US evidence of terror links to blitzed medicine factory was `totally wrong'

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AN INDEPENDENT organisation's investigation of last year's US missile attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan has concluded that there was no evidence to link the facility or its owner to international terrorism.

Six months after the attack, every effort to substantiate the US claims about the factory has reached similar conclusions: that some of them are wrong or out of date, and others are based on sheer speculation.

The US admitted within days that some of its "evidence" was wrong. Since then it has produced many new allegations, all given anonymously to the press, but no new evidence.

The latest report was commissioned from the London office of Kroll Associates, the New York-based investigator. It was hired by the US lawyers representing Salah Idris, the Saudi owner of the pharmaceutical factory, but set its own terms for the inquiry and acted independently.

Kroll's credentials are unimpeachable. Many of its employees are former intelligence and law enforcement officials of the British and American government, and it has also been hired by several governments, including the US.

Mr Idris' lawyers are preparing to take action in the next few weeks to recover compensation for the attack and the unfreezing of his assets. But "his primary and overriding concern is his own reputation", said one source familiar with the case. He said that the lawyers still hoped to settle the case through dialogue with the US government.

The factory was attacked on 20 August last year, after two US embassies, in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, had been blown up. The US identified the culprit as Osama bin Laden, the renegade Saudi-born millionaire based in Afghanistan.

Operation Infinite Reach hit a camp in Afghanistan, and Mr Idris' factory, where one man was killed. The US said both were directly linked to Mr bin Laden: one was a base for his forces and the other was a plant where he had been preparing chemical weapons.

An unidentified intelligence official explained the chain of reasoning shortly after.

"We know that Bin Laden has made financial contributions to the Sudanese military-industrial complex. That's a distinct entity of which we believe the Shifa pharmaceutical facility is part. We know with high confidence that Shifa produces a precursor that is unique to the production of VX [nerve gas]," he said.

"We have no evidence, have seen no commercial products that are sold out of this facility. The facility also has a secured perimeter and it's patrolled by the Sudanese military. It's an unusual pharmaceutical facility."

The US had one hard piece of information: a soil sample, collected by an agent who passed the sample on to the US, which tested positive for EMPTA - a chemical that can be used to make VX nerve gas. The testing of the sample had been done by a reputable independent organisation.

Within hours, the plant was swarming with journalists. Some facts emerged to dent the picture the US had created. The factory in Sudan was not owned by the military-industrial Complex; it was owned by Mr Idris, who had bought it earlier in the year. And it did, after all, make pharmaceutical products.

The US changed tack. "According to intelligence, the Shifa plant's owner, (Saleh Idris), is a front man or agent for Bin Laden," the Los Angeles Times reported on 1 September, quoting anonymous intelligence officials. Again, no evidence was adduced. The same day, US officials briefed Congress on the evidence against Mr Idris. The evidence was "new and not fully evaluated", they said.

The government admitted that some of the evidence for the attack was "inference". It believed Osama bin Laden was trying to gain access to weapons of mass destruction through Sudan.

It did not know whether he ever actually had, and it did not know that the Al-Shifa plant was involved. Nor did it know whether chemical weapons had been produced at the plant, or just stored there.

The claims against Mr Idris cannot have counted in the decision to attack, since the evidence was apparently accumulated after the attack.

In late September, Mr Idris' bank account with the Bank of America in London was frozen on the orders of the White House, and in October it was reported (again, quoting anonymous sources) that Mr Idris was involved with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an ally of Mr bin Laden. Kroll investigated Mr Idris and the factory, and found little to back up any of the accusations.

The US was said to have suspected that some of Mr Idris' friends and the manager of the Al-Shifa plant were colleagues of Mr bin Laden. Kroll investigated these people, and found no evidence of any contact or relationship between Mr Idris and Mr bin Laden, though a previous part-owner of the factory had conducted one business transaction with him.

The factory was not patrolled by military guards; it lacked the facilities to produce any chemicals, let alone those for nerve gas; and there were multiple witnesses to attest to all of this.

The sample also came under further investigation. New samples were removed and tested by an independent laboratory. They showed no evidence of EMPTA or EMPA, the chemical to which it would have decayed. Nor did others from a septic tank that had survived the attack.

After four months, Kroll's investigators stated that there was no evidence to back up any of the US claims.

There are other indications that all is not well with this case. Britain supported the US strikes - in public. In private, British officials are sceptical.

While Mr Idris is banned from entering the US, he has few problems entering or leaving the UK to visit his flat off the Edgware Road in central London. In Egypt, he maintains an apartment in Cairo, and visits at will. Yet the US says he is suspected of links with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group against which the government in Cairo is fighting a war. He has also visited Saudi Arabia, of which he remains a citizen.

It was not only abroad that the evidence was not believed. After the event, some (again anonymous) administration officials said they now believed the strike had been a mistake.

It emerged that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had not been informed until the day of the attack, and neither the FBI nor the Defense Intelligence Agency were involved.