By Laurie Mylroie
The pit bull with lipstick gave a rousing send-off to U.S. soldiers headed for Iraq: You are going to "defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans." Guess what? The establishment reacted with horror! The Washington Post complained the governor did not understand that any idea Saddam Hussein had been involved in 9/11 was quite discredited, while the McCain camp rushed to explain she was speaking about al Qaeda in Iraq, rather than Saddam.
Whatever Sarah Palin meant, Saddam did rejoice at the 9/11 attacks. He asserted on September 12, "The United States reaps the thorns that its rulers have planted in the world." We might make more of that, and Saddam's subsequent gloating, but the "entrenched interests" Palin challenged so powerfully at the Republican National Convention also exist when it comes to understanding terrorism, particularly the 9/11 attacks. At stake are careers, and the CIA and others past and present who have dealt with terrorism are heavily invested in absolving Iraq for 9/11. If Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, it means they all made a tremendous blunder during the previous eight years back to 1993 and the first assault on the World Trade Center. That is, the Clinton administration more broadly; along with the Republicans who led Congress then, and subsequently even the Bush White House which failed to question the Clinton-era explanation of terrorism with any meaningful vigor -- that it was all basically the product of stateless, messianic Islamic networks.
A Clan of Terrorist Masterminds
In 2002, CIA chief George Tenet told the US Congress, "We now believe that a common thread runs between the first attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993 and the 11 September attacks." Tenet explained that the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), was the uncle of Ramzi Yousef, who masterminded the 1993 Trade Center bombing, implying the same party was responsible for both attacks. In 1993, senior figures in New York FBI (pdf), the lead investigative agency, had suspected Saddam's hand in the Trade Center bombing, but the feckless Clinton White House did not want to hear that. Instead, by means that included the ever-rising "wall" that Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick (later, a 9/11 Commissioner) imposed between criminal and intelligence investigations, the Clinton administration blocked any truly informed and coordinated effort that might have shown that the terrorist attacks that occurred on its watch might be a matter of state instead of the mere "criminal justice matter" they became.
Following the Trade Center bombing, KSM and Ramzi Yousef began preparations in the Philippines to bomb a dozen U.S. airliners, before the plot went awry in January 1995 when Yousef accidentally started a fire mixing explosives. Yousef fled, but was arrested a month later in Islamabad. As the New York Times' John Burns reported:
The Pakistan newspaper, The News, which is said to have good sources in the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, said that "if features could betray geography," Mr. Yousef appeared to Pakistani investigators "as if he is from the coastal belt of Baluchistan."... Pakistani investigators had noted that President Saddam Hussein's Government in Iraq had tried to exploit animosities against the Iran Government among Baluch tribal people in southeastern Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's. The newspaper said this could explain how Mr. Yousef came into possession of the Iraqi passport that he used when he arrived in New York in September 1992, six months before the World Trade Center bombing. "If Ramzi is in fact of Iranian Baluch origin, it would not have been big problem for him to get an Iraq passport," the newspaper said.
KSM, for his part, hid in Qatar. In early 1996, as U.S. officials sought to arrest him, he was alerted and fled again, soon joining up with bin Laden, who was expelled from Sudan to Afghanistan that May.
It is the official U.S. position that one Baluch family -- KSM and his nephews -- lies at the heart of the most ambitiously lethal terrorist plots directed against U.S. targets, starting with the Trade Center bombing, culminating in the 9/11 attacks, and even continuing beyond. After KSM was captured in March 2003, U.S. officials told the Washington Post that "they are concerned that his nephews -- the brothers of imprisoned terrorist Ramzi Yousef -- may be positioned to take over planning of future terror attacks." Two men were named, and one proved a central figure in a plot to bomb U.S. financial centers, as well as British targets, that was disrupted in the summer of 2004.
Yet another KSM nephew, a cousin to Ramzi Yousef and his brothers -- Ali Abdul Aziz Ali (aka Ammar al Baluchi) -- was KSM's "right-hand man" in carrying out the 9/11 attacks, as Deputy Attorney General James Comey explained.
Most people, oddly including many U.S. officials involved in the war on terrorism, are unaware of the centrality of this clan to these major terrorist plots! To borrow a phrase from Roberta Wohlstetter's prize-winning Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, the existence of this clan of terrorist masterminds is a "signal" -- important information -- lost amid a lot of "noise" -- unimportant information. And it acquires even more significance when one more point is considered.
Al Qaeda's Conspiracy Began in 1996
The official U.S. position holds that al Qaeda's conspiracy against the United States began with Osama bin Laden's August 1996 "Declaration of Jihad," issued a few months after he was forced to leave Sudan for Afghanistan. Al Qaeda's first major attack on a U.S. target was the August 7, 1998, bombings of two embassies in Africa. This is reflected in the charges against KSM and other Guantanamo Bay detainees It is also reflected in the just-completed military trial of bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan. The FBI agent who had interrogated Hamdan testified, telling the jury, "Before the 1998 embassies bombings, Hamdan did not know the intended targets...but reported that he heard from an al Qaeda aide that this would be 'the very first time that bin Laden was going head to head with America. So they were careful and nervous about that.'"
Thus, the major terrorist attacks against the United States began with KSM and his nephews. Then al Qaeda began its major attacks, five years later in 1998, after KSM had joined up with bin Laden. This sequence suggests the possibility of an alternative explanation -- one raised by Edward Jay Epstein among a handful of others, including this author: KSM and his Baluch clan may represent something more sophisticated: that a terrorist state may have covertly penetrated al Qaeda and helped bin Laden do what he wanted to do, but otherwise lacked the ability to execute.
Because KSM and his nephews are Baluch, and the Baluch were known for their ties to Saddam's Iraq -- those ties are also described by Mary Anne Weaver, who has covered the Muslim world for The New Yorker for over 20 years -- Iraq would be the top suspect as the terrorist state behind this family of Baluch terrorist masterminds. So if Sarah Palin intended an Iraq-al Qaeda role in 9/11, she may well prove more correct than the intelligence establishment and its political and media allies, as history begins to provide factual evidence to support the suggestion that Saddam may well have provided critical expertise, and perhaps other resources, for al Qaeda's most lethal terrorism.
Laurie Mylroie (lauriemylroie.com) is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein's War Against America (AEI Press).