In a chilling report that sketched the history of Osama bin Laden's network, the commission said his far-flung training camps were "apparently quite good." Terrorists-to-be were encouraged to "think creatively about ways to commit mass murder," it added.
Bin Laden made overtures to Saddam for assistance, the commission said in the staff report, as he did with leaders in Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere as he sought to build an Islamic army.
While Saddam dispatched a senior Iraqi intelligence official to Sudan to meet with bin Laden in 1994, the commission said it had not turned up evidence of a "collaborative relationship."
The Bush administration has long claimed links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and cited them as one reason for last year's invasion of Iraq.
On Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech that the Iraqi dictator "had long established ties with al-Qaeda." (Related story: Cheney reasserts al-Qaeda, Saddam link)
The bipartisan commission issued its findings as it embarked on two days of public hearings into the worst terrorist attacks in American history.
The panel intends to issue a final report in July on the hijackings on Sept. 11, 2001 that killed nearly 3,000, destroyed the World Trade Centers in New York and damaged the Pentagon outside Washington. A fourth plane commandeered by terrorists crashed in the countryside in Pennsylvania.
The staff report pieced together information on the development of bin Laden's network, from the far-flung training camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to funding from "well-placed financial facilitators and diversions of funds from Islamic charities."
Reports that bin Laden had a huge personal fortune to finance acts of terror are overstated, the report said.
The description of the training camp operations contained elements of faint, grudging praise.
"A worldwide jihad needed terrorists who could bomb embassies or hijack airliners, but it also needed foot soldiers for the Taliban in its war against the Northern Alliance, and guerrillas who could shoot down Russian helicopters in Chechnya or ambush Indian units in Kashmir," it said.
According to one unnamed senior al-Qaeda associate, various ideas were floated by mujahadeen in Afghanistan, the commission said. The options included taking over a launcher and forcing Russian scientists to fire a nuclear missile at the United States, mounting mustard gas or cyanide attacks against Jewish areas in Iraq or releasing poison gas into the air conditioning system of a targeted building.
"Last but not least, hijacking an aircraft and crashing it into an airport or nearby city," it said.
The Iraq connection long suggested by administration officials gained no currency in the report.
"Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded," the report said. "There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda also occurred" after bin Laden moved his operations to Afghanistan in 1996, "but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship," it said.
"Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al-Qaeda and Iraq," the report said.
In a separate report, the commission staff said that senior al-Qaeda planner Khalid Shaihk Mohammed initially proposed a Sept. 11 attack involving 10 planes. An expanded target list included the CIA and FBI headquarters, unidentified nuclear plants and tall buildings in California and Washington state.
That ambitious plan was rejected by bin Laden, who ultimately approved a scaled-back mission involving four planes, the report said. Mohammed wanted more hijackers for those planes — 25 or 26, instead of 19.
The commission has identified at least 10 al-Qaeda operatives who were to participate but could not take part for reasons including visa problems and suspicion by officials at airports in the United States and overseas.
From a seamless operation, the report portrays a plot riven by internal dissent, including disagreement over whether to target the White House or the Capitol that was apparently never resolved prior to the attacks. Bin Laden also had to overcome opposition to attacking the United States from Mullah Omar, leader of the former Taliban regime, who was under pressure from Pakistan to keep al-Qaeda confined.
The United States toppled the regime in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, but Omar has eluded capture, as has al-Qaeda.
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