The Magazine

Camp Saddam

What we've learned about Iraq's terrorist training camps.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

REPRESENTATIVE John Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, appeared on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, March 19, to evaluate the war in Iraq on its third anniversary. Murtha, a decorated veteran and longtime hawk, has become a leading spokesman for his party on the war. And on the show, he spoke of what "probably worries me the most" about the U.S. effort in Iraq. The war, said Murtha, is a diversion from the global war on terror.

"There was no terrorism in Iraq before we went there," said Murtha. "None. There was no connection with al Qaeda, there was no connection with, with terrorism in Iraq itself." This is now the conventional wisdom on Iraq and terrorism. It is wrong.

A new study from the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, paints quite a different picture. According to captured documents cited in the study and first reported in THE WEEKLY STANDARD in January, the former Iraqi regime was training non-Iraqi Arabs in terrorist techniques.

Beginning in 1994, the Fedayeen Saddam opened its own paramilitary training camps for volunteers, graduating more than 7,200 "good men racing full with courage and enthusiasm" in the first year. Beginning in 1998, these camps began hosting "Arab volunteers from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, 'the Gulf,' and Syria." It is not clear from available evidence where all of these non-Iraqi volunteers who were "sacrificing for the cause" went to ply their newfound skills. Before the summer of 2002, most volunteers went home upon the completion of training. But these camps were humming with frenzied activity in the months immediately prior to the war. As late as January 2003, the volunteers participated in a special training event called the "Heroes Attack." This training event was designed in part to prepare regional Fedayeen Saddam commands to "obstruct the enemy from achieving his goal and to support keeping peace and stability in the province."

Some of this training came under the auspices of the Iraqi Intelligence Service's "Division 27," which, according to the study, "supplied the Fedayeen Saddam with silencers, equipment for booby-trapping vehicles, [and] special training on the use of certain explosive timers. The only apparent use for all of this Division 27 equipment was to conduct commando or terrorist operations."

The publication of the Joint Forces Command study, called the "Iraqi Perspectives Project," coincides with the release by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence of several hundred documents captured in postwar Iraq. There are many more to come. Some of the documents used to complete the study have been made public as part of the ODNI effort; others have not.

It is early, but the emerging picture suggests that the U.S. intelligence community underestimated Saddam Hussein's interest in terrorism. One U.S. intelligence official, identified only as an "IC analyst" in the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on Iraq, summarized the intelligence community's view on Iraq and terrorism with disarming candor: "I don't think we were really focused on the CT [counterterrorism] side, because we weren't concerned about the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] going out and proactively conducting terrorist attacks. It wasn't until we realized that there was the possibility of going to war that we had to get a handle on that."

A report produced by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, signed by all members of the Intelligence Committee, Democrats and Republicans, offered this withering assessment of the intelligence community's work on Iraq and terrorism:

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not have a focused human intelligence (HUMINT) collection strategy targeting Iraq's links to terrorism until 2002. The CIA had no [redacted] sources on the ground in Iraq reporting specifically on terrorism.

It wasn't just Iraq. "The CIA had no [redacted] credible reporting on the leadership of either the Iraqi regime or al Qaeda, which would have enabled it to better define a cooperative relationship, if any did in fact exist."

One document posted on the Internet by the government last week, after it was excerpted in the most recent issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, sheds additional light on the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. The internal Iraqi Intelligence memo was written at some point after January 1997 and described the efforts by the IIS to strengthen its relationships with four Saudi opposition groups. One of those groups was the "Reform and Advice Committee," run by Osama bin Laden. The New York Times reported that a Pentagon task force that studied the document concluded that it "appeared authentic." Last week, the investigative unit of ABC News summarized the document in a report.