The Iraq Connection

In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's attacks, attention has focused on terrorist chieftain Osama bin Laden. And he may well be responsible. But intelligence and law enforcement officials investigating the case would do well to at least consider another possibility: that the attacks--whether perpetrated by bin Laden and his associates or by others--were sponsored, supported, and perhaps even ordered by Saddam Hussein.

To this end, investigators should revisit the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. A few years ago, the facts in that case seemed straightforward: The mastermind behind the bombing, who went by the alias Ramzi Yousef, was in fact a 27-year-old Pakistani named Abdul Basit. But late last year, AEI Press published Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America, a careful book about the bombing by AEI scholar Laurie Mylroie. The book's startling thesis is that the original theory of the attack, advanced by James Fox (the FBI's chief investigator into the 1993 bombing until his replacement in 1994) was correct: that Yousef was not Abdul Basit but rather an Iraqi agent who had assumed the latter's identity when police files in Kuwait (where the real Abdul Basit lived in 1990) were doctored by Iraqi intelligence during the occupation of Kuwait. If Mylroie and Fox (who died in 1997) are right, then it was Iraq that went after the World Trade Center last time. Which makes it much more plausible that Iraq has done so again.

According to the theory of the 1993 bombing embraced by federal prosecutors and the Clinton administration, Yousef/Abdul Basit was just another Middle Eastern student who became radicalized in his early twenties. But it is worth noting that the only two publicly reported items suggesting that Yousef and Abdul Basit are the same man could very easily have been products of Iraqi tampering with Kuwaiti police files: a few photocopied pages from earlier Abdul Basit passports that had clearly been tampered with, provided by Yousef in New York in 1992 to get a Pakistani passport in Abdul Basit's name, and fingerprints matching Yousef's found in Abdul Basit's police file in Kuwait. It is also worth noting that Abdul Basit and his family, who lived in Kuwait, disappeared during the Iraqi occupation, and the family has never reappeared. Was this a random tragedy of war or part of an effort to set up a false identity for Yousef?

Moreover, the Fox/Mylroie theory--that Yousef, via Iraqi intelligence, stole Abdul Basit's identity--would explain a number of troubling differences between Abdul Basit in the summer of 1989 (when he left the United Kingdom after three years of study) and Yousef in September 1992 (when he arrived in New York). If the two are indeed the same man, then, over the course of three years, he would have: (a) grown four inches (from five foot eight inches to six feet) in his twenties; (b) put on between 35 and 40 pounds; (c) developed a deformed eye; (d) developed smaller ears and a smaller mouth; (e) gone from being an innovative computer programmer to being computer-challenged; (f) aged substantially more than three years in appearance; and (g) changed from being a quiet, smiling young man respectful to women to a rather different one (a sound file in Yousef's computer, for example, includes his voice saying "Fuck, fuck, fuck" and "Shut up, you bitch").

What incentive would the U.S. government have had to overlook these changes, stipulate that Abdul Basit and Yousef were the same person, and turn away from any suggestion that Saddam was behind the first WTC attack? One can only speculate. But by arguing that the 1993 WTC bombing and a separate, FBI-thwarted plot to bomb New York tunnels and buildings were connected as parts of a common conspiracy, prosecutors made convicting the participants, under the very broad seditious conspiracy law, far simpler. As for the Clinton administration itself, there would be less need to confront Saddam, and perhaps less need to make hard choices, if it didn't finger him as being behind the WTC bombing.

And indeed, ever since Fox's ouster, federal prosecutors and the White House have hewed to the line that most terrorist attacks on the United States are either the products of "loose networks" of folks who just somehow come together or are masterminded by the mysterious and unaccountable bin Laden. Explicit state sponsorship, especially by Iraq, has not been on the agenda. The Clinton administration, meanwhile, treated Saddam--in former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger's famous metaphor--like the mole in an international version of the "Whack-a-Mole" carnival game: If you bopped him on the head, he'd stay in his hole for a while. But what has he been doing while he's down there? If Fox and Mylroie are right, quite possibly planning, financing, and backing terrorist operations against the United States.

As of yet, there is no evidence of explicit state sponsorship of the September 11 attacks. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Does it not seem curious that bin Laden issues fatwas, pushes videotapes, quotes poems, and orders his followers to talk loudly and often about his role in attacks on us? Does someone want our focus to be solely on bin Laden's hard-to-reach self, and not on a senior partner?

If we hope to answer that question, the 1993 WTC bombing is a good place to start looking. No one other than the prosecutors, the Clinton Justice Department, and the FBI had access to the materials surrounding that case until they were presented in court, because they were virtually all obtained by a federal grand jury and hence kept not only from the public but from the rest of the government under the extreme secrecy requirements of Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Now a new administration, a new attorney general, and a new FBI director should investigate the materials that Abdul Basit handled while in the United Kingdom in 1988 and 1989, which were taken into custody by Scotland Yard. If those materials have Yousef's fingerprints on them, then the Fox/Mylroie theory is likely wrong. But if they don't, then Yousef was probably a creature of Iraqi intelligence. Which means that Saddam still considered himself at war with the United States in 1993. And, tragically, he may still today.

R. James Woolsey is a partner at Shea & Gardner in Washington, D.C. He served as director of central intelligence from February 1993 to January 1995.

This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.