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Saddam's Terror Training Camps

What the documents captured from the former Iraqi regime reveal--and why they should all be made public.

Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Tanji: The level of effort applied to the DOCEX problems in Iraq and Afghanistan to date is a testament to the will and work ethic of people in the intelligence community. They've managed to find a number of golden nuggets amongst a vast field of rock in what I would consider a respectable amount of time through sheer brute force. The flip side is that it is a brute-force effort. For a number of reasons--primarily time and resources--there has not been much opportunity to step back, think about a smarter way to solve the problem, and then apply various solutions. Inasmuch as we've won in Iraq and Saddam and his cronies are in the dock, now would be a good time to put some fresh minds on the problem of how you turn DOCEX into a meaningful and effective information-age intelligence tool.

TWS: Why haven't we heard more about this project? Aren't most of the Iraqi documents unclassified?

Tanji: Until a flood of captured material came rushing in after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom [in October 2001], DOCEX was a backwater: unglamorous, not terribly career enhancing, and from what I had heard always one step away from being mothballed.

The classification of documents obtained for exploitation varies based on the nature of the way they were obtained and by whom. There are some agencies that tend to classify everything regardless of how it was acquired. I could not give you a ratio of unclassified to classified documents.

In my opinion the silence associated with exploitation work is rooted in the nature of the work. In addition to being tedious and time-consuming, it is usually done after the shooting is over. We place a higher value on intelligence information that comes to us before a conflict begins. Confirmation that we were right (or proof that we were wrong) after the fact is usually considered history. That some of this information may be dated doesn't mean it isn't still valuable.

TWS: The project seems overwhelmed at the moment, with a mere 50,000 documents translated completely out of a total of 2 million. What steps, in your view, should be taken to expedite the process?

Tanji: I couldn't say what the total take of documents or other forms of media is, though numbers in the millions are probably not far off.

In a sense the exploitation process is what it is; you have to put eyes on paper (or a computer screen) to see what might be worth further translation or deeper analysis. It is a time-consuming process that has no adequate mechanical solution. Machine translation software is getting better, but it cannot best a qualified human linguist, of which we have very few.

Tackling the computer media problem is a lot simpler in that computer language (binary) is universal, so searching for key words, phrases, and the names of significant personalities is fairly simple. Built to deal with large-scale data sets, a forensic computer system can rapidly separate wheat from chaff. The current drawback is that the computer forensics field is dominated by a law-enforcement mindset, which means the approach to the digital media problem is still very linear. As most of this material has come to us without any context ("hard drives found in Iraq" was a common label attached to captured media) that approach means our great-grandchildren will still be dealing with this problem.

Dealing with the material as the large and nebulous data set that it is and applying a contextual appliqué after exploitation--in essence, recreating the Iraqi networks as they were before Operation Iraqi Freedom began--would allow us to get at the most significant data rapidly for technical analysis, and allow for a political analysis to follow in short order. If I were looking for both a quick and powerful fix I'd get various Department of Energy labs involved; they're used to dealing with large data sets and have done great work in the data mining and rendering fields.

TWS: To read some of the reporting on Iraq, one might come away with the impression that Saddam Hussein was something of a benign (if not exactly benevolent) dictator who had no weapons of mass destruction and no connections to terrorism. Does the material you've seen support this conventional wisdom?

Tanji: I am subject to a nondisclosure agreement, so I would rather not get into details. I will say that the intelligence community has scraped the surface of much of what has been captured in Iraq and in my view a great deal more deep digging is required. Critics of the war often complain about the lack of "proof"--a term that I had never heard used in the intelligence lexicon until we ousted Saddam--for going to war. There is really only one way to obtain "proof" and that is to carry out a thorough and detailed examination of what we've captured.

TWS: I've spoken with several officials who have seen unclassified materials indicating the former Iraqi regime provided significant support--including funding and training--to transregional terrorists, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ansar al Islam, Algeria's GSPC, and the Sudanese Islamic Army. Did you see any of this?

Tanji: My obligations under a nondisclosure agreement prevent me from getting into this kind of detail.

Other officials familiar with the captured documents were less cautious. "As much as we overestimated WMD, it appears we underestimated [Saddam Hussein's] support for transregional terrorists," says one intelligence official.

Speaking of Ansar al Islam, the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group that operated in northern Iraq, the former high-ranking military intelligence officer says: "There is no question about the fact that AI had reach into Baghdad. There was an intelligence connection between that group and the regime, a financial connection between that group and the regime, and there was an equipment connection. It may have been the case that the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] support for AI was meant to operate against the [anti-Saddam] Kurds. But there is no question IIS was supporting AI."

