Osama, Saddam, and the Bombs

Osama, Saddam, and the Bombs

Osama, Saddam, and the Bombs

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 28 2001 8:30 PM

Osama, Saddam, and the Bombs

The Iraq hawks are circling. Though Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell insist that Saddam Hussein has not been linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other administration conservatives are lobbying strenuously to make Hussein a prime target of the anti-terror war. Sen. Jesse Helms says we should strike Iraq soon. William Safire clamors for it in the New York Times. The cover of the current Weekly Standard shows a "Wanted" poster of Bin Laden and Hussein.

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Much—though certainly not all—of the smash-Iraq sentiment is rooted in the idea that Iraq is responsible, either directly or indirectly, for Sept. 11. Why do some think Iraq is to blame? How strong is the evidence?

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

By far the most publicized theory of Iraqi guilt is championed by Laurie Mylroie, who publishes the newsletter Iraq News and has taught at the U.S. Naval War College. She believes that Iraq probably sponsored the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and thus should be suspect this time. "If Iraq is behind the 1993 bombing, it is highly suggestive that it may be behind this attack," she says.

Mylroie outlined her theory of the 1993 bombing in Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War AgainstAmerica, published in 2000 by the American Enterprise Institute. She has strong supporters. Wolfowitz and conservative foreign policy svengali Richard Perle blurbed the book last year. Former CIA Director James Woolsey has adopted her cause since Sept. 11, writing an article about it for the NewRepublic and giving numerous interviews supporting her theory.

What is the essence of Mylroie's argument? Prosecutors and journalists blamed the 1993 WTC attack on a motley conspiracy inspired by blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. But Mylroie believes that Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the plot, was in fact an Iraqi intelligence agent. Yousef escaped New York after the 1993 bombing and eventually relocated to the Philippines, where he schemed to bomb a dozen airliners over the Pacific Ocean and perhaps assassinate the pope. The airliner plot collapsed when bomb materials caught fire in a Manila apartment. Yousef fled to Pakistan, where he was arrested and extradited to the United States. He's serving a life sentence in federal prison. The Sept. 11 assault, notes Woolsey, is "an amalgam of Yousef's trade center bombing and his airliner bombing plot."

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The key to Mylroie's theory is her contention that Ramzi Yousef is not who the U.S. government says he is. In the World Trade Center trials, prosecutors suggested that Yousef was probably Abdul Basit, a Kuwaiti of Pakistani origin who had been radicalized as a student before coming to America to plan the bombing. Yousef traveled on Basit's Pakistani passport when he fled the United States after the bombing.

Mylroie, after digging through very complicated passport and phone records, argues that Yousef is not Abdul Basit at all. Instead, she says, Yousef probably assumed Basit's identity, and Basit's passport and other papers were doctored to fit Yousef's history. (Yousef's fingerprints seem to have been inserted into Kuwaiti records, for example.) Why does this suggest Yousef is an Iraqi agent? Because, according to Mylroie, Basit's records were tampered with during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and the Basit family seems to have disappeared during the occupation. Mylroie and Woolsey speculate that Iraq, having trained agent Ramzi Yousef, searched Kuwaiti records to find someone who looked like Yousef. When Iraqi officials found that person, Abdul Basit, they made him and his family disappear, then altered his records in order to establish a credible fake identity for Yousef. But it was not a perfect match. Mylroie details apparent discrepancies between Basit and Yousef. Among the most telling ones: Yousef is apparently several inches taller than Basit was and probably significantly older.

Mylroie and Woolsey are urging the United States to test the theory by checking Ramzi Yousef's fingerprints against fingerprints of Abdul Basit's that may be available in England (where he was a student). They would also like to bring old friends of Abdul Basit's to visit Yousef in prison and confirm his identity.

Mylroie presents other evidence to buttress her theory. When Yousef fled the United States, he made his way to Baluchistan, a wild area divided among Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran that is home to several million ethnic Baluch. The Baluch, long at odds with Iran's leadership, have extremely close ties to the Iraqi government. Another clue: The World Trade Center bombing occurred on the anniversary of the Gulf War cease-fire. And, finally, the only bombing conspirator who hasn't been caught, Abdul Rahman Yasin, seems to be living comfortably in Baghdad. (Why did the United States overlook the evidence Mylroie cites? Click for her explanation.)

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Study of Revenge does not stop at the 1993 bombing. Mylroie also tries to link Hussein to the 1998 Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Her evidence for this is much sketchier. The bombings occurred at a time convenient for Iraq. Hussein's rhetoric was extremely inflammatory right before the bombings. And Hussein and Bin Laden—who was directly responsible for those bombings—share close ties with Sudanese intelligence and thus may have collaborated.

