The Magazine

Saddam's Ambassador to al Qaeda

From the March 1, 2004 issue: An Iraqi prisoner details Saddam's links to Osama bin Laden's terror network.

Mar 1, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 24 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER
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Zarqawi, as the prisoner explained, was al Qaeda's link to Iraq in the same way that Abu Wael was the Iraqi link to al Qaeda. Indeed, Zarqawi (who received medical attention in Baghdad in 2002 for wounds that he suffered from U.S. forces in Afghanistan) and Abu Wael helped Ansar al Islam prepare for the U.S. assault on its small enclave last year. According to al-Shamari, Ansar was given the plan from the top Iraqi leadership: "If the U.S. was to hit [the Ansar base], the fighters were directed to go to Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul . . . Faluja and other places." This statement agreed with a prior prisoner interview I had with the attempted murderer of Barham Salih, prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. This second prisoner told me that "Ansar had plans to go south if the U.S. would attack."

Al-Shamari said the new group was to be named Jund ash-Sham, and would deal mainly in explosives. He believed that Zarqawi and Abu Wael were responsible for some of the attacks against U.S. soldiers in central Iraq. "Their directives were to hit America and American interests," he said.

Al-Shamari claimed to have had prior information about al Qaeda attacks in the past. "I knew about the attack on the American in Jordan," he said, referring to the November 2002 assassination of USAID official Lawrence Foley. "Zarqawi," he said, "ordered that man to be killed."

These are some of the highlights from my interview, which lasted about 45 minutes.

I heard one other salient Abu Wael anecdote in an earlier interview during my eight-day trip to Iraq. That interview was with the former tenth-in-command for Ansar al Islam, a man known simply as Qods. In June 2003, just before he was arrested and put in the jail where I met him, Qods said that he saw Abu Wael. After the war, Abu Wael dispatched him from an Ansar safe house in Ravansar, Iran, to deliver a message to his son in Baghdad. The message: Ansar al Islam leaders needed help getting back into Iraq. It was only then, he said, when he met Abu Wael's son, that he learned of the link between the Baathists and al Qaeda.

Qods told me that he was angry with the leaders of Ansar for hiding its ties to Saddam. "Ansar had lots of secret ties between the Baath and Arab leaders," he said.

The challenge now is to document the claims of these witnesses about the secret ties between Saddam, al Qaeda, and Abu Wael. A number of U.S. officials have indicated to me that there are other Iraqis who have similar stories to tell. Perhaps they can corroborate Abdul Rahman al-Shamari's account. Meanwhile, the U.S. deck of cards representing Iraq's 55 most wanted appears to be one card short. Colonel Saadan Mahmoud Abdul Latif al-Aani, aka Abu Wael, should be number 56.

Jonathan Schanzer is a terrorism analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the forthcoming book "Al-Qaeda's Armies: Middle East Affiliates and the Next Generation of Terror."