By Laurie Mylroie, author of
Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America.
n enemy state was surely behind the carnage in New York and Washington. Only a state really has the capability to carry out such a massive, complex, and sophisticated operation. And the most obvious state is Iraq. The U.S. bombs Iraq on a regular basis and enforces an economic siege whose origins lie in the Gulf War. Indeed, that war never really ended.
Yet we seem unable to comprehend the nature of last week's attacks and perhaps even to deal with them effectively. The focus is on Osama bin Laden. Somehow, he appears a more likely culprit than Iraq, even as the two may work together. This confusion has its origins in the Clinton administration's handling of terrorism, particularly the two bombing conspiracies that occurred in the first six months of its first term in office.
The Trade Center was first attacked on February 26, 1993, in an attempt to topple New York's tallest tower onto its twin (a job completed last week.) New York FBI, most notably its head, Jim Fox, who directed the investigation in New York, believed that Iraq was responsible that it was a "false flag" operation, run by Iraqi intelligence, with the Muslim extremists who participated in the plot left behind to be arrested and take the blame.
The bomb was huge. It created a crater six-stories deep in the basement floors. Fox's background was in counterintelligence. He understood that the violent, but dimwitted individuals he was arresting like Mohammed Salameh, detained after he returned to the Ryder rental agency to recover his deposit on the van that had carried the bomb could not have carried out the attack themselves.
There were Iraqis all around the fringe of the conspiracy. Indeed, one is an indicted fugitive, who came from Baghdad before the bombing and returned there afterwards. The attack occurred on the proximate anniversary of the Gulf War ceasefire (February 28, a Sunday in 1993) and that war was still a vivid memory.
Thus, there was good reason to suspect Iraq. And the White House was aware of it. Yet it came to believe that it could address the terrorism in New York, without explaining publicly what had happened.
When former President George Bush visited Kuwait in April, Saddam tried to assassinate him, a plot thwarted by Kuwaiti officials. At roughly the same time, New York FBI launched an undercover operation to teach the Muslim extremists a lesson. An Egyptian informant acted as agent provocateur. A Sudanese émigré picked up the bait to make "jihad." His first target was a Manhattan armory. But he had two "friends" in Sudan's U.N. Mission, intelligence agents, who ended up picking the targets: the U.N., New York's federal building, and two tunnels.
When the FBI had the evidence it needed above all the conspirators on video mixing what they believed to be explosives it arrested them. Of course, U.S. authorities were aware of the involvement of Sudanese intelligence, because they were running the plot. The White House believed that Sudan was fronting for another country, because U.S.-Sudanese relations were not so hostile then as to justify terrorism on a scale tantamount to war. It thought in terms of Islamic fundamentalism and thought of Iran.
Two days after the arrest of the conspirators in that plot, on June 26, Clinton attacked Iraqi intelligence headquarters. Publicly, Clinton said the strike was retaliation for Saddam's attempt to kill Bush. But he believed it would take care of the New York bombing conspiracies too. It would deter Saddam from all further terrorism, while serving as warning to Sudan and Iran for their roles in the second plot. By dealing with state involvement in terrorism in this fashion, Clinton avoided riling the American public, which might have demanded that the U.S. do a great deal more if it had understood what had happened, or was thought to have happened.
For Iran was, almost certainly, not the hidden hand in the second plot, whose first target was the U.N. Iran had no quarrel with the U.N. For Iran, the most important issue in its dealings with the U.N. was the Security Council resolution ending the Iran-Iraq war. That resolution declared Iraq the aggressor and stipulated that Iraq owed Iran tens of billions of dollars in reparations.
And Iraq has close ties with Sudan. Both are Sunni, Arab states. Sudan supported Iraq during the Gulf War. Afterwards, Khartoum became a major base for Iraqi intelligence. Iraq has an enormous quarrel with the U.N., under whose auspices the Gulf War was fought and sanctions maintained. Iraq was far more likely than Iran to have been behind Sudan in the second plot.
The strike on Iraqi intelligence headquarters did deter Saddam for a while, yet as this author advised Martin Indyk in December 1994, when he was national-security adviser on the Middle East, it would not do so forever. Indeed, even as we spoke, Ramzi Yousef the mastermind of the Trade Center bombing and an Iraqi intelligence agent was plotting to bomb a dozen U.S. airplanes in the Philippines. The enormous folly of the Clinton White House was to believe that Saddam would be so impressed by that one cruise-missile strike that he would undertake no further attacks on the U.S.
The Clinton administration's sly way of handling the 1993 bombing plots gave rise to the fraudulent notion that there was a new kind of terrorism not carried out by states, but undertaken by individuals or "loose networks." Yet there was nothing new about the terrorism. What was new was how the U.S. handled it. Clinton dealt surreptitiously with the national-security issue of state involvement and very publicly with the criminal question of the guilt or innocence of individuals through trials. Predictably, more terrorism followed and the role of states in those attacks was never addressed. That led directly to last week's tragedy, as well as to our inability to recognize their real author.