The official continued: "[Saddam] used these groups because he was interested in extending his influence and extending the influence of Iraq. There are definite and absolute ties to terrorism. The evidence is there, especially at the network level. How high up in the government was it sanctioned? I can't tell you. I don't know whether it was run by Qusay [Hussein] or [Izzat Ibrahim] al-Duri or someone else. I'm just not sure. But to say Iraq wasn't involved in terrorism is flat wrong."

STILL, some insist on saying it. Since early November, Senator Carl Levin has been spotted around Washington waving a brief excerpt from a February 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency assessment of Iraq. The relevant passage reads: "Saddam's regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control."

Levin treats these two sentences as definitive proof that Bush administration officials knew that Saddam's regime was unlikely to work with Islamic fundamentalists and ignored the intelligence community's assessment to that effect. Levin apparently finds the passage so damning that he specifically requested that it be declassified.

I thought of Levin's two sentences last Wednesday and Thursday as I sat in a Dallas courtroom listening to testimony in the deportation hearing of Ahmed Mohamed Barodi, a 42-year-old Syrian-born man who's been living in Texas for the last 15 years. I thought of Levin's sentences, for example, when Barodi proudly proclaimed his membership in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and again when Barodi, dressed in loose-fitting blue prison garb, told Judge J. Anthony Rogers about the 21 days he spent in February 1982 training with other members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood at a camp in Iraq.

The account he gave in the courtroom was slightly less alarming than the description of the camp he had provided in 1989, on his written application for political asylum in the United States. In that document, Barodi described the instruction he received in Iraq as "guerrilla warfare training." And in an interview in February 2005 with Detective Scott Carr and special agent Sam Montana, both from the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, Barodi said that the Iraqi regime provided training in the use of firearms, rocket-propelled grenades, and document forgery.

Barodi comes from Hama, the town that was leveled in 1982 by the armed forces of secular Syrian dictator Hafez Assad because it was home to radical Islamic terrorists who had agitated against his regime. The massacre took tens of thousands of lives, but some of the extremists got away.

Many of the most radical Muslim Brotherhood refugees from Hama were welcomed next door--and trained--in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Spanish investigators believe that Ghasoub Ghalyoun, the man they have accused of conducting surveillance for the 9/11 attacks, who also has roots in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, was trained in an Iraqi terrorist camp in the early 1980s. Ghalyoun mentions this Iraqi training in a 2001 letter to the head of Syrian intelligence, in which he seeks reentry to Syria despite his long affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Reaching out to Islamic radicals was, in fact, one of the first moves Saddam Hussein made upon taking power in 1979. That he did not do it for ideological reasons is unimportant. As Barodi noted at last week's hearing, "He used us and we used him."

Throughout the 1980s, including the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam cast himself as a holy warrior in his public rhetoric to counter the claims from Iran that he was an infidel. This posturing continued during and after the first Gulf war in 1990-91. Saddam famously ordered "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) added to the Iraqi flag. Internally, he launched "The Faith Campaign," which according to leading Saddam Hussein scholar Amatzia Baram included the imposition of sharia (Islamic law). According to Baram, "The Iraqi president initiated laws forbidding the public consumption of alcohol and introduced enhanced compulsory study of the Koran at all educational levels, including Baath Party branches."

Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law who defected to Jordan in 1995, explained these changes in an interview with Rolf Ekeus, then head of the U.N. weapons inspection program. "The government of Iraq is instigating fundamentalism in the country," he said, adding, "Every party member has to pass a religious exam. They even stopped party meetings for prayers."

And throughout the decade, the Iraqi regime sponsored "Popular Islamic Conferences" at the al Rashid Hotel that drew the most radical Islamists from throughout the region to Baghdad. Newsweek's Christopher Dickey, who covered one of those meetings in 1993, would later write: "Islamic radicals from all over the Middle East, Africa and Asia converged on Baghdad to show their solidarity with Iraq in the face of American aggression." One speaker praised "the mujahed Saddam Hussein, who is leading this nation against the nonbelievers." Another speaker said, "Everyone has a task to do, which is to go against the American state." Dickey continued:

Every time I hear diplomats and politicians, whether in Washington or the capitals of Europe, declare that Saddam Hussein is a "secular Baathist ideologue" who has nothing do with Islamists or with terrorist calls to jihad, I think of that afternoon and I wonder what they're talking about. If that was not a fledgling Qaeda itself at the Rashid convention, it sure was Saddam's version of it.

In the face of such evidence, Carl Levin and other critics of the Iraq war trumpet deeply flawed four-year-old DIA analyses. Shouldn't the senator instead use his influence to push for the release of Iraqi documents that will help establish what, exactly, the Iraqi regime was doing in the years before the U.S. invasion?

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