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April 9, 2006
The Timing Of The Iraqi Air Force Memo

Now that we have established the translation of the memo from the Iraqi Air Force general to all units requesting volunteers for suicide missions against American "interests", the timing of the memo appears to fit into a disturbing sequence in the months prior to 9/11. This memo is dated March 17, 2001, less than six months prior to the coordinated al-Qaeda attack on the US, at a time when the AQ plotters and pilots appeared to be in close proximity to Iraqi intelligence agents in Europe.

In a series of posts I wrote last year, I pointed out activity in Germany by the Iraqi Intelligence Service that the 9/11 Commission missed. Specifically, the Germans arrested two IIS agents in late February for their operation of an espionage ring in their country. Their intelligence estimate in 2002 would later claim that Iraq had reached out to extremists Islamist groups to coordinate attacks on American interests. In the winter of 2001, however, those agents had operated in Germany at the same time as Mohammed Atta met Ramzi Binalshibh in Berlin, the same time that German counterintelligence picked up the trail of the Iraqi spies. Ziad Jarrah, another of the 9/11 pilots, traveled through Germany at least twice during the same time frame. Pilot Marwan al-Shehhi disappeared in Casablanca and told people he was in Hamburg, which may or may not have been a dodge. The only pilot not in Germany during this time was Hani Hanjour, who plowed his plane into the Pentagon.

As I asked in my Weekly Standard column last year, why would the main terror cell risk traveling abroad eight months before the attack, when they had taken pains to establish themselves in the US the year before? Can we just chalk up the Iraqi espionage ring to sheer coincidence?

The Germans arrested the IIS agents in late February, and were reported (briefly) by European media outlets on March 1st. According to the IAF memo, the Iraqis began planning for top-secret suicide missions starting March 4th, issuing a series of memos over the next six days that would prompt the IAF general to start asking for suicide-mission volunteers -- among an Iraqi air force that had largely been grounded since 1991.

What kind of suicide missions could grounded pilots perform?

Less than three weeks after the IAF started its recruitment drive, the Czech intelligence service reported that Mohammed Atta landed in Prague and talked to a known IIS operative. While the 9/11 Commission rejected this as unproven, the Czechs have never withdrawn their insistence that the meeting took place. Once again, let's review why the 9/11 Commission reached their conclusion:

The FBI has gathered evidence indicating that Atta was in Virginia Beach on April 4 (as evidenced by a bank surveillance camera photo), and in Coral Springs, Florida on April 11, where he and Shehhi leased an apartment.On April 6, 9, 10, and 11,Atta�s cellular telephone was used numerous times to call various lodging establishments in Florida from cell sites within Florida.We cannot confirm that he placed those calls. But there are no U.S. records indicating that Atta departed the country during this period. Czech officials have reviewed their flight and border records as well for any indication that Atta was in the Czech Republic in April 2001, including records of anyone crossing the border who even looked Arab.They have also reviewed pictures from the area near the Iraqi embassy and have not discovered photos of anyone who looked like Atta. No evidence has been found that Atta was in the Czech Republic in April 2001. ...

These findings cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that Atta was in Prague on April 9, 2001. He could have used an alias to travel and a passport under that alias, but this would be an exception to his practice of using his true name while traveling (as he did in January and would in July when he took his next overseas trip). The FBI and CIA have uncovered no evidence that Atta held any fraudulent passports.

KSM and Binalshibh both deny that an Atta-Ani meeting occurred. There was no reason for such a meeting, especially considering the risk it would pose to the operation. By April 2001, all four pilots had completed most of their training,and the muscle hijackers were about to begin entering the United States.

The available evidence does not support the original Czech report of an Atta-Ani meeting.

The Commission primarily relied on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for this rejection. However, as I pointed out then, the Commission also acknowledged that KSM had lied about other operational aspects of the 9/11 plot in what seemed to them to be a campaign of misinformation. Further, had Iraq wanted to meet Atta, they hardly would have had him travel under his own name to the Czech Republic; they would be careful to keep themselves disconnected from the 9/11 plot as much as possible.

Originally I wrote that Atta may have desired Iraqi support for getting the muscle hijackers into the US and traveled to Prague to secure that assistance. However, this recruitment memo offers another tantalizing possibility. The one 9/11 pilot who had not traveled outside the US the previous January was Hani Hanjour, who had just begun his flight training, which reportedly had not gone well. (See pages 226-227 of the 9/11 Commission report.) Hanjour had been assigned the most difficult of the 9/11 targets -- the Pentagon. That flight required taking the plane over the Beltway and into an incredibly low but stable approach to maximize the damage done to the building. This took more skill than merely flying a plane into the Twin Towers, and the late start on training could not have helped in Hanjour's preparations. Unlike Atta and Shehhi, the report never mentions Hanjour getting any training in a large-craft simulator.

The trip to Germany in January by the other pilots may have been an attempt to gather better-trained pilots for the attack -- and remember that the original plan was to have two waves of attacks, at least according to KSM, the second of which got cancelled due to increased security after 9/11. The late start for Hanjour would have endangered their mission. We know that the Iraqis started recruiting from their Air Force, and that those pilots had nothing to fly at the time. The trip to Prague may have been to find out if the Iraqis had anyone who could assist Hanjour in the difficult task ahead of him, or to plan the second wave of attacks using skilled pilots rather than the amateurs from the Hamburg cell.

The revelation of this memo and its timing suggest that the book has not yet closed on the 9/11 attacks, terrorist threats against the United States, or the threat posed to our interests by Saddam Hussein. These documents will provide a great deal of clarification to all these issues in the coming weeks.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 9, 2006 12:00 AM

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