The Iraqi Connection: Did Osama bin Laden act alone? Not likely.
BY LAURIE MYLROIE
Thursday, September 13, 2001
Whether Osama bin Laden was involved in Tuesday's terrorist assault remains to be seen. Yet if that proves to
be so, it is extremely unlikely that he acted on his own. It is far more likely that he operated in conjunction with a
state--the state with which the U.S. remains at war, namely Iraq.
First, bin Laden's Afghan-based al-Qaeda organization does not really have the organizational capabilities to
carry out such well-coordinated attacks. Someone had to understand how to smuggle weapons through U.S.
airport security and which airports and airlines to choose. The hijacked planes were flown by terrorists as they
crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Where did these pilots come from?
During the recently completed trial for the 1998 African embassy bombings, a story emerged of bin Laden's
attempt to acquire a pilot and airplane. He turned to an Egyptian, Essam Rida, who had previously been involved
in the fighting in Afghanistan, but had since settled in the U.S. Rida purchased a mothballed jet in 1993,
refurbished it and flew it to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, then returned home. Some months later,
al-Qaeda called him back to Khartoum to take some passengers to Nairobi. Apparently, no one else could fly the
At year's end, he was called back again. The plane had not been maintained and was in terrible condition. Rida
nonetheless took it out on a test flight. When he landed the plane, the brakes failed, so he drove it into a sand
dune on the edge of the landing strip and left it there. Indeed, following the conclusion of that trial, the New York
Times noted the discrepancy between the image of al-Qaeda as a fearsome terrorist organization and the reality
of a group that was "at times slipshod, torn by inner strife, betrayal, greed."
Moreover, the trial revealed that al-Qaeda was intimately connected to at least one foreign intelligence agency:
Sudan's. In 1991, Sudanese intelligence approached bin Laden, then based in Afghanistan, and invited him to
move to Khartoum, which he did. The government's star witness--who defected from al-Qaeda in 1996--also
worked for Sudanese intelligence. The information that emerged in the trial about the close ties between bin
Laden and the Sudanese government helps explain why the U.S. also struck Khartoum, in addition to bin
Laden's camps in Afghanistan, in retaliation for the embassy bombings.
Yet although the trial detailed close ties between Sudanese intelligence and al-Qaeda, they were not portrayed
as especially significant. Instead attention focused on the individual wrongdoers, some of them in the dock,
others still on the lam. Presumably, that is because a prosecutor cannot indict and convict a state, or at least not
so easily. Thus, the trial distorted the public understanding of bin Laden's terrorism to make it appear to be a
States have far more capabilities for terrorist actions than do individuals. They control territory; maintain
embassies abroad; regularly transfer material in diplomatic pouches, secure from outside probing; and often
have very large intelligence agencies.
And al-Qaeda's demonstrated ties to Sudanese intelligence raise another question. Iraq has close ties to Sudan.
Sudan supported Iraq during the Gulf War and subsequently established Khartoum as a major center for Iraqi
intelligence. Abd al Samad al-Ta'ish, a highly placed Iraqi intelligence agent, was Iraq's ambassador to Khartoum
until the summer of 1998. Al-Ta'ish arrived in Khartoum in July 1991 with 35 other intelligence officers to
establish a base for Iraqi operations in the wake of the upheaval wrought by the Gulf War.
Was al-Qaeda also in contact with Iraqi intelligence while it was based in Khartoum? The months preceding the
Aug. 7, 1998, embassy bombings are suggestive. The bombings occurred during Saddam's campaign to drive
the United Nations weapons inspectors (known as Unscom) out of Iraq. Starting in the fall of 1997, Baghdad
orchestrated a series of crises that had the effect, a year later, of ending Unscom's presence there.
Following the "resolution" of the second crisis, in late February 1998, through the mediation of U.N.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, bin Laden began to issue a series of bloody-minded threats against Americans.
Soon Baghdad was issuing its own threats, asserting that its proscribed weapons of mass destruction had been
eliminated and demanding that sanctions be lifted.
The threats issued by bin Laden, the threats issued by Iraq, and the preparations for the bombing all moved in
virtual lockstep. On Aug. 3, 1998, Unscom chairman Richard Butler arrived in Baghdad. The Iraqis demanded
that he declare Iraq in compliance or leave immediately. Mr. Butler departed the next day. The following day,
Aug. 5, Baghdad declared "suspension day"--that is, the suspension of weapons inspections. It restated its
previous threats, affirming, "To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight."
Two days later, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed simultaneously. Initial media
speculation focused on Iraq, but as luck would have it, one of those involved in the bombing, Muhammad Sadek
Odeh, was already in the custody of Pakistani authorities. He had flown into Karachi on a false passport that was
so ill-suited to his likeness that he was detained at the airport and subject to a harsh interrogation. U.S.
authorities soon had critical evidence linking bin Laden to the attacks.
Yet that information did not address the question of whether Iraq might also have been involved, as its harsh
threats and the crisis over Unscom had seemed to suggest. Indeed, the possibility of Iraqi involvement was
probably a line of inquiry that the Clinton White House was not interested in pursuing--although it could have
been legitimately asked whether bin Laden alone really had the capability to carry out simultaneous bombings of
two major U.S. targets.
One reason so many in the U.S. bureaucracies believe that bin Laden is the greatest terrorist threat to
America--and, therefore, quite possibly behind Tuesday's attacks--is the wealth of signals intelligence they pick
up about al-Qaeda's plotting. That intelligence leads to repeated alerts about possible attacks on U.S. targets,
including an alert last June, which caused U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and Jordan to put to sea.
It is somewhat surprising that the U.S. can regularly pick up so much information about bin Laden's planning, but
miss the signs of Tuesday's attack. Is it possible that deception--a common practice in war--is involved? Is the
U.S. meant to pick up those communications, thereby reinforcing a disposition to believe that the terrorism is
being carried out by al-Qaeda and not by an enemy state?
There is plenty of precedent for such actions. In World War II, prior to the Allied landing at Normandy, an
elaborate deception campaign was conducted to make the Germans believe that the allies would attack
elsewhere. That included the creation of a fake "First Army" in Britain, which appeared poised to attack at Pas
de Calais. False signals were a critical element of that deception. Similarly, the U.S. used fake communications
prior to the start of the Gulf War to make the Iraqis believe that it would attack their forces up through Kuwait,
while radio silence was maintained in the area where the real attack--far off to the west--would come.
It does not make a great deal of sense to attribute to one man--Osama bin Laden--all the acts of terrorism which
are regularly ascribed to him, including Tuesday's assault. It is time to take a new look at the major terrorists acts
of terrorism directed against the U.S. in recent years. Are they, perhaps, more complicated than they seem?
Indeed, are they acts of war, with all the complexity that wartime activities regularly involve?
Ms. Mylroie is author of "Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America" (American Enterprise Institute,