Of the many different strands of intelligence reporting provided in the annex of Douglas Feith's letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the one that is perhaps the most interesting has received the least attention. Several reports deal with early contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida in the early 1990s that were brokered by Hassan al-Turabi, then the Islamist leader of Sudan. Al-Turabi, who engineered the creation of the National Islamic Front government with strongman Omar Bashir, helped turn his country into a magnet for jihadist terrorists and invited Osama Bin Laden and his organization to settle there. The Iraq-Sudan-al-Qaida triangle in this period is interesting because this was, in my opinion, the moment when cooperation between Saddam and Bin Laden came closest to being a reality.
The best evidence of that was provided in the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of the al Shifa chemical plant in Khartoum in 1998. Those with long memories will recall that a chemical precursor to the nerve agent VX—a substance known by the acronym EMPTA—was found in the famous soil sample some time before the attack. Although there were claims that the chemical could have been a derivative of a pesticide, a never-refuted CIA analysis showed that EMPTA had no commercial use anywhere in the world. There are several different ways of producing VX, but what made the presence of EMPTA so interesting was, as a government briefing following the attack disclosed, EMPTA appeared only in the Iraqi production method. In addition, officials told reporters that Iraqi weapons scientists had been linked to al Shifa, and this connection was independently verified by U.N. weapons inspectors.
While the press and many politicians dismissed the attack on al Shifa as a major blunder, no one was still paying close attention in early 2001 when Jamal Ahmad al-Fadl, a Sudanese defector from al-Qaida, took the witness stand in the East Africa embassy bombings trial in New York. Al-Fadl, the opening and star witness, testified that al-Qaida had indeed been working to produce chemical weapons in Khartoum.
I believe that the al-Qaida-Iraq connection probably remained indirect—that Baghdad had little knowledge of Bin Laden's investment in the Sudanese chemical weapons production. But it is strange that the Bush foreign policy team, for all its ardor to show a Bin Laden-Saddam connection, has never wanted to discuss this case at all. Perhaps the prospect of giving Bill Clinton credit for the first pre-emptive strike against terrorists who might be acquiring a weapon of mass destruction is simply too much for them.