Book Review: The Connection: How al-Qaeda’s Collaboration With Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America (2004) by Stephen Hayes
More than twelve years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the conventional wisdom is that Saddam’s regime had no connection with al-Qaeda, and such “evidence” as was adduced was tortured out of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi in the Bush administration’s desperation to cobble together a casus belli. But if one puts ideology on hold, and considers the evidence of Stephen Hayes’ The Connection, a rather different picture emerges.
Take, for instance, the ‘Summary of Body of Intelligence Reporting on Iraq-al Qaeda Contacts (1990-2003)’ or “Feith memo,” the classified annex of a Pentagon report sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October 2003, drawing from detainee debriefings, communications intercepts (SIGINT), open sources, raw intelligence, and finished products of the CIA, NSA, and FBI.
The annex opens by noting the “substantial body of intelligence … [that] reflects a pattern of Iraqi support for al Qaeda’s activities.” While taking full account of the ideological differences between the Saddam tyranny and al-Qaeda, the memo notes:
- October 1, 1990: Osama bin Laden sent “emissaries to Jordan … to meet with Iraqi government officials” among a delegation, led by Hassan al-Turabi, the de facto leader of Sudan’s Islamist regime, which made a public display of defending Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait. Al-Turabi was the primary intermediary between Saddam and al-Qaeda in these early years.
- 1991: Showing that the outreach went in both directions, “Iraq sought Sudan’s assistance to establish links to al-Qaeda.” “Bin Laden wanted to expand his organization’s capabilities through ties with Iraq,” and Saddam wanted to influence al-Qaeda and facilitate the shipment of weapons banned by the U.N. embargo.
- 1992: “The first meeting … between the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) and al-Qaeda was brokered by al-Turabi,” and takes place in Khartoum, with Faruq Hijazi, IIS’ external chief, and Ayman az-Zawahiri present. The meeting spawns a “highly secretive” relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which later became a core part of al-Qaeda. Hijazi provided al-Qaeda with blank Yemeni passports. This was “the first of several [meetings] between 1992 and 1995 in Sudan”. Additional meetings would take place in Pakistan, and sometimes al-Qaeda members would visit Baghdad (including Zawahiri later in 1992) and “meet the Iraqi intelligence chief in a safe house.” At all points, “Saddam insisted the relationship with al-Qaeda be kept secret.”
- 1993: “[B]in Laden reached an ‘understanding’ with Saddam under which [bin Laden] forbade al-Qaeda operations to be mounted against the Iraqi leader,” and the two parties “agreed to cooperate on unspecified activities.” This non-aggression pact came at al-Turabi’s urging and was extended beyond Saddam’s fall: in February 2003 bin Laden issued a fatwa saying, “There is no harm … if the Muslims’ interests coincide with those of the socialists [Ba’athists] in fighting the Crusaders,” and al-Qaeda and the Ba’athists would combine to form the insurgency after the fall of Saddam.
- 1994: Hijazi had one of his first direct meetings with bin Laden in Sudan. Bin Laden asked for Chinese-made anti-ship limpet mines and to set up al-Qaeda training camps on Iraqi territory, a request he would repeat. Hijazi would become the “point man” for Saddam’s relations with al-Qaeda, and Mamdouh Salim (Abu Hajer al-Iraqi)—a bin Laden intimate, senior religious instructor, and al-Qaeda’s lead man in trying to secure WMD—was Hijazi’s opposite number.
- 1994: Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, one of bin Laden’s most trusted deputies, who defected shortly after the African Embassy bombings, went with Salim to a chemical weapons facility outside Khartoum in pursuit of WMD. Al-Fadl also said he was in charge of trying to obtain uranium. Khartoum was deeply intertwined with al-Qaeda—as in Afghanistan later, al-Qaeda provided funds to rebuild a shattered State and competent troops in a bitter civil war, and the government provided al-Qaeda with space for training camps and State services such as passports. Under the cover of Sudan’s Islamist regime, rogue States (notably Iran and Saddam’s Iraq) and terrorist organizations (al-Qaeda above all) were pooling resources.
- Early 1995: Salim, who had a “good relationship” with Iraqi intelligence, according to the CIA, travelled to Iraq to arrange “unspecified cooperation,” according to the FBI.
- Late 1998: Saddam upped his support for al-Qaeda after the Embassy bombings, according to an IIS defector. Saddam’s younger son, Qusay, became the primary contact with al-Qaeda, and “the Iraqi intelligence service station in Pakistan was Baghdad’s point of contact with al-Qaeda.”
- December 1998: At least two IIS officers assigned to the Iraqi Embassy in Pakistan met with bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. “[T]he Iraqi regime was trying to broaden its cooperation with al-Qaeda … to sabotage U.S. and U.K. interests.”
- December 21, 1998: Hijazi, then-Ambassador to Turkey, went to Afghanistan to meet bin Laden.
- Early 1999: Hijazi went again to Afghanistan “along with several other Iraqi officials to meet with bin Laden,” and it was understood “Hijazi would have met bin Laden only at Saddam’s explicit direction.”
- July 1999: A senior Iraqi intelligence officer in U.S. custody, Khalil Ibrahim Abdallah, “said that the last contact between the IIS and al-Qaeda” took place. “Bin Laden wanted to meet with Saddam, [Abdallah] said,” but the dictator “ordered Iraqi intelligence to refrain from any further contact … Saddam wanted to distance himself from al-Qaeda.” In fact, contact went on, even if Abdallah was not privy to it, but even if the contacts had ended here: this is yet another Iraqi intelligence official testifying to Saddam-Qaeda relations—there would be no need to “distance,” after all, had there not been a relationship.
- November 1999: Saddam considered giving asylum to bin Laden and his inner-circle, an NSA intercept finds. The idea seems to have come from Khalid Janaby, the IIS head in Islamabad, who was “in frequent contact and had good relations with bin Laden.”
- December 2000: With al-Qaeda’s rudimentary WMD experiments constantly failing, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda leader who ran Khalden camp outside Kandahar and was involved in al-Qaeda’s spectaculars from 1993 to 2001, sent “two al Qaeda operatives … to Iraq for CBW [chemical and biological weapons] related training”. Al-Libi and Mohammed Atef, bin Laden’s Egyptian military commander, recruited Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi and dispatched him to Baghdad in 1997 with instructions to keep the relationship secret, even from other al-Qaeda members, an order Saddam’s regime was happy to comply with. After Abu Abdullah’s second trip, Iraqi intelligence instructed that two non-Arab, English-speaking men be recruited—these would not fit the profile of an al-Qaeda member, and would make the relationship easier to deny. One Filipino and another of unknown nationality were recruited, and these were the two men dispatched to Iraq at the end of 2000. Saddam had been particularly impressed with the then-recent U.S.S. Cole attack—a pattern repeated with groups like Abu Sayyaf (see below), where Saddam offered more support groups got more lethally anti-American. (Later, al-Libi would recant this story. But as George Tenet, CIA Director 1996-2004, noted: All this makes certain is that al-Libi lied: “we don’t know which story is true”.)
