TCS Daily


Saddam and al Qaeda

By James H. Joyner - June 18, 2004 12:00 AM

The 9-11 Commission has issued "Overview of the Enemy," its preliminary assessment of the al Qaeda network. Early press attention has focused on the conclusion that there was "no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." However, as Troy University political scientist Steven Taylor notes, the early press coverage of the report elides a rather important distinction between "ties with al Qaeda" and "helped al Qaeda target the United States." More importantly, though, the myopic focus on al Qaeda to the exclusion of its Islamist partners in terror is troublesome.

This paragraph has garnered all the attention so far:

"Bin Ladin also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime. Bin Ladin had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded Bin Ladin to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Ladin in 1994. Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

It should be noted, however, that the Commission also seemed to have demanded an inordinately high standard of evidence, unable to establish definitively, in their view, links between al Qaeda and a number of attacks long presumed to have been perpetrated by them:

§ "We have seen strong but indirect evidence that his organization did in fact play some as yet unknown role in the [June 1996] Khobar [Towers] attack."

§ "Whether Bin Ladin and his organization had roles in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the thwarted Manila plot to blow up a dozen U.S. commercial aircraft in 1995 remains a matter of substantial uncertainty."

Given the nature of counter-terrorist intelligence, critics might argue that the Commission's apparent search for proof that meets the reasonable doubt standard of the U.S. criminal justice system is unreasonable.

Saddam's government was never the world's foremost sponsor of terrorism. Iran and Saudi Arabia far outstripped him in that regard. Nonetheless, the fact that Saddam Hussein actively supported Islamic terrorists has been an article of faith since the Carter Administration. Indeed, Iraq was one of the original five states (along with Iran, Libya, Syria, and Cuba) on the original "Patterns of Global Terrorism" list compiled by the State Department in 1979. Saddam was a major sponsor of various terrorist groups, including the PLO, Hamas, and the Abu Nidal Organization.

The paper trail for the al Qaeda connection is more difficult to establish given the cellular nature of that organization and its recent provenance. Writing in TCS last September, Richard Minter observed,

"[M]any of those sniping at U.S. troops are al Qaeda terrorists operating inside Iraq. And many of bin Laden's men were in Iraq prior to the liberation. A wealth of evidence on the public record -- from government reports and congressional testimony to news accounts from major newspapers -- attests to longstanding ties between bin Laden and Saddam going back to 1994."

Minter outlines -- with twenty-three bullet points -- details of proven contacts between senior al Qaeda leaders and Saddam Hussein or his representatives. Stephen Hayes notes that the Clinton Administration and many seasoned professionals of both parties believed Saddam and al Qaeda were connected. American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen, an opponent of the Iraq War, asserted in 2002 that "a relationship with bin Laden is as close to certain as you can get in the world of clandestine operations."[1]

While links between Saddam and al Qaeda are long established, evidence of Saddam's involvement in the 9/11 attacks has always been sketchy at best. The most compelling case has always rested on a meeting between 9/11 planner Mohammed Atta and Iraqi case officer al-Ani. At least one expert went so far as to argue that Atta received $100,000 that "probably funded at least part of the September 11 operation."[2] The Commission, as detailed in a separate report, "Outline of the 9/11 Plot," now believes that meeting never took place.

"We have examined the allegation that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague on April 9. Based on the evidence available -- including investigation by Czech and U.S. authorities plus detainee reporting -- we do not believe that such a meeting occurred. The FBI's investigation places him in Virginia as of April 4, as evidenced by this bank surveillance camera shot of Atta withdrawing $8,000 from his account. Atta was back in Florida by April 11, if not before. Indeed, investigation has established that, on April 6, 9, 10, and 11, Atta's cellular telephone was used numerous times to call Florida phone numbers from cell sites within Florida. We have seen no evidence that Atta ventured overseas again or re-entered the United States before July, when he traveled to Spain and back under his true name."

There is little credible evidence that Saddam directly funded the 9/11 attacks. Given that the United States has occupied Iraq for over a year and that our intelligence agencies have had nearly three years to uncover such evidence, it is quite likely that there was no such connection. Nonetheless, we know that Saddam funded Islamist terrorists. We know that his government had significant and repeated contact with al Qaeda. Regardless, this is essentially a semantic debate. As terrorism expert Steve Emerson explains, the Islamist terrorist threat is singular; the particular name associated with a faction hardly matters:

"The dream of a world under Islam has engendered Muslim dissidents everywhere in the world over the last two decades. Almost every Islamic country has its own militant faction, often two or three. The Hamas of Palestine, Hizballah of Lebanon, the Islamic Salvation Fron (FIS) and Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria, An-Nahda of Tunisia, Al Jihad and al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya of Egypt, Lashkar e-Tayyiba of Pakistan, and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and the Holy Warriors in Chechnya-all share the same goal of an Islamic world, or, as they refer to it, a Khilafah."[3]

Jason Burke, writing in the May/June Foreign Policy, goes further, noting:

"The Arabic word qaeda can be translated as a "base of operation" or "foundation," or alternatively as a "precept" or "method." Islamic militants always understood the term in the latter sense. In 1987, Abdullah Azzam, the leading ideologue for modern Sunni Muslim radical activists, called for al-qaeda al-sulbah (a vanguard of the strong). He envisaged men who, acting independently, would set an example for the rest of the Islamic world and thus galvanize the umma (global community of believers) against its oppressors. It was the FBI -- during its investigation of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa -- which dubbed the loosely linked group of activists that Osama bin Laden and his aides had formed as "al Qaeda." This decision was partly due to institutional conservatism and partly because the FBI had to apply conventional antiterrorism laws to an adversary that was in no sense a traditional terrorist or criminal organization.

"Although bin Laden and his partners were able to create a structure in Afghanistan that attracted new recruits and forged links among preexisting Islamic militant groups, they never created a coherent terrorist network in the way commonly conceived. Instead, al Qaeda functioned like a venture capital firm -- providing funding, contacts, and expert advice to many different militant groups and individuals from all over the Islamic world.

"Today, the structure that was built in Afghanistan has been destroyed, and bin Laden and his associates have scattered or been arrested or killed. There is no longer a central hub for Islamic militancy. But the al Qaeda worldview, or "al Qaedaism," is growing stronger every day. This radical internationalist ideology -- sustained by anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric -- has adherents among many individuals and groups, few of whom are currently linked in any substantial way to bin Laden or those around him. They merely follow his precepts, models, and methods. They act in the style of al Qaeda, but they are only part of al Qaeda in the very loosest sense. That's why Israeli intelligence services now prefer the term "jihadi international" instead of "al Qaeda."

Obviously, Saddam was no Islamist. Saddam supported these groups, not because he believed in their cause -- indeed, they would likely have turned on him at some point -- but because doing so bolstered his standing in the Arab world and harmed his enemies, especially the Americans. In war, the enemy of my enemy is often my friend.

James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D. is Managing Editor of Strategic Insights, the journal of the Naval Postgraduate School. He writes about national security policy at the Outside the Beltway weblog. He recently wrote "Bouncing the Security Check" for TCS.



[1] Michael A. Ledeen, The War Against the Terror Masters, Newly Updated Edition (New York: St. Martin's, 2003), p. 178.

[2] Ledeen, The War Against the Terror Masters, p. 179.

[3] Steven Emerson, American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us (New York: Free Press, 2002), p. 2.


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