The standard Big Media headline on the 9/11 Commission’s report this morning is the lack of “credible evidence” tying Al Qaeda to Iraq. But really, that’s old news. There’s a lot more interesting stuff in the report (as explicated by the Washington Post), like for example, the fact that there is credible evidence tying Al Qaeda to Iran:
The June 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 Americans and injured 372 others… was carried out by a Saudi Shiite Hezbollah group with assistance from Iran. Initially, because of the historical hostility between bin Laden’s extremist brand of Sunni Islam and Shiites, analysts had discounted cooperation between [Al Qaeda and Hezbollah/Iran].
“Later intelligence, however, showed far greater potential for collaboration between Hezbollah and al Qaeda than many had previously thought,” the report says. It describes contacts between al Qaeda and Iran, including a visit to Iran and Lebanon by a small group of al Qaeda operatives for training in explosives, intelligence and security.
“We have seen strong but indirect evidence that [bin Laden’s] organization did in fact play some as yet unknown role in the Khobar attack,” the report says.
And here’s a frightning tidbit that’s new to me, at least:
As al Qaeda developed, its terrorist training camps in Afghanistan provided fertile ground for its operatives “to think creatively about ways to commit mass murder,” it says. Among the ideas that were raised: taking over a nuclear missile launcher in Russia and forcing Russian scientists to fire a nuclear missile at the United States, carrying out mustard gas or cyanide attacks against Jewish areas in Iran, spreading poison gas through the air conditioning system of a targeted building and hijacking an aircraft and crashing it into an airport terminal or nearby city.
The report also contains fascinating new details about the evolution of the 9/11 plot:
The terrorist attacks carried out on Sept. 11, 2001, were originally envisioned as an even more spectacular assault involving 10 jetliners on the east and west coasts …
In addition to the targets that were hit on Sept. 11, [Khalid Sheikh] Mohammed initially proposed crashing hijacked planes into the CIA and FBI headquarters, unidentified nuclear power plants and the tallest buildings in California and Washington state,” the report says.
“The centerpiece of his original proposal was the tenth plane, which he would have piloted himself,” it says. Instead of crashing it in a suicide attack, Mohammed would have killed every adult male passenger on the plane, contacted the media from the air and landed the aircraft at a U.S. airport. Then he would have made a speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East before releasing all the women and children, the report says.
When bin Laden finally approved the operation, he personally scrapped the idea of using one of the hijacked planes to make a public statement, the report says. …
Bin Laden, the report says, “had been pressuring [Mohammed] for months to advance the attack date,” even asking that the attacks occur as early as mid-2000 after Ariel Sharon caused an outcry by visiting a contested holy site in Jerusalem. According to Mohammed, bin Laden later pushed for dates of May 12, 2001 — the seven-month anniversary of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen — and then for June or July, to coincide with a visit by Sharon to Washington.
“In both instances,” the report said, Mohammed “insisted that the hijacker teams were not yet ready. Other al Qaeda detainees also confirm that the 9/11 attacks were delayed during the summer of 2001, despite bin Laden’s wishes.”
The final date was likely influenced in part by the targets chosen, investigators also found. An electronic communication between Atta and Binalshibh showed that Atta finally selected a date after the first week in September “so that the United States Congress would be in session.”
Bin Laden strongly favored targeting the White House, and Binalshibh urged Atta to agree. But Atta was concerned that the presidential mansion was too difficult to hit, and backed the U.S. Capitol instead. The matter appears to have been unresolved as late as two days before the attack.
Also very interesting is the report’s description of Al Qaeda’s financial and operational structure:
“Contrary to popular understanding,” the report says, “bin Laden did not fund al Qaeda through a personal fortune and a network of businesses,” and he never received a $300 million inheritance. He actually received about $1 million a year over about 24 years as an inheritance, a significant sum but not enough to fund a global terrorist network.
“Instead, al Qaeda relied primarily on a fundraising network developed over time,” the report says. It says the CIA estimates that al Qaeda spent $30 million a year, with the largest outlays ($10 million to $20 million annually) going to fund the Taliban.
“Actual terrorist operations were relatively cheap,” it says.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks and the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, “al Qaeda’s funding has decreased significantly,” the report says. But the group’s expenditures have decreased as well, and “it remains relatively easy for al Qaeda to find the relatively small sums required to fund terrorist operations,” the report warns.
Now, the organization is far more decentralized, with operational commanders and cell leaders making the decisions that were previously made by bin Laden, the panel found.
Al Qaeda remains interested in carrying out chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks against the United States, the report says. Although an attempt to purchase uranium in 1994 failed — the material proved to be fake — “al Qaeda continues to pursue its strategic objective of obtaining a nuclear weapon,” according to the report.
By any means possible, it warns, “al Qaeda is actively striving to attack the United States and inflict mass casualties.”