The Magazine

Saddam's Dangerous Friends

What a Pentagon review of 600,000 Iraqi documents tells us.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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This ought to be big news. Throughout the early and mid-1990s, Saddam Hussein actively supported an influential terrorist group headed by the man who is now al Qaeda's second-in-command, according to an exhaustive study issued last week by the Pentagon. "Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al Qaeda (such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led at one time by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri) or that generally shared al Qaeda's stated goals and objectives." According to the Pentagon study, Egyptian Islamic Jihad was one of many jihadist groups that Iraq's former dictator funded, trained, equipped, and armed.

The study was commissioned by the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, and produced by analysts at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded military think tank. It is entitled "Iraqi Perspectives Project: Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents." The study is based on a review of some 600,000 documents captured in postwar Iraq. Those "documents" include letters, memos, computer files, audiotapes, and videotapes produced by Saddam Hussein's regime, especially his intelligence services. The analysis section of the study covers 59 pages. The appendices, which include copies of some of the captured documents and translations, put the entire study at approximately 1,600 pages.

An abstract that describes the study reads, in part:

Because Saddam's security organizations and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network operated with similar aims (at least in the short term), considerable overlap was inevitable when monitoring, contacting, financing, and training the same outside groups. This created both the appearance of and, in some way, a 'de facto' link between the organizations. At times, these organizations would work together in pursuit of shared goals but still maintain their autonomy and independence because of innate caution and mutual distrust. Though the execution of Iraqi terror plots was not always successful, evidence shows that Saddam's use of terrorist tactics and his support for terrorist groups remained strong up until the collapse of the regime."

Among the study's other notable findings:

In 1993, as Osama bin Laden's fighters battled Americans in Somalia, Saddam Hussein personally ordered the formation of an Iraqi terrorist group to join the battle there.

For more than two decades, the Iraqi regime trained non-Iraqi jihadists in training camps throughout Iraq.

According to a 1993 internal Iraqi intelligence memo, the regime was supporting a secret Islamic Palestinian organization dedicated to "armed jihad against the Americans and Western interests."

In the 1990s, Iraq's military intelligence directorate trained and equipped "Sudanese fighters."

In 1998, the Iraqi regime offered "financial and moral support" to a new group of jihadists in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

In 2002, the year before the war began, the Iraqi regime hosted in Iraq a series of 13 conferences for non-Iraqi jihadist groups.

That same year, a branch of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) issued hundreds of Iraqi passports for known terrorists.

There is much, much more. Documents reveal that the regime stockpiled bombmaking materials in Iraqi embassies around the world and targeted Western journalists for assassination. In July 2001, an Iraqi Intelligence agent described an al Qaeda affiliate in Bahrain, the Army of Muhammad, as "under the wings of bin Laden." Although the organization "is an offshoot of bin Laden," the fact that it has a different name "can be a way of camouflaging the organization." The agent is told to deal with the al Qaeda group according to "priorities previously established."

In describing the relations between the Army of Muhammad and the Iraqi regime, the authors of the Pentagon study come to this conclusion: "Captured documents reveal that the regime was willing to co-opt or support organizations it knew to be part of al Qaeda--as long as that organization's near-term goals supported Saddam's long-term vision."

As I said, this ought to be big news. And, in a way, it was. A headline in the New York Times, a cursory item in the Washington Post, and stories on NPR and ABC News reported that the study showed no links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

How can a study offering an unprecedented look into the closed regime of a brutal dictator, with over 1,600 pages of "strong evidence that links the regime of Saddam Hussein to regional and global terrorism," in the words of its authors, receive a wave-of-the-hand dismissal from America's most prestigious news outlets? All it took was a leak to a gullible reporter, one misleading line in the study's executive summary, a boneheaded Pentagon press office, an incompetent White House, and widespread journalistic negligence.