Stories out today by Newsday‘s Knut Royce and The Washington Post‘s Walter “A13 but should be A1” Pincus and Dan Eggen (as well as yesterday by Jonathan S. Landay of Knight Ridder) have more on Shakir. According to these three pieces, sourced to anonymous intelligence and senior administration officials, the Shakir identified in recovered Fedayeen documents is unlikely to be the individual who met with the 9/11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur. Royce quotes an administration official as saying the CIA concluded “a long time ago” they weren’t the same people: for starters, their names are different. (Laura Rozen has a handy chart to help clarify this.) The individual identified as a Fedayeen lieutenant colonel is Hikmat Shakir Ahmad, while the individual identified as present for the Kuala Lumpur meeting is Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi.
The Post quotes John Lehman, who floated the prospect that new evidence indicates Hikmat Shakir Ahmad was a “very prominent member of al-Qaeda” as saying the issue “needs to be run into ground.” He seems to discard the importance of Ahmad as a Fedayeen officer, one of the components of the prospective connection in Steve Hayes’s account. As Lehman says, “The most intriguing part of it is not whether or not he was in the Fedayeen, but whether or not the guy who attended Kuala Lumpur had any connections to Iraqi intelligence. . . . We don’t know.”
But, as I wrote this morning, this is something we probably can know. We have three individuals in custody who either were directly present at the Kuala Lumpur meeting or pulled its strings: 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Kuala Lumpur attendees Khallad bin Attash and Yazid Sufaat. Between them, the 9/11 Commission stands a good chance of finding out what, from al-Qaeda’s perspective, Azzawi was doing at the meeting–i.e., whether he was an emissary from Saddam Hussein. This is something we should be able to run into ground, as Lehman put it. What do their debriefings indicate? Have they been interrogated on this connection? If they haven’t, can they be re-interrogated? The 9/11 Commission has a month and four days before it has to deliver its final report (and then go through what one commissioner told me would be one of the Commission’s “battles of Armageddon” with the administration: declassifying it for the public). With the “Shakir” story taking on surprising importance; with the administration determined to hew to elusive Iraq-al Qaeda links as a central justification for the Iraq war; and with the 9/11 Commission probably being the last opportunity for such a broad and comprehensive exhumation of al-Qaeda’s history of planning against America, that needs to be enough time to settle the question once and for all.