiers were killed in a 1983 attack on a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Within months of that attack, President Reagan began to withdraw U.S. peacekeepers from war-torn Lebanon.

The alleged connection to Tehran is especially notable in light of intelligence last year suggesting that some Al Qaeda militants, who have been linked to more recent attacks in Saudi Arabia, may have received orders from high-ranking bin Laden lieutenants who have taken refuge in Iran. U.S. intelligence officials believe that among the top Al Qaeda operatives hiding out in Iran are senior bin Laden lieutenant Saif Al-Adel and Saad bin Laden, one of Osama's elder sons. The Iranian government has frequently asserted in recent years that it has arrested numerous Al Qaeda militants and that it has no ties to the bin Laden organization.