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A Myth Revisited: ‘Saddam Hussein Had No Connection to Al-Qaeda’

This is a cross-post from the Syrian Intifada by Kyle Orton

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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 acasus 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. 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.

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.

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