- October 2002: A U.S. intelligence report “said al-Qaeda and Iraq reached a secret agreement whereby Iraq would provide safe haven to al-Qaeda members and provide them with money and weapons. The agreement reportedly prompted a large number of al-Qaeda members to head to Iraq. … [T]wo al-Qaeda members involved a fraudulent passport network … had been directed to procure 90 Iraqi and Syrian passports for al-Qaeda personnel. … The U.S. attack on Afghanistan deprived al-Qaeda of its protected base … [a]nd since the U.S. has been targeting al-Qaeda’s sources of funding, some cells may need additional money to continue operations.” (It is notable that one of the main resources the Iraqi Ba’athist leaders took with them into Syria was “boxes and boxes” of blank passports, which were then given to the Salafi-jihadists who arrived at Damascus International Airport and were transported, with the collusion of the Assad regime, to the Iraqi border.)
Then there is the twenty-two-page “Top Secret” list Saddam’s Mukhabarat compiled in March 1992, which listed bin Laden as having a “good relationship with our section in Syria”. The DIA authenticated the document, but thought it “insignificant” because the reference was unelaborated. Another internal document from the same time reports on “contact between an IIS agent and Osama bin Laden in Syria”.
In 1994, Saddam’s older son, Uday, and the IIS director met with a Sudanese regime official to arrange a meeting between bin Laden and IIS in Sudan. Bin Laden was “approached by our side” after “presidential approval,” Saddam regime documents say. A senior IIS officer met with bin Laden on February 19, 1995. Bin Laden asked that Saddam’s State media broadcast anti-Saudi propaganda; Saddam agreed. [Update: Saddam personally signed-off on March 4, 1995, on Iraqi State media hosting the sermons of radical imam Suleiman al-Ouda, a Saudi agitator against the monarchy.] Bin Laden also proposed that al-Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq “perform joint operations against foreign forces” in Saudi Arabia; the Iraqi response is not in the documents. Bin Laden met Brigadier Salim al-Ahmed, IIS’ principal expert on bomb-making, “at bin Laden’s farm in Khartoum in Sept-Oct. 1995”. After bin Laden’s move to Afghanistan in May 1996, Saddam sought “other channels through which to handle the relationship” with al-Qaeda, and found them.
[Update] Another facet (p. 121-122) of Saddam’s relationship with al-Qaeda in the early 1990s was uncovered by the Croatian government in its investigation of al-Kifah (Fight) Relief Organization. Al-Kifah was based in Brooklyn and managed by “The Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who received regular payments from al-Qaeda to finance his international phone calls and terrorism plots, which included the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993. Al-Kifah had opened an office in Zagreb to direct funds and materiel to the Salafi-jihadists heading into Bosnia. It was determined that al-Kifah in Croatia was being funded by al-Qaeda using Kuwaiti dinars that had been stolen by Iraqi authorities during the occupation of Kuwait.
According to Tenet, there were at least eight “high-level” meetings between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda, including Saddam’s deputy director of intelligence personally meeting bin Laden personally at least twice, plus many more lower-level contacts through the 1990s and early 2000s.
According to a “regular and reliable” CIA source, Zawahiri arrived in Baghdad on February 3, 1998 and met with Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan: “The goal of the visit was to arrange for coordination between Iraq and bin Laden and establish camps in al-Fallujah, an-Nasiriya, and Iraqi Kurdistan”. Zawahiri’s EIJ received $300,000 from Saddam at this time. When Zawahiri left is not clear.
On February 23, 1998—the same day bin Laden and Zawahiri issued their fatwa calling for attacks on all Americans, everywhere, listing notably Iraq-centric grievances—IIS approved the visit of a “trusted confidant” of bin Laden’s to discuss “the future of our relationship” and “to achieve a direct meeting with [bin Laden]”. Baghdad used IIS’ Sudan station to “facilitate the travel arrangements,” and “carr[ied] all the travel and hotel costs inside Iraq”. Al-Qaeda’s envoy, “Mohammed F. Mohammed,” arrived in Baghdad on March 5, 1998, stayed in Room 414 at Mansur Melia Hotel as a guest of Iraqi intelligence, and left on March 21.
As well as revealing another Saddam-al-Qaeda contact, the document demonstrating the March 1998 meeting showed the extraordinary lengths the Saddam regime went to in keeping the relationship with al-Qaeda secret even internally: the three mentions of bin Laden’s name had been covered with correction fluid and the memo also warns against communication in writing.
The document was found by two reporters—Mitch Potter (Toronto Star) and Inigo Gilmore (Telegraph)—in April 2003. When Hayes’ book was published in June 2004, nobody from the U.S. government had contacted the journalists. I got in touch with Potter to ask what he thinks at this remove. Potter says he has “always believed it to be the real thing,” but because it was a photocopy, “albeit a copy so sensitive that someone in Iraqi intelligence had taken the time and trouble to delicately daub it with white-out to conceal Bin Laden’s name before filing it away in Mukhabarat HQ in Baghdad,” the document was ultimately “deemed unverifiable”. Potter also said that in the scheme of things—whether this was a one-off or a snapshot of a broader relationship—he “now lean[s] toward one-off … a kicking of the tires, two entities feeling out ‘the enemy of my enemy’.”
The 9/11 Commission Report gives reason to think that this was not so isolated an incident—even in the single month of March 1998. “In March 1998, … two al-Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence,” the Commission reports. Given that the recovered document only refers to one al-Qaeda envoy, it is possible that al-Qaeda sent two emissaries to Baghdad in March 1998, plus Zawahiri in February.
The African Embassy Bombings and Al-Shifa
This flurry of activity in the Saddam-Qaeda relationship came at a time when President Clinton was seemingly preparing to bring an end to Gulf War, delivering a bellicose speech at the Pentagon on February 17, 1998. Kofi Annan eventually intervened to get Saddam off-the-hook, but the Saddam-Qaeda relationship progressed through 1998.
Bin Laden had “sent out a number of feelers to the Iraqi regime” in the spring of 1997, according to the 9/11 Commission, but had not received much by way of response. By early 1998, the situation had reversed and Baghdad was courting bin Laden.
In July 1998, “an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with bin Laden.” The Commission says that at least one of the March and July meetings and “perhaps both” were “arranged through bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy, Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis.” For reasons wholly inexplicable, the 9/11 Commission never followed up on these Zawahiri-Saddam ties.
In the summer of 1998, the U.S. knew trouble was coming. On July 29, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) warned of “possible Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear (CBRN) attack by [bin Laden].” On August 7, the African Embassies were blown up. In response, on August 20, Clinton launched Tomahawk missiles at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and at Al-Shifa factory in Sudan, an ostensible pharmaceutical factory the Clinton administration said was producing chemical weapons.
The Clinton administration argued, and the evidence is very suggestive, that Saddam’s Iraq provided the technology and materiel for Sudan’s regime to launch its own chemical weapons program, a program financed by al-Qaeda, which had access to the produce.
