The Magazine

Saddam's al Qaeda Connection

From the September 1 / September 8, 2003 issue: The evidence mounts, but the administration says surprisingly little.

Sep 1, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 48 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

KIDS KNOW exactly when it comes--the point when you're repaving a driveway or pouring a new sidewalk, right before the wet concrete hardens completely. That's when you can make your mark. The Democrats seem to understand this.

For months before the war in Iraq, the Bush administration claimed to know of ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. For months after the war, the Bush administration has offered scant evidence of those claims. And the conventional wisdom--that there were no links--is solidifying. So Democrats are making their mark.

"The evidence now shows clearly that Saddam did not want to work with Osama bin Laden at all, much less give him weapons of mass destruction." So claimed Al Gore in an August 7 speech. "There is evidence of exaggeration" of Iraq-al Qaeda links, said Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who recently launched an investigation into prewar intelligence. "Clearly the al Qaeda connection was hyped and exaggerated, in my view," said Senator Dianne Feinsten. Chimed in Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, as reported in the National Journal, "The evidence on the al Qaeda links was sketchy." Jay Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the Senate side of that committee, agrees. "The evidence about the ties was not compelling."

These are serious charges that deserve to be answered. If critics can show that the administration overplayed the al Qaeda-Saddam connection, they will undermine not only an important rationale for removing the Iraqi dictator, but the broader, arguably more important case for the war--that the conflict in Iraq was one battle in the worldwide war on terror.

What, then, did the Bush administration say about this relationship before the war? Which parts of that case, if any, have been invalidated by the intelligence gathered in the months following the conflict? What is this new "evidence," cited by Gore and others, that reveals the administration's arguments to have been embellished? Finally, what if any new evidence has emerged that bolsters the Bush administration's prewar case?

The answer to that last question is simple: lots. The CIA has confirmed, in interviews with detainees and informants it finds highly credible, that al Qaeda's Number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, met with Iraqi intelligence in Baghdad in 1992 and 1998. More disturbing, according to an administration official familiar with briefings the CIA has given President Bush, the Agency has "irrefutable evidence" that the Iraqi regime paid Zawahiri $300,000 in 1998, around the time his Islamic Jihad was merging with al Qaeda. "It's a lock," says this source. Other administration officials are a bit more circumspect, noting that the intelligence may have come from a single source. Still, four sources spread across the national security hierarchy have confirmed the payment.

In interviews conducted over the past six weeks with uniformed officers on the ground in Iraq, intelligence officials, and senior security strategists, several things became clear. Contrary to the claims of its critics, the Bush administration has consistently underplayed the connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Evidence of these links existed before the war. In making its public case against the Iraq regime, the Bush administration used only a fraction of the intelligence it had accumulated documenting such collaboration. The intelligence has, in most cases, gotten stronger since the end of the war. And through interrogations of high-ranking Iraqi officials, documents from the regime, and further interrogation of al Qaeda detainees, a clearer picture of the links between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein is emerging.

To better understand the administration's case on these links, it's important to examine three elements of this debate: what the administration alleged, the evidence the administration had but didn't use, and what the government has learned since the war.

WHAT THE ADMINISTRATION ALLEGED

TOP U.S. OFFICIALS linked Iraq and al Qaeda in newspaper op-eds, on talk shows, and in speeches. But the most detailed of their allegations came in an October 7, 2002, letter from CIA director George Tenet to Senate Intelligence chairman Bob Graham and in Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations Security Council.

The Tenet letter declassified CIA reporting on weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's links to al Qaeda. Two sentences on WMD garnered most media attention, but the intelligence chief's comments on al Qaeda deserved notice. "We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qa'ida going back a decade," Tenet wrote. "Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qa'ida have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [in Afghanistan], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qa'ida members, including some that have been in Baghdad. We have credible reporting that al Qa'ida leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al Qa'ida members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs." In sum, the letter said, "Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qa'ida, suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent US military actions."

