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No Signs of Iraq-Al Qaeda Ties Found

THE SEPT. 11 COMMISSION

9/11 report appears to dismiss a key rationale made by Bush to topple the Hussein regime.

June 17, 2004|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The commission staff investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said Wednesday that it had found "no credible evidence" of cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda in targeting America or of any other collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's terrorism network.

The findings appeared to be the most complete and authoritative dismissal of a key Bush administration rationale for invading Iraq: that Hussein's regime had worked in collusion with Al Qaeda.

Bin Laden made overtures to Hussein in the mid-1990s while he was in Sudan and again after he went to Afghanistan in 1996, but they "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," the staff said in a report. And two of Bin Laden's most senior associates, interrogated by U.S. authorities, "have adamantly denied that any ties existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq."

Also, a much-publicized meeting between a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague and lead hijacker Mohamed Atta appears not to have occurred, the commission report concluded. It based that finding on cellphone records showing Atta was in Florida at the time.

As recently as Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech in Orlando, Fla., that Hussein "had long-standing ties with Al Qaeda." Asked Tuesday about Cheney's remarks, President Bush said he supported them.

The commission, as a matter of procedure, has not endorsed any of the staff's 16 reports to date, but is expected to include them in its official report due July 26. Some of the commission's Republican members suggested during questioning Wednesday that they may not agree ultimately with the staff findings.

The staff's analysts on the Iraq issue and on Al Qaeda include Douglas J. MacEachin, former deputy director of intelligence for the CIA, and other senior intelligence and law enforcement officials.

The White House had no immediate comment Wednesday on the report's conclusion on the lack of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link, a spokesman said.

But the conclusions prompted immediate accusations from Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee.

"The administration misled America, the administration reached too far, they did not tell the truth to Americans about what was happening or their own intentions," Kerry told a National Public Radio affiliate in Michigan.

In two staff reports and in a lengthy hearing Wednesday, the commission also disclosed a wealth of details about Bin Laden and his transformation of Al Qaeda into a paramilitary operation.

The organization turned out perhaps 20,000 trained soldiers for Islamic conflicts around the globe -- but saved the most promising recruits for terrorism plots of its own.

Bin Laden and Al Qaeda forged alliances with another global terrorism group, Hezbollah. And while there was no alliance with Iraq, there were with the governments of several other nations, the independent commission concluded.

Operating as much like a statesman as a terrorist, Bin Laden entered into mutually beneficial relationships with the leaders of Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan that provided him with the protection and resources to expand Al Qaeda from a small group of militants into a global organization run much like a corporation.

There were also some surprises, according to the commission staff's findings. Among them:

* Al Qaeda appears to have played a role in the attack on the Khobar Towers military barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19 U.S. military personnel and injured hundreds more. The attack long has been attributed to Saudi Hezbollah, a radical Islamic group.

* Bin Laden, contrary to popular belief, did not use his share of a family fortune to finance Al Qaeda's growth or its acts of terror. The Saudi exile received about $1 million a year, but not his $300-million inheritance, relying instead on his charisma, networking skills and fundraising efforts to pay for the global jihad.

* Al Qaeda operated at times like a Fortune 500 company, with special committees for fundraising, budgeting, employee expenses and travel, training and for issuing religious decrees, proposing terrorist targets and authorizing attacks. But it also employed spies, infiltrators and well-placed financial facilitators to raise money, strong-arming contributions from some charities and mosques while surreptitiously taking over others to divert funds.

As a result, Al Qaeda was raising about $30 million a year or more, and distributing it equally quickly.

The actual terrorism operations were relatively inexpensive; the Sept. 11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000, and others were far cheaper, the commission staff found.

Supporting global jihad was more costly, with millions a year going to pay for broader terror operations such as maintaining training camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere, paying the salaries of jihadists -- or "holy war" fighters -- and contributing to other terrorist organizations.

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