Al Qaeda Originally Envisioned Plot With 10 Jets
Although al Qaeda evidently never built a relationship with Iraq, the terrorist group may have become involved with Iran, and may have participated in the June 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 Americans and injured 372 others, the panel found.
Investigators concluded that the Khobar Towers attack 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 the two.
"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.
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.
In 1998, the suicide truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- which killed 224 people and injured more than 5,000 combined -- marked a new departure in that "they were planned, directed and executed by al Qaeda, under the direct supervision of bin Laden and his chief aides," the report says.
But a January 2000 attempt to attack a U.S. warship, the USS The Sullivans, failed because the boat to be used in the suicide attack was overloaded with explosives and sank, the report says. Ten months later, a similar attack was executed successfully against the USS Cole in Yemen.
"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.
Yet, 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."
In testimony before the commission today, federal officials said they agreed that al Qaeda remains a threat to the United States.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said that despite losing much of its leadership in the U.S. war on terrorism, al Qaeda is still dangerous and may now be more far-flung.
John Pistole, the FBI's executive assistant director for counter-terrorism, said the FBI views the war against terrorism as a "generational" one that may not be won until future generations in the Muslim world are weaned away from radical anti-American views.
"It may be tantamount to a hundred-year war," he said.
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company