That this assessment came from the CIA--with its history of institutional skepticism about the links--was significant. CIA analysts had long contended that Saddam Hussein's secular regime would not collaborate with Islamic fundamentalists like bin Laden--even though the Baathists had exploited Islam for years, whenever it suited their purposes. Critics of the administration insist the CIA was "pressured" by an extensive and aggressive intelligence operation set up by the Pentagon to find ties where none existed. But the Pentagon team consisted of two people, at times assisted by two others. Their assignment was not to collect new intelligence but to evaluate existing intelligence gathered by the CIA, with particular attention to any possible Iraq-al Qaeda collaboration. A CIA counterterrorism team was given a similar task, and while many agency analysts remained skeptical about links, the counterterrorism experts came away convinced that there had been cooperation.

For one thing, they cross-referenced old intelligence with new information provided by high-level al Qaeda detainees. Reports of collaboration grew in number and specificity. The case grew stronger. Throughout the summer and fall of 2002, al Qaeda operatives held in Guantanamo corroborated previously sketchy reports of a series of meetings in Khartoum, Sudan, home to al Qaeda during the mid-90s. U.S. officials learned more about the activities of Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi, an al Qaeda WMD specialist sent by bin Laden to seek WMD training, and possibly weapons, from the Iraqi regime. Intelligence specialists also heard increasingly detailed reports about meetings in Baghdad between al Qaeda leaders and Uday Hussein in April 1998, at a birthday celebration for Saddam.

In December 2002, as the Bush administration prepared its public case for war with Iraq, White House officials sifted through reams of these intelligence reports on ties between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda. Some of the reporting was solid, some circumstantial. The White House identified those elements of the reports it wanted to use publicly and asked the CIA to declassify them. The Agency agreed to declassify some 75 percent of the requested intelligence.

According to administration sources, Colin Powell, in his presentation before the U.N. Security Council, used only 10 or 15 percent of the newly declassified material. He relied heavily on the intelligence in Tenet's letter. Press reports about preparations for the Powell presentation have suggested that Powell refused to use the abundance of CIA documents because he found them thin and unpersuasive. This is only half right. Powell was certainly the most skeptical senior administration official about Iraq-al Qaeda ties. But several administration officials involved in preparing his U.N. presentation say that his reluctance to focus on those links had more to do with the forum for his speech--the Security Council--than with concerns about the reliability of the information.

Powell's presentation sought to do two things: make a compelling case to the world, and to the American public, about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein; and more immediately, win approval for a second U.N. resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force. The second of these objectives, these officials say, required Powell to focus the presentation on Hussein's repeated violations of Security Council resolutions. (Even in the brief portion of Powell's talk focused on Iraq-al Qaeda links, he internationalized the case, pointing out that the bin Laden network had targeted "France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Russia.") Others in the administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, favored using more of the declassified information about Hussein's support of international terrorism and al Qaeda.

Powell spent just 10 minutes of a 90-minute presentation on the "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network." He mentioned intelligence showing that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a known al Qaeda associate injured in Afghanistan, had traveled to Baghdad for medical treatment. Powell linked Zarqawi to Ansar al-Islam, an al Qaeda cell operating in a Kurdish region "outside Saddam Hussein's controlled Iraq." Powell told the Security Council that the United States had approached an unnamed "friendly security service"--Jordan's--"to approach Baghdad about extraditing Zarqawi," providing information and details "that should have made it easy to find Zarqawi." Iraq did nothing. Finally, Powell asserted that al Qaeda leaders and senior Iraqi officials had "met at least eight times" since the early 1990s.

These claims, the critics maintain, were "hyped" and "exaggerated."

WHAT THE ADMINISTRATION DIDN'T USE

IF THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION had been out to hype the threat from an al Qaeda-Saddam link, it stands to reason that it would have used every shred of incriminating evidence at its disposal. Instead, the administration was restrained in its use of available intelligence. What the Bush administration left out is in some ways as revealing as what it included.

