Arrests corroborated by BBC and Reuters. See Update V.
Germany has long been known as one of the primary logistical areas for the 9/11 attacks. Mohammed Atta and several of the 9/11 hijackers spent considerable time in Hamburg especially during the recruitment and research effort in 1999 and 2000 before coming to the United States to begin the actual work of preparing the attacks. The 9/11 report contains 75 references to Germany, most of them involving Atta and his team; a search on Hamburg generates 90 hits. Three of the four pilots came from the Hamburg cell (page 242).
With all of these references to Germany and Hamburg, the 9/11 Commission oddly failed to include a published report from March 2001 in a Parisian Arabic newspaper, Al-Watan Al-Arabi, about the arrest of two suspected Iraqi spies — based on a tip from the CIA (boldface mine):
Iraqi Spies Reportedly Arrested in Germany
16 March 2001
Al-Watan al-Arabi (Paris) reports that two Iraqis were arrested in Germany, charged with spying for Baghdad. The arrests came in the wake of reports that Iraq was reorganizing the external branches of its intelligence service and that it had drawn up a plan to strike at US interests around the world through a network of alliances with extremist fundamentalist parties.
The most serious report contained information that Iraq and Osama bin Ladin were working together. German authorities were surprised by the arrest of the two Iraqi agents and the discovery of Iraqi intelligence activities in several German cities. German authorities, acting on CIA recommendations, had been focused on monitoring the activities of Islamic groups linked to bin Ladin. They discovered the two Iraqi agents by chance and uncovered what they considered to be serious indications of cooperation between Iraq and bin Ladin. The matter was considered so important that a special team of CIA and FBI agents was sent to Germany to interrogate the two Iraqi spies.
Not one word of this gets addressed in the final Commission report, as far as I can tell. The report contains thirty-one references to arrests, most of them for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Zacarias Moussaoui, but none of them mention any German arrests of Iraqi spies in Germany for March 2001. It isn’t as if the 9/11 Commission considered Al-Watan al-Arabi an unreliable source, either; they used it as a reference for an editorial by Saudi Prince Bandar.
The CIA apparently knew something about this; why didn’t it come out during the hearings? This looks like a very strange coincidence, that the Germans found such an extensive Iraqi espionage ring within their borders at the same time that al-Qaeda planned its largest and most complicated attack on Western interests ever. That attack required extraordinary coordination and planning, with a large amount of resourcing. The attacks before and since have all been suicide or hit-and-run affairs, on a much smaller scale and with much more modest ambitions.
This information was published contemporaneously in March 2001 and was in the public domain. If anyone brought it to the Commission’s attention, no evidence of it exists in the report. Presumably, such public information would have been addressed in the report even if it turned out to be mistaken had anyone bothered to look at it — or if the Commission could explain it away in favor of their “no operational connection” analysis between Iraq and 9/11.
In March 2001, the CIA suspected that the Iraqis had allied themselves with Islamist extremists to carry out attacks on American interests, and as a result the Germans discovered exactly that — right where the planning for 9/11 took place. Did this information get the Able Danger treatment as well? (h/t: CQ reader Tom M.)
Addendum: It’s worth noting that syndicated columnist Amir Taheri considered Al-Watan Al-Arabi to be a pro-Saddam weekly.
UPDATE: These arrests don’t appear to have made it into Stephen Hayes’ book The Connection, either.
UPDATE II: A commenter asks me if I believe that Saddam had an active role in 9/11. Up to this week, I’ve been fairly satisfied with the “no proven operational connection” determination made by the 9/11 Commission regarding the attacks — though reading Hayes’ book shows us plenty of other efforts by Saddam to reach out to radical Islamists. With an apparent attempt to suppress certain kinds of evidence now coming to light with the Able Danger revelations, though, the entire report and its conclusions no longer hold much credibility. It appears that the Commission’s efforts aimed at supporting a preconceived narrative, and that may be the best that can be said of it.
Remembering what analysts said about the attack in the days following 9/11, all of them seem surprised at the sophistication and coordination of the operation. Al-Qaeda had never attempted a mission on that scale before, and it hasn’t since then, either. I recall plenty of experts talking for weeks afterward how that kind of well-timed and effective attack required strong logistical support, training, and funding. Perhaps AQ managed to pull that all together once; maybe not. I think we need to take another look at 9/11, starting completely fresh. What we have has massive holes in it, as we have all discovered in the last 72 hours or so.
UPDATE III: Pierre at Pink Flamingo has had this information on his site for almost three years. (Sorry, Pierre, it didn’t pop up on Google.)
UPDATE IV: I thought most people knew about Ramzi Yousef and the Iraqi passport. Here’s one narrative from Rotten.com:
The first major explosion Ramzi Yousef added to his resume was significant in a number of ways — the World Trade Center.
In late 1992, Yousef entered the country with a fake Iraqi passport and asked for asylum. His traveling companion was arrested immediately when a search of his luggage revealed bomb-making manuals. Because the INS holding cells were overcrowded, Yousef was released with instructions to come back a month later for a hearing.
More from Laurie Mylroie:
Several Iraqis hovered around the fringe of the plot. One, Abdul Rahman Yasin, is the sole remaining indicted fugitive. Born in the United States while his father was a graduate student here, Yasin was able to obtain a U.S. passport in June 1992. Yasin arrived in New York from Baghdad in September 1992. He returned there shortly after the Trade Center bombing, transiting through Jordan, where he stopped at the Iraqi embassy and quickly (within 24 hours) received a visa for his U.S. passport. Much later, U.S. authorities found documents in Iraq that showed Yasin was rewarded with a house and monthly stipend.
Ramzi Yousef was a second key figure in that attack. Like Yasin, Yousef arrived in New York in early September 1992. At Kennedy Airport, Yousef presented an Iraqi passport, with stamps showing that his trip began in Baghdad. The immigration inspector who processed him testified that Yousef’s passport “appeared to be valid and unaltered.”