A member of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks now admits a senior officer in an elite unit of the security services of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein may have been a member of al-Qaida involved in the planning of the suicide hijackings.
On Wednesday, the commission published a staff statement saying that contacts between the regime and al-Qaida “do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship” and that, “We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaida cooperated on attacks against the United States.”
But John F. Lehman, a member of the commission told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that documents captured in Iraq “indicate that there is at least one officer of Saddam’s Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al-Qaida.”
The Fedayeen were a special unit of volunteers given basic training in irregular warfare. The lieutenant colonel, Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, has the same name as an Iraqi thought to have attended a planning meeting for the Sept. 11 attacks in January 2000, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The meeting was also attended by two of the hijackers, Khalid al Midhar and Nawaf al Hamzi and senior al-Qaida leaders.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the presence of Shakir at the planning meeting last month and WND pointed it out as one of dozens of connections between the Hussein regime and al-Qaida last week.
Lehman said that commission staff members continued to work on the issue and experts cautioned that the connection might be nothing more than coincidence.
“Shakir is a pretty common name,” said terrorism analyst and author Peter Bergen, “and even if the two names refer to the same person, there might be a number of other explanations. Perhaps al-Qaida had penetrated Saddam’s security apparatus.”
Analysts say the Fedayeen was not an intelligence unit, but an irregular militia recruited from clans loyal to the regime in the capital, in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and in the surrounding Tigris valley area. Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank set up by the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, described them to United Press International last year as “thugs and bumpkins.”
He said the Fedayeen were “at the low end of the food chain in the security apparatus, doing street level work for the regime.”
Nevertheless, the revelation seems sure to stoke the controversy over the extent of links between al-Qaida and Saddam’s regime, links that were cited by the Bush administration as a justification for the invasion of Iraq.
Democratic panel member Richard Ben-Veniste agreed that the panel should study any more recent intelligence, “If there is additional information, we’re happy to look at it, and we think we should get it.”
The commission’s two days of meetings last week marked their final public gatherings. They are to deliver a final report by July 26. Congress formed the commission to look into possible U.S. intelligence failures prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in which some 3,000 people were killed after the hijacking of four jetliners than crashing the aircraft into buildings in New York and Washington and in rural Pennsylvania.