July 01, 2005,
Predictably, many Iraq/Qaeda naysayers are responding to my post-Bush-Iraq-speech piece by citing 9/11 Commission conventional wisdom: that the commission found there was no connection between Saddam's regime and the terror network. There will be more to say in the coming week about that misimpression, and about the commission's back-of-the-hand treatment of Iraq/Qaeda ties.
For now, let's deal with a single point which has been brought up by several readers: The Iraqi intelligence operative who has been referred to as Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, who was present at the infamous January 2000 meeting in Malaysia that kicked off the 9/11 plot (and perhaps furthered the then-ongoing conspiracy to bomb a U.S. naval vessel which succeeded with the Cole bombing ten months later).
The man's full name has been reported as Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, which is significant for reasons that will become clear momentarily.
Typical is the following from one of my correspondents:
You may want to read the 9/11 Commission report in order to clear up some misconceptions that you promoted in your article, "Its All about 9/11"
(Lack of punctuation in original.) This is a misreading of the commission's final report, albeit an entirely understandable one given the studied denseness of what the commission said about Shakir. The relevant passage is Footnote 49 (of Chapter 6) on page 502:
... [Hijacker Khalid al-]Mihdhar was met at the Kuala Lumpur airport by Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi national. Reports that he was a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Fedayeen have turned out to be incorrect. They were based on a confusion of Shakir's identity with that of an Iraqi Fedayeen colonel with a similar name, who was later (in September 2001) in Iraq at the same time Shakir was in police custody in Qatar. See CIA briefing by CTC specialists (June 22, 2004); Walter Pincus and Dan Eggen, "Al Qaeda Link to Iraq May Be Confusion over Names," Washington Post, June 22, 2004, p.A13.
This is shameful misdirection. If I were a cynic, I might speculate that the commission had a guilty conscience about Shakir. The staff report it put out a month before the final report, which was embarrassingly shoddy regarding Iraq/Qaeda ties, failed even to mention this critical person. The commission was roundly criticized for this here and elsewhere. Did the final report set about to degrade the importance of this glaring omission rather than to get to the bottom of Shakir's participation in the 9/11 plot by suggesting that Shakir was not that significant a person after all? You be the judge.
The footnote capitalized on what was then a new piece of information: a document had been recovered in Iraq which showed a man named Hikmat Shakir Ahmad listed as a Lieutenant Colonel in Saddam's Fedayeen. Initially, there was excitement that this person might be the same person as the Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi the intelligence operative of Malaysian infamy. The intelligence community, however, seems to have put that suspicion to rest since Lt. Col. Hikmat Shakir Ahmad is reported to have been in Iraq in September 2001 a time when we know Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi was in custody in Qatar (more on that in a moment).
Plainly, the commission's footnote suggests that since the guy who was in Malaysia is not the guy who was in the Fedayeen, it's case-closed as far as an Iraq/Qaeda tie is concerned. That's ridiculous. The Malaysia Shakir was important long before anyone ever suspected (probably incorrectly) Fedayeen membership. Thus, that there turns out to be a Fedayeen officer with a similar name does not change a wit fact that Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi was an Iraqi intelligence operative. All it means is that he was not, in addition, an officer in Saddam's Fedayeen.
As Steve Hayes summarized the matter in an important Weekly Standard article after the Commission's final report came out, the Shakir who was an airport facilitator got his job through one Raad al-Mudaris, an Iraqi Embassy employee who intelligence indicates was like many Iraqi diplomats part of Saddam's Intelligence Service. The CIA which, it bears noting, has been strikingly wrong over the years in many of its assessments appears to have surmised that even though al-Mudaris was an intelligence officer, the insertion of Shakir as a facilitator at an airport in Malaysia was not necessarily Iraqi intelligence business notwithstanding that al-Mudaris, rather than airport personnel in Malaysia, controlled Shakir's airport work schedule.
This is all the more curious because Shakir left the airport job, never to return to it, only two days after the Malaysia meeting with two of the 9/11 hijackers and other al Qaeda plotters.
As Hayes relates, a Senate Intelligence Committee report later concluded that "CIA's reluctance to draw a conclusion with regard to Shakir was reasonable based on the limited intelligence available and the analyst familiarity with the IIS." Translation: in dismissing the relevance of Shakir to potential Iraqi involvement with al Qaeda, we are banking on a combination of virtually no information plus a CIA assessment that the al-Mudaris/Shakir tie does not fit whatever pattern the CIA believed had to exist before it could find meaningful ties between Iraqi intelligence officers and their operatives. That's not very comforting.
Meanwhile, as Hayes further detailed, this Iraqi whose work schedule was controlled by Iraqi intelligence, was arrested in Qatar six days after 9/11
in possession of contact information for several high-ranking al Qaeda terrorists. These contacts included Zaid Sheikh Mohammed, the brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational planner of the 9/11 attacks, and Musab Yasin, an Iraqi and the brother of Abdul Rahman Yasin, who mixed the chemicals for the first World Trade Center attacks. Shakir was known to U.S. intelligence because he had received a phone call in 1993 from the safehouse where planning for the first WTC bombing took place.
As Hayes concludes:
Had the lieutenant colonel been the same Shakir as the one in Kuala Lumpur, the intrigue surrounding his activities would have certainly been heightened. But the fact that there appear to have been two different Shakirs, while interesting, does nothing to explain the activities of the Shakir described in the Senate report. (The sourcing of the 9/11 Commission report on the two Shakirs inspires little confidence. The commission cites a report in the Washington Post co-bylined by Walter Pincus, whose unbridled cynicism on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection is well known.) [That report, by Pincus and Dan Eggen, can be found here.
Thus did 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman acknowledge to Hayes, in an interview after the Commission's Final Report was released, that the "Shakir in Kuala Lumpur has many interesting connections that are so multiple in their intersections with al Qaeda-related organizations and people as to suggest something more than random chance" with respect to both al Qaeda and Iraq.
Palpably, who Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi is, and what to make of his ties to both Iraq and al Qaeda, would be matters of urgency to any serious, objective investigator probing the nature of the connection between the regime and the terror network. Why did the CIA, when it got to interview Shakir in Jordan, think he had counter-intelligence training? Why did Saddam's government go to the trouble of pressing Jordan to return him to Iraq? As with much of the now-murky corpus of knowledge on the intersection between Iraq and al Qaeda, we don't know whether these questions are even being asked in the right places, much less what the answers are.
But one thing is certain, just because Shakir may not have been in the Fedayeen does not mean he was not an Iraqi intelligence operative whose connections to al Qaeda terrorists are extremely intriguing.
Oh, and one more thing. Let's say we "connection" people have it wrong. Let's say it somehow turns out that Shakir's ties to Iraqi intelligence are insubstantial and that the circumstantial evidence he seems to provide of a purposeful Iraqi role in a critical 9/11 planning session has been overstated. Why was the commission, and why is the media, so stubbornly uncurious about Shakir?
This is a man who, undeniably, was called from a 1993 World Trade Center bombing safehouse, got a 9/11 hijacker through Malaysian customs, apparently attended a foundational 9/11 gathering, disappeared from sight (as did the hijackers and their co-conspirators) right after the Malaysia meeting, and turns up in Qatar a few days after 9/11 with contact information for the brother Khalid Sheik Mohammed (the 9/11 mastermind) and other terrorists. What is the good reason not to be curious about this apparent co-conspirator (whom the CIA once thought important enough to travel to Jordan to interview)?
Why didn't the 9/11 Commission bore into this guy regardless of whether he had Iraqi connections? It's one thing to say you don't think there's a connection. It's quite another thing to avert your eyes from anything that might suggest one.
Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.