The 9/11 Commission's Political Football
by Stephen Schwartz
The most remarkable aspects of the release of the 9/11 Commission's report have been the rush by Democrats and other critics of the Iraq intervention to declare that it ends the discussion about Saddam Hussein's links to al-Qaida, rendering their alleged nonexistence as established fact, and the equally unseemly haste by representatives of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to declare their government exonerated by it.
In reality, the Commission report does neither. However, the U.S. media reaction to it will obviously focus much more on issues of U.S. preparedness and reaction to the attack than on the historical roots of the event, the ideology behind it, and the development of al-Qaida as a terrorist network.
I have argued repeatedly that the debate over relations between Saddam and al-Qaida is a symptom of what might best be called Western media pathology. Nobody in the Muslim world doubts the cooperation of Saddam and al-Qaida, since they shared the primary aim of getting U.S. and allied forces out of Saudi Arabia. That was a goal equally important to both. But Western media hostile to the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq have insisted on a bar of evidence for a Saddam-Osama alliance so absurdly high, and so mobile, that nothing short of a signed, public statement by Saddam and Bin Laden, proclaiming their agreement to carry out the September 11th attack, would have sufficed to prove the case.
The absurdity of this controversy was manifested beyond surpassing at the end of June when, on the NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw arrogantly reproved the new prime minister of Iraq, Iyad Allawi, for maintaining his belief in the Saddam-Osama link:
"Allawi: We know that this is an extension to what has happened in New York . And - the war have been taken out to Iraq by the same terrorists. Saddam was a potential friend and partner and natural ally of terrorism.
"Brokaw: Prime minister, I'm surprised that you would make the connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq . The 9/11 commission in America says there is no evidence of a collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and those terrorists of al-Qaida.
"Allawi: No. I believe very strongly that Saddam had relations with al-Qaida."
The obvious questions that should be asked in response to this ridiculous incident are: first, why should we presume that Allawi, an Iraqi himself and former Ba'athist, knows less about his own country, his former party, and the head of both, than either Tom Brokaw or the 9/11 Commission? Second, is Brokaw a reporter or a monitor of political correctness? In this exchange, his role seems to have become the latter.
Indeed, a willingness on the part of the 9/11 Commission to undermine the case against Saddam, and therefore the case in favor of the Iraq intervention, seemed apparent in the sudden flip in the direction of implicating Iran, which took place a week or so before the release of the report.
When Iraq was accused, and the intervention in that country encountered problems, the criterion of proof set by American media rose to an extremely high level; but when the name of Iran was introduced, the bar plummeted to a remarkable low. Of course, President Bush's linking of Iran with North Korea and Saddamite Iraq in the "axis of evil" -- a brief mention in his 2002 State of the Union speech intended to focus attention on all three countries' "arming to threaten the peace of the world," rather than involvement in September 11th -- was recalled to demonstrate that the U.S. should have paid more attention to Iran as a 9/11 backer. But Iran 's own diplomats had been murdered, and fellow-Shia Muslims slaughtered en masse in Afghanistan , by the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies, leading to near-war between Iran and the Taliban.
Since al-Qaida, as a product of Wahhabism, the state form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, hates Shia Muslims even more than it does Jews and Christians, a link between Tehran and Bin Laden could only be suggested on a remarkably slender basis: the 9/11 Commission cites reports of cooperation in training in Lebanon in the early 1990s, and of Saudi passports allegedly left unstamped by Iranian border guards, along with episodes of travel by al-Qaida agents through Iran or in the same airliner with officers of Hezbollah, which Iran has supported.
Finally, the 9/11 Commission exonerated Tehran of any actual knowledge or operational involvement in the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks, but reaffirmed another widely-repeated charge against Iran that remains, to say the least, ambiguous: that of its involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, supposedly carried out by a group called "Saudi Hezbollah."
Khobar '96 remains one of the great areas of contention among investigators and experts on Islamist extremism and terrorism. The charge that the bombing, in which 19 Americans were killed, was directed from Iran , had been put forward from the beginning by the Saudi authorities, who also asserted the existence of "Saudi Hezbollah." However, Saudi authorities were notably uncooperative with U.S. representatives in the subsequent investigation.
Saudi dissidents claim that Khobar '96 was carried out by al-Qaida, and that "Saudi Hezbollah" was an invention of the Saudi government, intended to divert attention from Bin Laden, who benefited from financial support by the Saudi elite. On this latter point, by the way, the 9/11 Commission did not absolve Saudi Arabia of blame -- it clearly pointed to backing of al-Qaida by rich Saudis. But on Khobar '96 the 9/11 Commission has sought to have it both ways: the atrocity is now described as an action "carried out principally, perhaps exclusively, by Saudi Hezbollah, an organization that had received support from the government of Iran ." The report continues, "while the evidence of Iranian involvement is strong, there are also signs that al Qaeda played a role, as yet unknown."
All of the material in the report alleging Iranian involvement with al-Qaida is sourced to intelligence reports, which cannot, of course, be further examined. Meanwhile, however, those who really want to understand Islamist extremism can pursue a little investigation of their own: that would consist of trying to find statements or activities by "Saudi Hezbollah" after Khobar '96. Saudi dissidents claim they never appeared.
Which brings us to the real question for all Americans about the 9/11 Commission report: does it reassure us about "our Saudi ally?" According to Saudi ambassador to the U.S. prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abd al-Aziz, it does, since it denies the charge of direct Saudi government financing of al-Qaida.
Yet that is at best a slim endorsement. Nobody, myself included, has claimed to have direct evidence that the Saudi government itself ordered or financed the September 11th horrors. But given the way the Saudi regime works, there is a lot of wiggle room left for the Saudis to allege their virtue, and there remain a lot of questions that have yet to be satisfactorily answered by the Saudi rulers. Such as:
The bottom line remains: Saudi/Wahhabi fanatics employed as state clergy and inside state charities, as well as prominent associates of the royal family, assisted the terror campaign. Admittedly, this involves responsibility at a lower level than that of King Fahd and his cabinet. But does this remove the stain of Saudi involvement in al-Qaida? Not at all.
The 9/11 Commission report, in the end, offers something to satisfy almost everybody concerned with truth about terrorism. Finally, it concludes that our government must "confront problems with Saudi Arabia in the open and build a relationship beyond oil, a relationship that both sides can defend to their citizens and includes a shared commitment to reform." If the U.S. can really prevent the Saudis from using oil as blackmail to protect them and their continued support for global Wahhabi expansion and aggression, and, above all, if the U.S. truly commits to a reform course inside the kingdom -- a move that would be supported, in my view, by the great majority of Saudi subjects -- then the work of the Commission will not have been wasted.