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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
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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.