One argument is over how aware Saddam and bin Laden were that they were colluding on a WMD program in Sudan. The argument that Saddam did not know that al-Qaeda was “commingled with the Sudanese government,” as former CIA counterterrorism analyst Stanley Bedlington put it, is not credible; this was “common knowledge”. And, given bin Laden’s long-standing desire for WMD and the clear evidence he was willing to take the help of Saddam Hussein, it seems largely irrelevant whether bin Laden knew his chemical weapons benefactor was in Baghdad. But even at the extreme end of the debate—to say Saddam and bin Laden were wholly unaware of one-another—it would only be making the point in a different way:
That Iraq was providing technology and know-how to bin Laden—even if indirectly and unwittingly—demonstrated the danger of leaving Saddam in place.
The other major argument is over whether Al-Shifa specifically was part of the Saddam-Qaeda collusion in Sudan.
The Iraqi involvement at Al-Shifa was actually admitted by Khartoum. To prove the factory was for pharmaceuticals, Sudan pointed to a $199,000 contract signed with Saddam’s regime to ship 100,000 cartons of Shifazole veterinary medicine to Iraq as part of the U.N. oil-for-food program. The Intelligence Community judged that it was overwhelmingly probable that the contract, if it existed, was a cover for the transfer of illicit materials or money-laundering rather than a legitimate transaction for medical supplies. The suspicion was not drawn out of thin air.
[Update:] When Al-Shifa was opened in 1996, one of the attendees at the ceremony was Emad al-Ani, the father of the Iraqi chemical weapons program. Al-Ani had “close ties with senior Sudanese officials at the factory,” according to a senior U.S. intelligence official. Moreover, there was a second site believed to manufacture chemical weapons that had been “frequently visited by Iraqi technicians and was more heavily guarded than Shifa Pharmaceutical.” But that site was in a residential neighbourhood and the civilian casualties would likely have been too high.
In 1997, it was reported that Saddam was manufacturing chemical weapons at a facility at Wau, in what is now South Sudan: Saddam got to evade the sanctions; Khartoum got chemical weapons to help it in its civil war. The accusation that Saddam had shipped WMD out of Iraq—to Sudan, Libya, and even Iran—dated back to 1990-91. The agreement was said to be reached in late 1995 and have involved initially the provision of Iraqi “weapons and pilots” to help Khartoum in its war, and this “co-operation later intensified to include chemical weapons production”. Sudanese rebels claimed that Iraqi planes had used mustard gas against them and then that the Khartoum regime itself had hit them with chemical weapons. Much of this was dismissed as wartime propaganda, but in October 1998 the Sudanese rebels overran a regime military installation and found it well-stocked with gas masks.
The more controversial aspect is al-Qaeda’s connection to Al-Shifa. Al-Shifa had been bought by Salah Idris five months before the strike. Idris had his assets frozen in the wake of the attack and sued. Rather than reveal sources and methods, the case was conceded. Later Idris was found to have close relations with Shaykh Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi on “The Golden Chain“. Senior operatives at the factory also lived in property paid for by al-Qaeda. But the exact nature of al-Qaeda’s involvement at Al-Shifa remains mysterious.
Richard Clarke, Clinton’s counter-terrorism tsar, said that “intelligence exists linking bin Laden to Al-Shifa’s current and past operators, the Iraqi nerve gas experts, and the (ruling) National Islamic Front in Sudan.” Clarke added that President Clinton “would have been derelict in his duties” not to hit Al-Shifa.
Interestingly, too, the Sudanese Foreign Minister, Osman Ismail, was in Baghdad when Clinton struck Al-Shifa, and on August 27, Uday’s Babel published an editorial heralding bin Laden as “an Arab and Islamic hero”. Four days later, Saddam’s vice president went to the Sudan, ostensibly for banal reasons, but Khartoum, acting for bin Laden, asked if Iraq would give bin Laden asylum.
The Saddam-Qaeda Relationship Deepens
The U.S. indictment of bin Laden, written in the spring of 1998 and made public on Nov. 6, said:
[A]l-Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al-Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al-Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq.
This is not the kind of thing that just gets thrown in; the U.S. government would have to have somebody prepared to testify under oath to include this in the indictment. Al-Shifa is believed to be an example of such cooperation in practice.
As mentioned above, a series of meetings between IIS and bin Laden took place in Afghanistan and Pakistan in late 1998. In February 1999, Richard Clarke reported that a reliable source said Saddam “may have offered [bin Laden] asylum.” If bin Laden made the move, al-Qaeda would be at the service of Saddam’s mukhabarat and bin Laden would be “virtually impossible” to find, Clarke wrote, according to the 9/11 Commission. Clarke’s opposed sending a U2 flight because that would require Pakistani permission, and ISI, which was “in bed with” bin Laden, would tip him off. If bin Laden were to find out the U.S. was planning a bombing run against him, “old wily Osama will likely boogie to Baghdad,” Clarke wrote.
With this on the record, plus Clarke’s remarks on Al-Shifa, it is extraordinary that Clarke was able to say, in 2004, “There’s just no connection [between Saddam and al-Qaeda],” and be unquestioned about his previous statements.
More amazing—from the present vantage point—is that all of these events in 1998-9 took place in full public view. The connections between Saddam and al-Qaeda were widely reported in the media, especially Faruq Hijazi’s jaunt to Afghanistan in December 1998. The group of al-Qaeda members who attended Saddam’s 61st birthday on April 28, 1998, was reported on by both William Safire of The New York Times and Yossef Bodansky, and Newsweek ran stories with headings like, “Saddam + Bin Laden?”
It was conventional wisdom in the late Clinton years that Saddam was a menace, and one of the threats he presented was handing WMD to terrorists. In October 1998, the Senate passed—without a dissenting vote—the Iraq Liberation Act, making official U.S. policy the removal of Saddam’s regime. In December 1998, Clinton ordered Operation DESERT FOX, a series of bombing raids on Saddam’s military installations, after Saddam threw the weapons inspectors out—again. (In retrospect these strikes appear to have been more effective than anybody knew.)
It is very difficult to avoid the suspicion that partisanship played a part in the amnesia that overcame some Senators and large sections of the press when the question of the Saddam-al-Qaeda relationship arose in 2002-03.
Saddam’s Connections with Non-al-Qaeda Terrorism
Among the reasons that the strenuous denial that Saddam regime’s had connections with al-Qaeda is so unconvincing is that Saddam had connections with a wide range of terrorist groups, from “old school” Palestinian and Leftist terrorists, to Islamists, who became an increasingly-salient tool of Saddam’s foreign policy from the early 1980s.
Saddam held regular “Popular Islamic Conferences” from 1983 onward with Islamist terrorist groups, many on the run from the security services in their own countries. The purpose of these meetings was not just to build popular solidarity for use in times of crisis but to gain connections. Mark Fineman of The Los Angeles Times wrote in January 1993 of attending one such conference, and other than the Islamists from as far away as Afghanistan and the fiery speech of Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, the leader of the Faith Campaign that would formally begin later that year, in favour of “the Islamic holy warrior Saddam Hussein,” what most caught Fineman’s eye was that “the summits were crawling with Iraqi intelligence agents recruiting these radicals to help fight a terror war against the West”.
