Washington, 16 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The independent panel investigating the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States has said that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sought help from Saddam Hussein 10 years ago, but that the now-deposed Iraqi president ignored the plea.
The written report issued today by the commission directly contradicts assertions by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush of connections between Hussein and bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network. This was one reason Bush gave for going to war in Iraq.
In a staff report issued today, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- better known as the 9/11 Commission -- said Hussein did send a high-ranking Iraqi intelligence official to Sudan to meet with bin Laden in 1994. But it said the Iraqi president rebuffed his requests for help.
In fact, the report concluded that there is "no convincing evidence" of any collaboration between Al-Qaeda and Hussein or any other government, with the exception of Afghanistan's Taliban, which allowed Al-Qaeda to operate in that country.
The report was released as the commission began holding its 12th and final public hearing on the attacks and the U.S. government's response. The witnesses spoke of how Al-Qaeda is organized, and how it operates as a Muslim charity organization as well as a militant organization.
The report concluded that there is "no convincing evidence" of any collaboration between Al-Qaeda and Hussein or any other government, with the exception of Afghanistan's Taliban.
Among today's witnesses were Patrick Fitzgerald, a federal prosecutor based in Chicago, and an official of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who was referred to only as "Dr. K," to cloak his identity.
Fitzgerald, who has prosecuted many cases related to terrorism, said Al-Qaeda has a deep and broad knowledge of how the United States works and how well -- and sometimes how badly -- it protects its borders. He said it is important for U.S. and other Western officials not to underestimate the organization.
"I think when we think about the nature of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda, we have to recognize that we're dealing with very intelligent people, very well trained and very patient," Fitzgerald said. "And the other thing we need to do is recognize that they recognize who we are and what our strengths and weaknesses are. And one of the things they plan and train to do is to exploit our weaknesses."
For example, Fitzgerald said, Al-Qaeda knows how U.S. immigration officials operate, and how their efforts can be nullified. He said that is how they manage to infiltrate the country and blend in with ordinary citizens.
Dr. K spoke of Al-Qaeda's organizational abilities, particularly its ability to project an image that draws popular support, as well as recruits. The CIA official said Al-Qaeda carefully created a persona for bin Laden as a member of a wealthy family who rejected a life of ease to risk his life in the pursuit of religious purity. This characterization worked because bin Laden lived up to it, he said.
"Bin Laden himself increased his credibility by laying out his program and sticking to it. He said what he meant and he meant what he said. This allowed the group to operate anywhere, and attract support and members everywhere," "Dr. K" said.
The commission's conclusion that there was no link between Hussein and Al-Qaeda was only the latest and most authoritative indication that bin Laden has been operating without Iraqi help.
For example, Richard Clarke, who was the White House's chief counterterrorism official for a decade, said that link did not exist. And there have been many reports that bin Laden scorned Hussein because he is not an observant Muslim.
Yet, as recently as 14 June, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney justified the Iraq war by citing what he called Hussein's "long-established ties" with Al-Qaeda. And on 15 June, when asked about that link, Bush cited the attacks in Iraq claimed by Abu Mu'sab al-Zarqawi, who claims to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Bush called this the "best evidence" of Iraq links to Al-Qaeda.