* Iraqi defectors had been saying for years that Saddam's regime trained "non-Iraqi Arab terrorists" at a camp in Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. U.N. inspectors had confirmed the camp's existence, including the presence of a Boeing 707. Defectors say the plane was used to train hijackers; the Iraqi regime said it was used in counterterrorism training. Sabah Khodada, a captain in the Iraqi Army, worked at Salman Pak. In October 2001, he told PBS's "Frontline" about what went on there. "Training is majorly on terrorism. They would be trained on assassinations, kidnapping, hijacking of airplanes, hijacking of buses, public buses, hijacking of trains and all other kinds of operations related to terrorism. . . . All this training is directly toward attacking American targets, and American interests."

But the Bush administration said little about Salman Pak as it demonstrated links between Iraq and al Qaeda. According to administration sources, some detainees who provided credible evidence of other links between Iraq and al Qaeda, including training in terrorism and WMD, insist they have no knowledge of Salman Pak. Khodada, the Iraqi army captain, also professed ignorance of whether the trainees were members of al Qaeda. "Nobody came and told us, 'This is al Qaeda people,'" he explained, "but I know there were some Saudis, there were some Afghanis. There were some other people from other countries getting trained."

* On February 13, 2003, the government of the Philippines asked Hisham al Hussein, the second secretary of the Iraqi embassy in Manila, to leave the country. According to telephone records obtained by Philippine intelligence, Hussein had been in frequent contact with two leaders of Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda affiliate in South Asia, immediately before and immediately after they detonated a bomb in Zamboanga City. That attack killed two Filipinos and an American Special Forces soldier and injured several others. Hussein left the Philippines for Iraq after he was "PNG'd"--declared persona non grata--by the Philippine government and has not been heard from since.

According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, an Abu Sayyaf leader who planned the attack bragged on television a month after the bombing that Iraq had contacted him about conducting joint operations. Philippine intelligence officials were initially skeptical of his boasting, but after finding the telephone records they believed him.

* No fewer than five high-ranking Czech officials have publicly confirmed that Mohammed Atta, the lead September 11 hijacker, met with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence officer working at the Iraqi embassy, in Prague five months before the hijacking. Media leaks here and in the Czech Republic have called into question whether Atta was in Prague on the key dates--between April 4 and April 11, 2001. And several high-ranking administration officials are "agnostic" as to whether the meeting took place. Still, the public position of the Czech government to this day is that it did.

That assertion should be seen in the context of Atta's curious stop-off in Prague the previous spring, as he traveled to the United States. Atta flew to Prague from Germany on May 30, 2000, but did not have a valid visa and was denied entry. He returned to Germany, obtained the proper paperwork, and took a bus back to Prague. One day later, he left for the United States.

Despite the Czech government's confirmation of the Atta-al Ani meeting, the Bush administration dropped it as evidence of an al Qaeda-Iraq connection in September 2002. Far from hyping this episode, administration officials refrained from citing it as the debate over the Iraq war heated up in Congress, in the country, and at the U.N.

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT HAS LEARNED SINCE THE WAR

THE ADMINISTRATION'S CRITICS, including several of the Democratic presidential candidates, have alluded to new "evidence" they say confirms Iraq and al Qaeda had no relationship before the war. They have not shared that evidence.

Even as the critics withhold the basis for their allegations, evidence on the other side is piling up. Ansar al-Islam--the al Qaeda cell formed in June 2001 that operated out of northern Iraq before the war, notably attacking Kurdish enemies of Saddam--has stepped up its activities elsewhere in the country. In some cases, say national security officials, Ansar is joining with remnants of Saddam's regime to attack Americans and nongovernmental organizations working in Iraq. There is some reporting, unconfirmed at this point, that the recent bombing of the U.N. headquarters was the result of a joint operation between Baathists and Ansar al-Islam.

And there are reports of more direct links between the Iraqi regime and bin Laden. Farouk Hijazi, former Iraqi ambassador to Turkey and Saddam's longtime outreach agent to Islamic fundamentalists, has been captured. In his initial interrogations, Hijazi admitted meeting with senior al Qaeda leaders at Saddam's behest in 1994. According to administration officials familiar with his questioning, he has subsequently admitted additional contacts, including a meeting in late 1997. Hijazi continues to deny that he met with bin Laden on December 21, 1998, to offer the al Qaeda leader safe haven in Iraq. U.S. officials don't believe his denial.

