The myth that Saddam Hussein’s regime had nothing to do with al-Qaeda is persistent. Stephen Hayes’ book, The Connection, ably debunks this notion. There are some additional details that one can add to this.
Hayes notes that Ayman az-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, had been to Saddam’s Iraq at least twice: in 1992 for a direct meeting with the dictator, and later in February 1998 to meet Saddam’s vice president to discuss the establishment of training camps and to receive $300,000. It turns out Zawahiri made at least one other visit, according to Lawrence Wright in his book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (p. 296).
Zawahiri went to Baghdad in September 1999 as part of one of Saddam’s “Popular Islamic Conferences,” gatherings for Islamists, some of them terrorists on the run, which Saddam had begun to host in 1983 as the Ba’ath regime began to Islamize.
Additionally, according to Wright, Abu Musab az-Zarqawi “arrived in Baghdad at about the same time”. Zarqawi made his name after the 2003 Iraq invasion as the ultra-savage leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the Islamic State’s (ISIS) predecessor.
It is known from a multitude of sources that men loyal to Zarqawi organized the Salafi-jihadist groups in Iraqi Kurdistan in late 1999 and early 2000 and these merged into Ansar al-Islam by the end of 2001, by which time they controlled a significant strip of territory in northern Iraq that included terrorist training camps.
It is also known that Ansar’s formal third in command, who was actually its operational leader, was an agent of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS), and that Ansar was receiving money and weapons from Saddam to prosecute its war against the Kurdish government that had broken free of Saddam’s rule under the protection of the no-fly zones.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, Zarqawi went to Iran before moving into the Ansar-held enclave of northern Iraq in April 2002. Zarqawi moved to Baghdad in May 2002 (p. 109), and thence to various spots in the Levant where, with Assad’s help, he organized the assassination of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan and the “ratlines” that would bring the foreign Salafi-jihadists into the New Iraq from Damascus International Airport. During the invasion, Ansar fled to Iran. Former Saddam regime elements would help Ansar back into Iraq in the spring and summer of 2003, and Ansar went on to be an important part of the post-Saddam insurgency.
If Zarqawi had been in Baghdad in late 1999, it adds to the case that something like ISIS, a fusion between Ba’athism and militant Salafism, was likely coming in some form in Iraq with or without an invasion because of the Saddam regime’s policies.
Making this point in a different way is Jawad Jabbar Sadkhan al-Sahlani (a.k.a. Mullah Abdullah), an inmate at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp between May 3, 2002, and June 10, 2009.
Sadkhan was an IIS officer before he deserted the Iraqi army in 1997 and fled to Iran, where he stayed for a little over a year before moving to Taliban Afghanistan. Sadkhan’s break with his old employers at IIS, however, doesn’t seem to have been total.
In Afghanistan, Sadkhan was a “senior Taliban Intelligence Directorate officer,” “a Taliban subcommander in Mazar-e-Sharif, and a Taliban recruiter,” as reported by the leaked assessment of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO). Sadkhan was also “linked to al-Qaida senior leadership.”
Two payments made to Sadkhan’s al-Wafa “charity” directly by Osama bin Laden for the purposes of digging a new well in September and October 2001 show every sign of being in reality an attempt to buy Sadkhan’s way out of the custody of the Northern Alliance. Given Sadkhan’s “commanding role” in the brief resistance the Taliban-Qaeda regime put up against the Coalition, and Northern Alliance itself “specifically sen[ding] soldiers to capture [Sadkhan],” a good guess can be made that Sadkhan was a high-value target.
Sadkhan was also tied to Nashwan Abd al-Razzaq Abd al-Baqi (a.k.a. Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi). Al-Baqi, an Iraqi from Mosul, had identified Sadkhan as an intelligence officer. Al-Baqi went to Afghanistan in the mid-1980s and then led al-Qaeda’s 55th Arab Brigade, an elite unit that fought alongside the Taliban, in the 1990s. After formally joining al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, al-Baqi served on the Shura Council, a ten-man advisory board to bin Laden, and was in charge of cross-border insurgent attacks on Coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004. Al-Baqi was also involved in al-Qaeda’s operations in Iran and its attempts to assassinate Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf.
All the more interesting, then, that Sadkhan should have “provided liaison between the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq,” which is to say the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
Oybek Jamoldinivich Jabbarov, an Uzbek affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), said that Sadkhan had “admitted working as a liaison between Taliban Intelligence Directorate and Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.” Sadkhan “traveled between Iraq and Afghanistan ferrying unidentified supplies from Iraq through Iran on multiple occasions,” Jabbarov said. Sadkhan “would receive money from the Taliban in exchange for these supplies.”
Notably, Sadkhan had a “level of wealth beyond that of a foreign fighter”, according to the JTF-GTMO document. As well as the supplies from Iraq, the Taliban’s drug trade supplemented Sadkhan’s income. Whether Sadkhan had other streams of income is not certain, but he was allowed to own a satellite dish, PlayStation, and other items banned by the Taliban, not to mention a mobile telephone, which required the permission of the Taliban’s Defence Ministry, showing how important he was to the Taliban.
Another detainee to identify Sadkhan as having worked in Saddam’s intelligence service was Abbas Habid Rumi al-Naely, also an Iraqi, who said Sadkhan “was a member of the Amin Emergency Response Group, … an elite Iraqi intelligence squad responsible for locating and either torturing or killing” opposition to Saddam.
The most interesting thing about al-Naely, who was recruited in Baghdad by a Taliban agent in 1994 and has variously claimed and disclaimed being an associate of bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and al-Baqi, is that he was elsewhere identified as being another link between Saddam and al-Qaeda. In August 1998, al-Nealy is said to have gone to Pakistan with an IIS officer “for the purpose of blowing up the Pakistan, United States and British embassies with chemical mortars.” This plot has been elsewhere identified, and took place in the same month al-Qaeda struck the East African Embassies and during a period of activism in the Saddam-al-Qaeda relationship.
In the case of Saddam’s Iraq, al-Qaeda had hoped to gain counterfeit documentation such as passports, which were provided at the first meeting in 1992; certain difficult-to-obtain categories of weapons (limpet mines was one request in the 1990s); and space to operate, specifically training camps, which al-Qaeda did gain in Iraq in 1999 at the latest, with Saddam’s support, albeit in territory not under Saddam’s direct control—allowing both sides to maintain their deniability, though there was a moment in early 1999 when there were some signs that bin Laden might “boogie to Baghdad,” as Clinton’s counterterrorism tsar Richard Clarke so colourfully put it
The non-aggression pact Saddam and bin Laden, reached in 1993 with Hassan al-Turabi as intermediary, was extended beyond the fall of Saddam’s regime when bin Laden issued a public fatwa in February 2003 saying that in the face of an attack by the “Crusaders,” despite al-Qaeda’s conviction that the “socialists” (i.e. Ba’athists) “are infidels,” “There is nothing wrong with a convergence of interests here.”
As ISIS spreads mayhem around the world again today—with slaughter in Kobani and terrorist attacks in France, Kuwait, and Tunisia—it is worth remembering this history, and the fact that Saddam’s alliances with Islamists, including al-Qaeda, in foreign policy go back to the early 1980s, and the Islamization of the Saddam regime itself was well-advanced by the mid-1990s. In short, the hybrid of Saddam regime elements and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists, who joined together in the post-Saddam insurgency and which forms the basis of ISIS, is not a phenomenon whose genesis dates to 2003.
Post has been updated