During Saddam’s long-running war with the Iranian revolution (1980-88), Saddam regularly struck at Iran through terrorism, most infamously using the Iranian (Sunni) Arab militant group, the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan, to besiege the Iranian Embassy in London in April/May 1980. Saddam also carried on an interminable spy war with his great rival, the other Ba’ath regime in Syria, an ally of Iran, which included bombings from Damascus to Paris.
Between 1976 and 1982, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) led an insurrection against Hafez al-Assad. After Assad unmercifully crushed this rebellion at Hama, the more moderate elements of the SMB went to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Europe, while the radicals went to Baghdad, and were hosted at al-Rashdiya camp, where some of them had been trained in the first place.
Among the SMB members who moved to Iraq were (p. 174) Adnan Saad al-Din, who was cajoled into joining the Saddam-underwritten “National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria,” which waged political warfare against Damascus, and Said Hawa, the leading ideologue of the Islamic revival in Syria during the Ba’ath period, who played a part in the 1964 Hama uprising and had declared the Alawi-led regime an outright heresy. Saddam occasionally wheeled the SMB veterans out to attest to his regime’s Islamic credentials, doing so as late as February 2000.
The SMB’s radical splinter, the “Fighting Vanguard,” was the Qaeda of its day—and indeed many went on to join various al-Qaeda precursors and finally the group itself, in Afghanistan and in al-Qaeda’s cells in Europe, including the Hamburg cell that planned 9/11.
One SMB ultra-radical, Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, left Iraq in 1986 and became a roommate of the lead 9/11 death pilot Mohamed Atta. Yarkas was arrested in Spain in November 2001 and convicted of helping to plan and finance the 9/11 massacre. Abu Musab as-Suri (Mustafa Setmariam Nasar), the principal strategic guide for Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), left Syria for Iraq after Hama, and eventually became part of al-Qaeda’s Spanish wing. (Some Khorasannites have now come full circle: having fled Syria for Afghanistan, they have now left Afghanistan back to Syria.)
Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal) was the most destructive international terrorist before Osama bin Laden, and he was a creation of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime. Al-Banna split from the PLO in 1974 and was run out of Baghdad, murdering Palestinian moderates willing to accommodate Israel and attacking Iraq’s then-nemesis in Syria. Al-Banna, on Saddam’s behalf, trained Syrian Ikhwans at a camp in Hīt for their attempt to overthrow Assad, showing again that the secular/religious divide is mostly in the West’s mind. Al-Banna would spend time in Syria and Libya after 1983, but al-Banna was based in Iraq for possibly his most consequential act, the June 1982 attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, which triggered Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. After the Hindawi affair and Lockerbie, when Assad and Qaddafi needed some distance from terrorism, expelling al-Banna was an easy symbolic gesture, and it was to Baghdad that al-Banna retired in 1999. Saddam’s mukhabarat murdered al-Banna on August 16, 2002, forestalling any chance of discovering how deeply implicated Saddam was in al-Banna’s international crime-wave.
Muhammad Zaidan (Abu Abbas) was able to escape Italian detention after he had hijacked the Achille Lauro and murdered Leon Klinghoffer in October 1985 because Zaidan had an Iraqi diplomatic passport; he soon moved to Baghdad.
President Clinton had come into office offering Saddam a clean slate. As a Baptist, “I believe in deathbed conversions,” Clinton said on January 14, 1993. In April 1993, Saddam tried to kill George H.W. Bush in Kuwait with a car bomb, leading Clinton to order airstrikes on Iraqi intelligence headquarters on June 26. Saddam’s regime had used Wali al-Ghazali, a Shi’a who had taken part in the March 1991 rebellion, as a cut-out, giving the regime perfect plausible deniability—it could be claimed Ghazali was infuriated at Bush’s betrayal of the anti-regime uprising.
Saddamist support for Palestinian extremists against pragmatists continued to the end. Though Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam during Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait briefly reconciled Saddam to the PLO, Arafat was soon involved in the Oslo Accords and Saddam returned to supporting more militant rejectionists. Through the Arab Liberation Front (ALF), a straight-out front-group for the Saddam regime in the Palestinian Territories, Saddam bankrolled violent attacks against Israel in the Second Intifada, shifting the balance even further against the PLO by paying anything up to $25,000 to the families of suicide-murderers, most of them members of HAMAS and Islamic Jihad.
Saddam’s support for international terrorism also took place within Iraq’s borders.
[Update:] In April 2003, a terrorist training camp of “the type Iraq claimed did not exist,” as Capt. Aaron Robertson, a Marine intelligence officer, put it, was discovered near Baghdad. The camp was “more sophisticated than those training camps we found in Afghanistan,” Robertson explained. “It has a permanent obstacle course, which rivals anything our Marines have back at Camp Pendleton.” The camp was a base for the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), of which Zaidan had been a leader from 1977. The camp’s purpose was hidden even on Iraqi internal documentation. In November 2001, the Israelis rolled up a PLF cell on the West Bank and found that the terrorists were financed and trained by the Saddam regime, enabling the PLF to commit numerous crimes, including bombing checkpoints and a bus, and the murder of an 18-year-old, Yuri Gushchin, in Jerusalem in July 2001. Quite a number of the Palestinian Authority’s most well-trained terrorists during the Second Intifada had been trained in Saddam’s Iraq.
At Salman Pak there was a training camp for terrorists, including Salafi-jihadists, from across the Arab world, run by Saddam’s special operations division. The training comprised assassinations; kidnapping; hijacking airplanes, buses, and trains; and suicide bombings—in short, methods for running a terrorist-insurgency. The camp was hidden from view, and bureaucratically hidden even from senior members of the regime. Another, similar camp was run at Lake Tharthar. These camps are believed to have trained at least 8,000 terrorists. The whole ethos of the camps was clearly anti-American. Whether members of al-Qaeda trained at the camps is unknown. Unsurprisingly, the same intelligence officers who ran Salman Pak were the ones who trained the Fedayeen Saddam, a core component of the insurgency in the aftermath of Saddam and now a core component of the Islamic State’s (ISIS’) military strength. When Salman Pak was captured by the United States a few days before the fall of Baghdad, the foreign Salafi-jihadists were found there—they were almost the only ones still fighting.
Saddam boasted of 4,000 foreign mujahideen he had recruited to defend Baghdad in 2003. The U.S. believes it was nearer to 2,000. In either case it made the point that Saddam was prepared for an alliance with people who conceived of themselves as on jihad. As it happens most of these Arab volunteers seem to have gone home: they were not, for the most part, militarily skilled, and they were deeply disillusioned by how quickly the regime had collapsed. After Hayes’ book was released, a letter written by Saddam’s foreign minister, Naji Sabri, surfaced, revealing Sabri’s suggestion during the invasion that Saddam’s regime “target [the Coalition’s] vehicle checkpoints with suicide operations by civilian vehicles in order to make the savage Americans realise that their contact with Iraqi civilians is as dangerous as facing them on the battlefield”. In short, Saddam had suicide squads available to him, and Sabri wanted to use them to sow distrust between American soldiers and Iraqi civilians to preemptively destabilize the occupation.
