The Magazine

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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THE FORMER IRAQI REGIME OF Saddam Hussein trained thousands of radical Islamic terrorists from the region at camps in Iraq over the four years immediately preceding the U.S. invasion, according to documents and photographs recovered by the U.S. military in postwar Iraq. The existence and character of these documents has been confirmed to THE WEEKLY STANDARD by eleven U.S. government officials.

The secret training took place primarily at three camps--in Samarra, Ramadi, and Salman Pak--and was directed by elite Iraqi military units. Interviews by U.S. government interrogators with Iraqi regime officials and military leaders corroborate the documentary evidence. Many of the fighters were drawn from terrorist groups in northern Africa with close ties to al Qaeda, chief among them Algeria's GSPC and the Sudanese Islamic Army. Some 2,000 terrorists were trained at these Iraqi camps each year from 1999 to 2002, putting the total number at or above 8,000. Intelligence officials believe that some of these terrorists returned to Iraq and are responsible for attacks against Americans and Iraqis. According to three officials with knowledge of the intelligence on Iraqi training camps, White House and National Security Council officials were briefed on these findings in May 2005; senior Defense Department officials subsequently received the same briefing.

The photographs and documents on Iraqi training camps come from a collection of some 2 million "exploitable items" captured in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan. They include handwritten notes, typed documents, audiotapes, videotapes, compact discs, floppy discs, and computer hard drives. Taken together, this collection could give U.S. intelligence officials and policymakers an inside look at the activities of the former Iraqi regime in the months and years before the Iraq war.

The discovery of the information on jihadist training camps in Iraq would seem to have two major consequences: It exposes the flawed assumptions of the experts and U.S. intelligence officials who told us for years that a secularist like Saddam Hussein would never work with Islamic radicals, any more than such jihadists would work with an infidel like the Iraqi dictator. It also reminds us that valuable information remains buried in the mountain of documents recovered in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past four years.

Nearly three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, only 50,000 of these 2 million "exploitable items" have been thoroughly examined. That's 2.5 percent. Despite the hard work of the individuals assigned to the "DOCEX" project, the process is not moving quickly enough, says Michael Tanji, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who helped lead the document exploitation effort for 18 months. "At this rate," he says, "if we continue to approach DOCEX in a linear fashion, our great-grandchildren will still be sorting through this stuff."

Most of the 50,000 translated documents relate directly to weapons of mass destruction programs and scientists, since David Kay and his Iraq Survey Group--who were among the first to analyze the finds--considered those items top priority. "At first, if it wasn't WMD, it wasn't translated. It wasn't exploited," says a former military intelligence officer who worked on the documents in Iraq.

"We had boxloads of Iraqi Intelligence records--their names, their jobs, all sorts of detailed information," says the former military intelligence officer. "In an insurgency, wouldn't that have been helpful?"

How many of those unexploited documents might help us better understand the role of Iraq in supporting transregional terrorists? How many of those documents might provide important intelligence on the very people--Baathists, former regime officials, Saddam Fedayeen, foreign fighters trained in Iraq--that U.S. soldiers are fighting in Iraq today? Is what we don't know literally killing us?

ON NOVEMBER 17, 2005, Michigan representative Pete Hoekstra wrote to John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence. Hoekstra is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He provided Negroponte a list of 40 documents recovered in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan and asked to see them. The documents were translated or summarized, given titles by intelligence analysts in the field, and entered into a government database known as HARMONY. Most of them are unclassified.

For several weeks, Hoekstra was promised a response. He finally got one on December 28, 2005, in a meeting with General Michael Hayden, principal deputy director of national intelligence. Hayden handed Hoekstra a letter from Negroponte that promised a response after January 1, 2006. Hoekstra took the letter, read it, and scribbled his terse response. "John--Unacceptable." Hoekstra told Hayden that he would expect to hear something before the end of the year. He didn't.