For one thing, the meeting was reported in the press at the time. It also fits a pattern of contacts surrounding Operation Desert Fox, the series of missile strikes the Clinton administration launched at Iraq beginning December 16, 1998. The bombing ended 70 hours later, on December 19, 1998. Administration officials now believe Hijazi left for Afghanistan as the bombing ended and met with bin Laden two days later.

Earlier that year, at another point of increased tension between the United States and Iraq, Hussein sought to step up contacts with al Qaeda. On February 18, 1998, after the Iraqis repeatedly refused to permit U.N. weapons inspectors into sensitive sites, President Bill Clinton went to the Pentagon and delivered a hawkish speech about Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and his links to "an unholy axis of terrorists, drug traffickers, and organized international criminals." Said Clinton: "We have to defend our future from these predators of the 21st century. . . . They will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. We simply cannot allow that to happen. There is no more clear example of this threat than Saddam Hussein."

The following day, February 19, 1998, according to documents unearthed in Baghdad after the recent war by journalists Mitch Potter and Inigo Gilmore, Hussein's intelligence service wrote a memo detailing upcoming meetings with a bin Laden representative traveling to Baghdad. Each reference to bin Laden had been covered with Liquid Paper. The memo laid out a plan to step up contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. The Mukhabarat, one of Saddam's security forces, agreed to pay for "all the travel and hotel costs inside Iraq to gain the knowledge of the message from bin Laden and to convey to his envoy an oral message from us to bin Laden." The document set as the goal for the meeting a discussion of "the future of our relationship with him, bin Laden, and to achieve a direct meeting with him." The al Qaeda representative, the document went on to suggest, might be "a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden."

I emailed Potter, a Jerusalem-based correspondent for the Toronto Star, about his findings last month. He was circumspect about the meaning of the document. "So did we find the tip of the iceberg, or the whole iceberg? Did bin Laden and Saddam agree to disagree and that was the end of it? I still don't know." Still, he wrote, "I have no doubt that what we found is the real thing. We plucked it out of a building that had been J-DAMed and was three-quarters gone. Beyond the pale to think that the CIA or someone else planted false evidence in such a dangerous location, where only lunatics would bother to tread. And then to cover over the incriminating name Osama bin Laden with Liquid Paper, so that only the most stubborn and dogged of translators would fluke into spotting it?"

Four days after that memo was written, on February 23, 1998, bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a famous fatwa about the plight of Iraq. Published that day in al Quds al-Arabi, it reads in part:

First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. . . . The best proof of this is the Americans' continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to that end, still they are helpless. Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, in excess of 1 million . . . despite all this, the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation.

The Americans, bin Laden says, are working on behalf of Israel.

The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring Arab state, and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel's survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.

Bin Laden urges his followers to act. "The ruling to kill all Americans and their allies--civilians and military--is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it." It was around this time, U.S. officials say, that Hussein paid the $300,000 to bin Laden's deputy, Zawahiri.

ACCORDING TO U.S. officials, soldiers in Iraq have discovered additional documentary evidence like the memo Potter found. This despite the fact that there is no team on the ground assigned to track down these contacts--no equivalent to the Iraq Survey Group looking for evidence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Interviews with detained senior Iraqi intelligence officials are rounding out the picture.

The Bush administration has thus far chosen to keep the results of its postwar findings to itself; much of the information presented here comes from public sources. The administration, spooked by the media feeding frenzy surrounding yellowcake from Niger, is exercising extreme caution in rolling out the growing evidence of collaboration between al Qaeda and Baathist Iraq. As the critics continue their assault on a prewar "pattern of deception," the administration remains silent.

This impulse is understandable. It is also dangerous. Some administration officials argue privately that the case for linkage is so devastating that when they eventually unveil it, the critics will be embarrassed and their arguments will collapse. But to rely on this assumption is to run a terrible risk. Already, the absence of linkage is the conventional wisdom in many quarters. Once "everybody knows" that Saddam and bin Laden had nothing to do with each other, it becomes extremely difficult for any release of information by the U.S. government to change people's minds.

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.