One of the most important connections the Saddam regime had with al-Qaeda was Ansar al-Islam, a Salafi-jihadist group based in Iraqi Kurdistan that both Saddam and al-Qaeda supported, which would become a key part of the post-Saddam insurgency.
Abu Musab az-Zarqawi (Ahmed al-Khalaylah), ISIS’ founder who rose to infamy for his video-beheadings and slaughter of Iraqi civilians, had been in Afghanistan during the closing stages of the Soviet occupation and then been imprisoned in his native Jordan from March 1994 after he tried to take jihad home. Released in March 1999 under a general amnesty, Zarqawi was in Pakistan by August and Afghanistan by December. Bin Laden never did take to Zarqawi’s Caliphate-now takfirism, but Sayf al-Adel, the Egyptian al-Qaeda military leader, convinced bin Laden, on the basis of “rolodex pragmatism,” that Zarqawi’s extensive Levantine and even European connections were useful. These connections were used as early as December 1999, when Zarqawi was involved on the Jordanian end of the “Millennium Plot,” attempting to blow up the Radisson hotel (the American side of the plot was intended to hit LAX.)
In early 2000, Zarqawi and several dozen followers were given seed money by al-Qaeda to set up a camp in Herat. Zarqawi’s group, Jund a-Sham (later Jamaat at-Tawhid wal-Jihad), was comprised mostly of Jordanians and Palestinians. By October 2001, when the Zarqawi’ites were evicted from Afghanistan, there were up to 3,000 people at the Herat camp, including wives and children.
Among those who had gone to Afghanistan to fight the Red Army and then stayed to train with al-Qaeda was a contingent of Iraqi Kurds. “In 1998, the first force of Islamist terrorists crossed the Iranian border into Kurdistan … helped by Iran,” according to Iraqi Kurdish officials. The Kurdish Islamists immediately started trying to take control of territory—they reportedly had training camps in place by 1999—but they quickly splintered.
Soon after Zarqawi set up his camp in Herat, he dispatched one of his most loyal deputies, a fellow Jordanian, Abu Abdel Rahman al-Shami (Raed Khuraysat), to Iraqi Kurdistan to organize the Salafi-jihadists. This was done by Zarqawi in coordination with bin Laden, who donated between $300,000 and $600,000 to the unification effort of what would become Jund al-Islam on Sept. 1, 2001, renamed Ansar al-Islam after a further merger in December 2001.
Officially led by Mullah Krekar (Faraj Ahmad Najmuddin), by 2001 Ansar was running a Taliban-style fiefdom over 200,000 people on five-hundred-square-kilometres of Iraqi Kurdistan. That this created a fall-back base for Zarqawi when he fled Afghanistan does not seem to have been wholly accidental: it seems to have been part of Zarqawi’s—and bin Laden’s—worst-case planning, and it paid off. When Zarqawi was forced out of Afghanistan, he had an enclave led by men who were loyal to him to retreat to.
The Saddam-Qaeda connection through Ansar is extensive. Saadan Mahmoud Abdul Latif al-Aani (Abu Wael), Ansar’s formal number three but in reality “the actual decision-maker,” was an IIS colonel, who had for years functioned as a sort of outreach coordinator to Islamic terrorists for Saddam, whom he had met personally several times. The Salafi-jihadists al-Aani recruited for Saddam were given Iraqi visas to train at Salman Pak. After the U.S. struck into Afghanistan contact was lost with al-Aani and another mukhabarat officer, Qassem Hussein Mohamed, was sent to re-establish contact with al-Aani, but Mohamed was arrested by the Kurdistan authorities.
A May 2002 NSA report said that the IIS “provided [Ansar] with $100,000 and agreed to continue to give assistance.” Saddam also provided weapons to Ansar. A mukhabarat agent, Abdul Rahman al-Shamari, was captured by the Kurds in March 2002 as he tried to bring weapons, mainly mortars, to Ansar. Al-Shamari also explained that the Saddam regime sent cash “every month or two” to Ansar, and that Uday Hussein was intimately involved in planning Ansar’s operations.
[Update:] Erbil has always remained adamant that Saddam was supporting Ansar, not least because it held numerous prisoners who testified to the connection. “[Ansar] and al-Qaeda groups were trained by graduates of the Mukhabarat’s School 999 military intelligence,” said a member of Saddam’s Mukhabarat in Kurdish custody. “My information is that the Iraqi government was directly supporting [al-Qaeda] with weapons and explosives. [Ansar] was part of al-Qaeda, and [was] given support with training and money.” Saddam was hell-bent on destroying the Kurdish safe-zone, the Mukhabarat officer added, and “will never give up supporting” Ansar toward that end (this is 2002). Mohammad Tawfiq, a PUK official, added, in the aftermath of the regime when the Ba’athists connections to Ansar were undeniable: “The Ba’athists provide logistical support, money, weapons, transportation, safe houses. Organisations like Ansar al-Islam provide people ready to commit suicide.”
Much of this was known in real time. The shocking thing is the CIA’s delay in interviewing the Ansar jihadists held by the Kurds after Jeffrey Goldberg’s report on March 25, 2002. When CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin was asked about this tardiness by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the CIA stonewalled, according to Douglas Feith. The CIA preferred to rely on satellite pictures and SIGINT, and had an extreme bias in favour of paid informants—distrusting open-source intelligence (OSINT). This was a huge problem since the CIA didn’t have a single human intelligence (HUMINT) source inside Iraq before 2003. But the dismissal of OSINT in general is bad practice since, as former NSA counter-intelligence officer John Schindler has put it, “One of my great shocks upon gaining access to the ‘crown jewels’ was the discovery that over 90 percent of the intelligence … was not much more detailed than the reportage in quality newspapers”. There is also reason to think that the CIA’s delay wasn’t simply a dispute over methods. The CIA was adamant that “secular” Ba’athists would not cooperate with al-Qaeda, so they simply refused to investigate any evidence to the contrary, which was, as Feith dryly notes, “one way to protect their position”. In July 2002, the CIA finally sent people to Kurdistan, and “debriefings yielded many reports of cooperation between Iraq and Ansar, reports that were assessed as credible and important by the CIA’s own analysts,” Feith writes.
After much criticism of the CIA for bending their analysis to fit their theory, they finally reassessed, which led to Tenet’s public letter in October 2002 that said, inter alia: there was “solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda going back a decade”; the two “have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression”; al-Qaeda members from Afghanistan have turned up in Iraq, including Baghdad; and “Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.” Thus when Tenet, and his many defenders, now suggest that the CIA had nothing to do with pre-war intelligence it relies on people not being able to read.