The fact that no significant evidence yet exists linking Hussein to Sept. 11 does not daunt Mylroie and Woolsey. "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence," Woolsey says. They say it's possible Iraq and Bin Laden cooperated in ways we don't know yet. "There is nothing that requires terrorism to be pursued under an exclusive contract," says Woolsey.

Does the Mylroie hypothesis hold up? Even most of Mylroie's critics acknowledge the diligence of her research into Yousef's identity and travels. And most agree that she has cast significant doubt about Ramzi Yousef's identity. But there's skepticism about her conclusion that it can only mean Iraqi culpability. "It is a tour de force, but it's a tour de force of alchemy," says Daniel Pipes, editor of Middle East Quarterly. "It has a fundamentally wrong premise."

The sharpest critique of Mylroie is that she discounts evidence that Yousef worked not for Iraq but for Osama Bin Laden. Yousef's co-conspirator in the Philippines airliner plot was Waly Khan Amin Shah—a "big buddy of Osama's," according to CNN's Peter Bergen, author of the forthcoming Holy War, Inc. about Bin Laden. Bin Laden said in an interview that he was friends with Waly Khan and did not deny that he was Waly Khan's boss. Bin Laden biographer Yossef Bodansky, Time magazine, and other media outlets concur that Ramzi Yousef worked for a Bin Laden-funded operation in the Philippines. So does American intelligence, apparently. "The U.S. government, without saying it directly, believes that both Ramzi Yousef operations are traceable to Osama Bin Laden," says Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of counterterrorism for the CIA. Mylroie still says that Bin Laden has nothing to do with Yousef and dismisses Bin Laden's assertion of friendship with Waly Khan as just Bin Laden "blowing himself up and making himself seem important. There is nothing to corroborate the claim at all."

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There are other criticisms of Mylroie's theory. Though Yousef fled the United States on Abdul Basit's Pakistani passport, he had entered the States with an Iraqi passport in the name Ramzi Yousef. Why would an Iraqi agent travel openly as an Iraqi?

Pipes also notes that Saddam Hussein's operatives tend to be "ham-fisted." The last terrorist act directly connected to Iraq was the incredibly clumsy 1993 assassination attempt on former President George Bush. By contrast, the 1993 WTC bombing, the 1998 embassy bombings, and the Sept. 11 attacks were all well-planned.

Mylroie offers no real evidence linking Hussein to the 1998 bombings.

Mylroie's strongest contention, that Ramzi Yousef is not Abdul Basit, does not confirm that Iraq bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. It just confirms that Ramzi Yousef is more mysterious than we suspect. It could still be that al-Qaida, not Hussein, provided Yousef with training, fake papers, and resources.

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Finally, though few analysts dispute that Bin Laden and Hussein could work together on something like Sept. 11, evidence is scanty that they have cooperated successfully. Connections between Iraq and Bin Laden do not seem strong. Iraqi officials have intermittently met with al-Qaida reps, but to little effect. According to Cannistraro, Bin Laden refused Iraq's offer of refuge in the late '90s because he feared "he would become a tool of the Iraqis." Cannistraro and others agree "there is no strong evidence of any resources other than Bin Laden's being used in these attacks."

Mylroie's is not the only theory connecting Iraq to Sept. 11 or to Bin Laden. It has been much reported that hijacker Mohamed Atta may have met with one of Iraq's top intelligence officers in Europe. So far, no evidence has emerged publicly that the meeting was connected to the hijackings.

And Jane's Foreign Report, citing Israel military intelligence, floated the idea last week that the plot was a grand operation shared by Iraq, a Bin Laden lieutenant, and Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah terrorist wanted for all kinds of nastiness (bombing the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, perhaps bombing the U.S. Marine barracks and Embassy in Lebanon, hijacking planes …).

This theory is problematic. The head of Israeli military intelligence insisted several days later that Israel has no evidence linking Iraq to Sept. 11. And it is very hard to believe that Hezbollah's Mughniyeh would ever cooperate with a Bin Ladenite. Hezbollah is sponsored by Shiite Iran, which is a sworn enemy of Sunni militants like Bin Laden. The idea that Mughniyeh and Bin Laden would team up and then take instruction from Iraq is very far-fetched.

All this Iraq theorizing is important in determining what kind of military campaign the United States will pursue. So far, the Powellites seem to be winning the fight within the administration. The United States is concentrating on its anti-Bin Laden coalition and elaborately avoiding the Iraq question. The rest of the world, including the Arab world, is signing up for the anti-Bin Laden campaign because it's seen as a fair tit for tat. There is no such support for a broader war against Iraq. Other countries, especially Arab countries, would not wage war against Hussein just because he's a bad guy. Before the world will enlist against Hussein, American officials will need to prove that he was behind Sept. 11. To do that, they must find stronger evidence than Mylroie, Woolsey, and others have presented so far.