In April 2002, the month Zarqawi moved from Iran to Ansar’s enclave, Zarqawi is said to have ordered Ansar’s attempt to assassinate the Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih. There is every reason to suspect a Saddamist hand in this, however: it came after Salih had given interviews in the West saying Saddam was tied to terrorism, and given Saddam’s record of—in best KGB fashion—liquidating enemies pre-emptively, notably Shi’a clerics who got too popular through the 1990s, it would make sense for Saddam to remove the Kurdish leadership as a Western attack loomed, since the Kurds had advertised their willingness to act as Western allies.
Whatever the truth of that, in May 2002, Zarqawi moved to Baghdad with a dozen senior al-Qaeda-linked associates, and was soon joined by more, including his successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. The U.S. twice contacted Saddam, with Jordan as intermediary, to demand that Zarqawi be arrested; Saddam said Zarqawi could not be found in the capital city of his Police State. In reality, Zarqawi “was relatively free to travel within Iraq proper,” namely the Sunni areas, “and to stay in Baghdad for some time” between May and November 2002, according to the Butler Review.
By the summer of 2002, it was clear that the Kurdish government was at war already with Ansar al-Islam, and that Saddam was helping Ansar. A then-recent bomb plot had been foiled where the TNT Ansar was using was “produced by the military industrialisation department in Baghdad, and is released only at the say of the head of Iraqi military intelligence,” and “trucks laden with arms have arrived from the government-controlled area.” The 9/11 Commission itself noted that there are “indications” that after 9/11 “the Iraqi regime tolerated and may even have helped” Ansar.
A CIA senior executive memo said that “as of October 2002,” “Zarqawi has had an operational alliance with Iraqi officials” (italics added). Zarqawi “maintained contacts with the IIS to procure weapons and explosives, including surface-to-air missiles,” and Zarqawi set up “sleeper cells in Baghdad to be activated in case of a U.S. occupation of the city”. In short, the Ba’ath-al-Qaeda alliance that has since mutated into ISIS started before the invasion.
By November 2002, intelligence reporting said Ansar had tested chemical weapons in northern Iraq.
Zarqawi’s operations in 2002 were not limited to Iraq; he was allowed to move in and out of the country freely. In late 2002, Zarqawi went from Iraq to Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp well-known for its Salafist militancy, in the Saida area of southern Lebanon, and then to Syria, reconnecting with his old contacts, gathering baya from a group of Syrian Salafi-jihadists that included the current ISIS spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (Taha Subhi Falaha), and organizing the ratlines that would bring the foreign Salafi-jihadists from Damascus into Iraq during the American regency.
From this early date Zarqawi had the complicity of the Assad regime to draw on. Zarqawi worked through Shaker al-Absi, a Palestinian Salafi-jihadist in Syria, to assassinate USAID worker Laurence Foley in Amman in October 2002. Al-Absi planned that hit in Damascus “with Assad’s involvement, tolerance, permission, and support“. Al-Absi would later emerge as the leader of Fatah al-Islam, a well-known joint Assad-Zarqawi’ite enterprise.
By the end of 2002, Zarqawi had moved to the Ansar-run area of Kurdistan. On March 29, 2003, under pressure of Coalition bombing and the advance of the Kurds against the jihadist enclave, Ansar cleared out its bases, and shortly thereafter Zarqawi and three-hundred Ansar holy warriors, who had by-now-formally accepted Zarqawi’s leadership, moved into Iran. The passports of Ansar jihadists left behind were stamped with visas from the Saddam regime. Zarqawi and his Ansar comrades stayed for a week in Zahedan before being moved to Tehran with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s help.
Zarqawi’s stay in Iran helps demonstrate the complicity of the Iranian regime with ISIS from early on. Ryan Crocker, who has otherwise displayed some sympathy with Tehran, noted that he personally flew to Geneva to tell Iran to put a stop to the plans being organized by al-Qaeda’s agents on its territory for an attack on Saudi Arabia. To no avail: multiple bombings in Riyadh on May 12, 2003 murdered nearly forty people. The U.S believes that it was Sayf al-Adel, Zarqawi’s old patron, then-based in Iran, who directed this attack. Simply put by Derek Harvey: “When given opportunities to interdict, or have an effect [against al-Qaeda and ISIS], [the Iranians] have refrained.”
By late May 2003, a Kurdish spokesman stated that Ansar al-Islam was trying to “regroup in the mountainous Iraqi-Iranian border region”. On June 13, 2003, Ansar sent a statement sent to Asharq al-Awsat, which claimed (falsely) that Ansar had destroyed ten U.S. tanks, and announced that Ansar would now accept foreign volunteers to fight the Americans in Iraq. When exactly Ansar and Zarqawi returned to Iraq is unclear. But by late July, the U.S. said Ansar was once again “active” in Iraq, and in mid-August 2003, the Kurds reported arresting fifty Salafi-jihadists who had come from as far away and Tunisia and Europe to join Ansar’s jihad. These foreign fighters were arrested as they tried to cross from Iran into Iraq; how many crossed without interdiction is not known.
“The Iranians send [Ansar’s foreign Salafi-jihadists] across the border,” said the deputy commander of the Peshmerga in Sulaymaniya. “Once inside Iraq, a network of supporters and Saddam loyalists help smuggle the fighters down to the Kirkuk region … and then to central Iraq, so they can join the fight against U.S. forces.”
Ansar was implicated in the three major attacks in summer 2003—on the Jordanian Embassy (August 7), the United Nations (August 19), and Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim (August 29)—that signalled the beginning of a major, organized insurgency.
In October 2003, two captured members of Ansar said Izzat ad-Douri was “helping to coordinate their attacks,” the first solid evidence that former regime elements (FREs) were collaborating with the foreign-led al-Qaeda forces. A Newsweek report from the same month noted the “[i]ncreasing evidence … that Ansar fighters are joining forces with Baathists,” including Ansar members in Ramadi having heavy weaponry clearly supplied by the fallen regime.
Al-Qaeda drawing on IIS is not an innovation; despite its designation as a “non-State” actor, al-Qaeda “was never … wholly self-sufficient,” and had ties to intelligence services in Sudan, Saddam’s Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and an actual alliance with Iran, through the Hizballah cut-out, on training and terrorist operations from 1991/2 onward, which does not seem to have been broken.
Abu Zubaydah’s statement that bin Laden decided against a “formal alliance” with Saddam is often falsely rendered as Zubaydah having said there was no relationship, when the very next sentence in the intelligence brief is: “That said, bin Laden views any entity which hated Americans or was willing to kill them as an ally”. Zubaydah added that bin Laden “would work with whomever could help him” against America and her allies. Ansar al-Islam provides a prototype of this cooperation in practice.
Outside of Saddam’s links with al-Qaeda “central,” captured documents show that Saddam had relations with al-Qaeda affiliates in the Philippines, Algeria, and Uganda, and in at least one case this led to a coordinated terrorist attack against America.
During Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait, the Ba’ath regime directed a series of terrorist attacks against American targets across the world, often partnering with Salafi-jihadists. These attacks—low-scale as they were—were so numerous that they became a campaign issue in 1992, with Albert Gore citing a RAND study that said, “an estimated 1,400 terrorists were operating openly out of Iraq,” as evidence that President H.W. Bush was not taking a stern enough line with the butcher of Baghdad.
An especially salient case occurred on January 19, 1991, in the Philippines, and is remembered to history as Operation DOGMEAT. The bombing phase of DESERT STORM had begun two days before, and Ahmed J. Ahmed and Abdul Kadham Saad, two Iraqi students, attempted to bomb the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center in Manila. Unfortunately (for them) the bomb went off early, killing Ahmed. Saad recited the Iraqi Embassy’s telephone number from memory at the hospital when asked for a contact. Muwafak al-Ani, the consul general at the Philippine Embassy, in reality one of Saddam’s top intelligence officers in East Asia, met with the bombers five times in the run-up to the attack; indeed his car delivered the bombers to within a few blocks of their target. Al-Ani and the brothers Husam and Hisham Abdul Sattar were ordered out of the country for involvement in this.
In February 2003, Manila again ordered Iraqi “diplomats” out, this time in relation to the murder of Sgt. Mark Wayne Jackson, an American in the counter-terrorism team deployed to the Philippines. Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) claimed the bombing in Zamboanga City that killed Jackson. Al-Qaeda was, as I have previously explained, key in ASG’s formation and expansion through the Islamic International Relief Organization (IIRO), a “charity” run by bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jammal Khalifa. Via telephone intercepts, the bombs were traced back to Hisham Hussein, the second secretary at the Iraqi Embassy, who was expelled on Feb. 14, 2003, for conduct incompatible with his diplomatic status. Hussein was found by the Filipinos to head an “established network” of Salafi-jihadists, and to have been in regular contact with ASG leaders, Abu Madja and Hamsiraji Marusi Sali, before and after the Zamboanga bombing. Days later two more Iraqi Embassy officials were made to leave the Philippines.
This is especially important because the 9/11 Commission set up a weirdly high threshold for what constituted a relationship between Saddam and al-Qaeda. Having admitted all the contacts, the Commission declared that it had “seen no evidence” these contacts developed into a “collaborative operational relationship,” let alone cooperation in an attack against the United States. The Zamboanga case might well meet even that strenuous definition.
During Algeria’s savage civil war, the most barbarous group was the Group Islamique Armé (GIA), an al-Qaeda affiliate that in a fashion similar to ISIS went too far even for al-Qaeda. The CIA had “convincing evidence” that Saddam’s regime was “funneling money through bin Laden” to GIA, says Stanley Bedlington, a senior CIA’s counterterrorism analyst (1986-94) and one of the men who worked on this. There’s “no doubt” Saddam had “pretty strong ties to bin Laden while he was in Sudan,” said Bedlington, and one of their joint schemes was that Saddam passed money to bin Laden, who took a cut and then passed it on to GIA.
After the fall of Baghdad it was found that Saddam had connections with another al-Qaeda affiliate, this time in Uganda. The Iraqi chargé d’affaires in Kenya, Fallah Hassan al-Rubdie, had written a series of letters in 2001 to Bekkah Abdul Nassir, “chief of diplomacy” for the Qaeda-linked Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which now collaborates with Somalia’s al-Qaeda branch, al-Shabab. In a letter from April 2001, Nassir said the ADF will “send youth to train for the jihad” at a training camp in Baghdad. It is not clear if this camp was ever set up or if Saddam sent funding to ADF, but one letter does discuss agreement on an “appropriate budget,” implying either than ADF were either given money or a specific promise. Nassir says his operatives are already “on the ground working in Baghdad”.
The first major question remaining is that “fragmentary evidence points to Iraqi involvement” in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, al-Qaeda’s first attack on American soil. Some suspicion at the time focused on the date: Saddam was hell-bent on revenge and February 26 was exactly two years after the ground phase of DESERT STORM began. Laurie Mylroie has argued that Ramzi Yousef, the main perpetrator, was an IIS agent. Despite being born in Kuwait, Yousef’s friends called him “Rashid the Iraqi,” Mylroie writes. Mylroie’s thesis is much-disputed but Yousef did enter the U.S. on an Iraqi passport and fled the U.S. to Iraq before he went on to Pakistan, where he was arrested in 1995. Mohammed Salameh, another conspirator, made forty-six telephone calls to Iraq two months before the plot’s masterminds arrived in America, including to his uncle, Kadri Abu Bakr, a senior figure in the PLO’s “Western Sector” terrorist unit. These calls would certainly be monitored by Iraqi intelligence.
The clearest Saddamist connection to the 1993 WTC attack, however, is after-the-fact. Abdul Yasin got a U.S. passport in Jordan in June 1992 and travelled from Baghdad to New Jersey in September 1992, moving in with his brother, Musab Yasin. Abdul was picked up by the FBI after the WTC bombing and admitted to mixing the chemicals for the bomb. Bafflingly, as a cooperative witness, Abdul was let go. On March 5, 1993, Abdul Yasin boarded a flight to Jordan, went straight to the Iraqi Embassy, and thence to Baghdad. While the Saddam regime would at times claim that Abdul Yasin was under some kind of arrest, visiting journalists from ABC and Newsweek found otherwise. IIS documents captured after Saddam’s fall show that Abdul was never imprisoned, had his house paid for by the Iraqi regime, and was given a monthly stipend. The Saddam regime came up with various legalistic barriers to avoid handing over Abdul Yasin, despite repeated U.S. requests.
The question of whether Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 suicide-killers, went to Prague in April 2001 to meet with IIS officer Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, who posed as a diplomat at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague between March 1999 and April 2001, remains a good deal more open than most people think. The 9/11 Commission said it had seen “[n]o evidence … that Atta was in the Czech Republic in April 2001,” and quoted al-Ani, KSM, and Ramzi Binalshibh to this effect, adding that there was “no reason” for the meeting to have happened; if anything it would have endangered the plot. But, the Czechs had been adamant that the meeting took place, at least until the Bush administration ceased to defend itself (see below) and refused to share intel after al-Ani was taken into custody. The 9/11 Commission itself added, “These findings cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that Atta was in Prague on April 9, 2001. He could have used an alias to travel,” and while this would have been “an exception to his practice,” there is not exactly an unexceptional when it comes to planning a mass-suicide-murder operation.
Atta is known for certain to have been in Prague in December 1994, and it was believed Atta had made a time-sensitive trip to Prague in June 2000, but there is now evidence against that. An alleged Atta visit to Prague in October 1999 is also disputed. The bottom line is: we simply don’t know if Atta had contact with IIS, and we now almost-certainly never will.
The most intriguing thread left over is Ahmed Hikmat Shakir.
Shakir had long been involved in the murky world where Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda met. Shakir received at least one telephone call from the planning headquarters of the 1993 WTC bombing, and had been in contact with Zahid Sheik Muhammad (KSM’s brother), Musab Yasin, and Mamdouh Salim, bin Laden’s designated representative to Saddam’s Iraq. But the crucial point came when Shakir got a job at Kuala Lumpur Airport in August 1999 through a contact at the Iraqi Embassy in Malaysia.
Anything up to half of Saddam’s “diplomats” were spies, suggesting that Shakir’s placement had official sanction in Baghdad. When Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of two 9/11 death pilots who went to Malaysia for the January 5, 2000, summit that finalized the plans for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole attack and what was then-called the “Planes Operation,” Shakir greeted al-Mihdhar. (A bungle from the 9/11 Commission would later mix up Shakir with a Fedayeen Saddam Colonel also called Shakir.) Shakir put al-Mihdhar’s paperwork in order and then, “as any facilitator would,” got in the car with al-Mihdhar and drove him to the condo where the three-day al-Qaeda summit took place. Whether Shakir attended the meeting is uncertain. Shakir went to work at the airport for the last time on January 10, 2000.
Shakir was arrested on September 17, 2001, in Qatar, working as a midlevel official at the Ministry of Religious Development, but he was released on October 21, and headed straight for Baghdad via Jordan. The Jordanians stopped him. The Saddam regime requested that Shakir be released to them; according to some accounts the representations from Baghdad were rather more than pro forma.
In addition to Shakir’s contact at the Embassy, his resistance to interrogation (not “enhanced” interrogation, it should be noted) convinced his Jordanian and American handlers that he had been trained by a State intelligence service. Amman was convinced Shakir was an IIS agent. For reasons that perhaps we’ll never know, Jordan then made an audacious suggestion: flip Shakir—send him to Baghdad but have him report back to Jordan and/or America. (Shakir would later appear in some sensationalist media coverage because of his alleged homosexuality: it is likely this was felt to be a point of leverage.) The CIA agreed. Shakir hasn’t been seen since, leaving an open question about whether Saddam had an agent at the final planning meeting for 9/11. It is one of the grossest mistakes of the War on Terror.
A final question is why the consensus is so overwhelmingly disbelieving of the Saddam-Qaeda relationship. I have found that many people, even when presented with the evidence, will say something to the effect of: “Well if it’s true, why have so few people—including the Bush administration—made and defended the case?” The answer to a large extent lies in the strategic communications decisions of the Bush administration itself.
Douglas Feith notes that after the failure to find stockpiles of WMD in Iraq, “The President no longer cited Saddam’s record or the threats from the Baathist regime as reasons for going to war; rather, he focused almost exclusively on the aim of promoting democracy.” In doing so, the President compounded the damage to his credibility suffered because of the intelligence failure, distancing himself from the actual case he had made for the invasion, which appeared to be a tacit admission that this case was wrong, if not deceitful. Since the case included the Qaeda connection, that suffered a corresponding collapse in credibility. The Bush administration’s decision to talk almost exclusively about Iraq’s future, and to abandon its defence of the pre-invasion case, meant that critics could say anything they liked about the lead-up to war and not be rebutted by the administration.
The focus on the future also changed the definition of success: instead of taking credit for the removal of a threat to U.S. interests—a regime that messed around with WMD, flirted with al-Qaeda, attacked its neighbours, and massacred its “own” population—the Bush administration’s messaging now said that “success” in Iraq could only be achieved if the country became Switzerland on the Tigris.
The only issue in Hayes’ book that has been disproven is that Zarqawi did not have a leg amputated at a hospital in Baghdad. This does not fundamentally change anything—rather to the contrary. Zarqawi was in Baghdad in May 2002, with Saddam’s connivance, doing much more than receiving medical treatment.
Perhaps there are other specific points that have been or will be rebutted. But in the vast majority of the cases mentioned above, the likelihood is that we’ll simply never know, and in many ways that is Hayes’ main point.
Intelligence is not an exact science. What we have in the case of Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda is a menacing pattern. The 9/11 Commission’s infamous statement—that it had not seen evidence of a “collaborative operational relationship” between Saddam and al-Qaeda—set up a bizarre, arbitrary threshold for the depth of the Saddam-Qaeda relationship that has allowed the Commission to be easily and falsely misconstrued as saying there was no Saddam-Qaeda relationship. While the evidence presented here can be read as clearing even that threshold, it makes a more obvious point that influenced policy-makers who saw it in real time: Why wait to find out how the relationship will develop and how threatening it will be? As is very often forgotten or misrepresented now, the architects of the Iraq invasion did not conceive of it as being about the last attack; it was about preventing the next one.
Hayes’ best achievement here is to compile evidence that should set the debate about Iraq on a better footing. Hayes has made it easy to recognize that anyone who maintains that the Saddam regime had no connection to al-Qaeda is simply uninformed on the subject. In combination with the recent evidence about the WMD, which means we now know Saddam did have WMDs, the argument that must be made against the Iraq invasion is that these WMDs and these connections with terrorism—to say nothing of the threats to regional stability and the Iraqi population—were insufficiently menacing to warrant removing the regime. The strength of this argument might be questioned given that Hayes’ book adds to the already copious evidence that an ISIS-like metastasis was in Iraq’s future long before the 2003 invasion. But saying Saddam’s Iraq was a threat that could be lived with is a very different argument to there being no threat.
UPDATE: The New York Times on the morning of June 22 reported on a cache of Saddamist documents which are going to be made public-access, which among other things disclosed additional details of Saddam’s relationship with Hassan al-Turabi. “The Iraqi files open a window into one of Saddam’s most important and less known foreign alliances,” said Michael Brill, a graduate from Georgetown University. This is part of a broader pattern where every time Saddam regime documents get released, it reveals that Saddam’s connection with Islamism was deeper than previously supposed. Qatar is known to stock many of the documents captured in Iraq by America after 2003—which amount to twenty-six million according to some Kurdish sources. Now would be an excellent time to declassify these, and help settle some of the debates over what Saddam’s regime was up to in its last decade-and-a-half.
UPDATE 2: Abu Wael, the alleged decision-maker of Ansar al-Islam who was a Saddamist agent, turned back up in July 2015, albeit under the name Saadoun al-Qadi. Abu Wael had gone on to become a leader of Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna (JAS), which was formed as an umbrella group by leaders of Ansar al-Islam in September 2003 as they returned to Iraq from Iran. JAS was a splinter-cum-reconstitution of Ansar al-Islam and in December 2007 JAS reverted to the name Ansar al-Islam, while a splinter from the renewed Ansar al-Islam went its own way. At some point during the “surge,” Abu Wael retired to Damascus—Ansar al-Islam under any of its names is now defunct.
Abu Wael reappeared in comments from Saleh al-Hamawi, a Nusra founder who was expelled in July 2015, who said that in 2010 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had tried to have Abu Wael assassinated in Syria. Maysar al-Jabouri (Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), a former member of the Fedayeen Saddam, incidentally, is now a “dissident” within Nusra—having been the number two, al-Jabouri is now on the outs with al-Qaeda’s leadership in Syria. In 2010, al-Jabouri was a senior ISIS commander in Mosul. After an injury, al-Jabouri was taken to Syria for surgery—an instructive course of events in itself—and al-Baghdadi forwarded instructions that while there he was to liquidate Abu Wael. Al-Jabouri is said to have flatly refused the order.