In its November 16, 2002, edition, Babil identified one Abd-al-Karim Muhammad Aswad as an "intelligence officer," describing him as the "official in charge of regime's contacts with Osama bin Laden's group and currently the regime's representative in Pakistan." A man of this name was indeed the Iraqi ambassador to Pakistan from the fall of 1999 until the fall of the regime.
Aswad's name was included in something Babil called an "honor list." Below that heading, in boldface type, came a straightforward introductory comment: "We publish this list of great men for the sons of our great people to see." Directly beneath that declaration came a cryptic addendum--included by accident?--in regular type: "This is a list of the henchmen of the regime. Our hands will reach them sooner or later. Woe unto them. A list of the leaders of Saddam's regime, as well as their present and previous posts."
Then comes the list of regime officials. It is in alphabetical order until, halfway down the page, it starts over with officials whose names begin with the letter "A." It includes Baath party leaders, military heroes, ambassadors, intelligence chiefs, the commander of the "Saddam Cubs Training Center," governors of Iraqi provinces, chemical and biological weapons experts, and so on.
U.S. intelligence experts have not conclusively determined what the list means. One possible explanation they have entertained is that part of the list came from an opposition source, and that Babil republished it as a gesture of defiance. This would account for the reference to "henchmen of the regime" whom "our hands will reach"--to say nothing of the candid description of Aswad's duties.
Sounds plausible. But that explanation leaves unanswered one important question: Why would the regime, at a time when it was publicly denying any link to al Qaeda, publish anything admitting such a link?
Even if the identification of Aswad in the Babil list was nothing more than an embarrassing editorial oversight, several recent developments have bolstered the Bush administration's case that Saddam Hussein had connections to the al Qaeda leader.
On April 28, senior administration officials announced that the United States had captured an al Qaeda terrorist operating in Baghdad. The operative is believed to have been an associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a top al Qaeda figure who plotted the assassination of Laurence Foley, an American diplomat gunned down in Jordan last fall. Zarqawi is also believed to have received medical treatment in Baghdad after he was wounded fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
That arrest came shortly after U.S. troops patrolling the Syrian border captured Farouk Hijazi, long believed to have been an outreach coordinator of sorts between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda. Hijazi, formerly a high-ranking Iraqi intelligence official, has confirmed to U.S. officials that he met Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1994. He denies meeting with al Qaeda officials in 1998, but U.S. officials don't believe him. At that time, a leading newspaper in Rome reported that Hijazi traveled to Afghanistan on December 21, 1998, to offer asylum to bin Laden. The Corriere della Sera described Hijazi as "the person who has been responsible for nurturing Iraq's ties with the fundamentalist warriors since 1994."
Back then, reports about a budding Hussein-bin Laden partnership were not limited to the foreign press. Newsweek magazine, in its January 11, 1999, issue, ran the headline "Saddam + Bin Laden." The subhead declared, "America's two enemies are courting." The article was written by Christopher Dickey, Gregory Vistica, Russell Watson, and Joseph Contreras. The authors cited reports from an "Arab intelligence source" about the alliance.
According to this source, Saddam expected last month's American and British bombing campaign to go on much longer than it did. The dictator believed that as the attacks continued, indignation would grow in the Muslim world, making his terrorism offensive both harder to trace and more effective. With acts of terror contributing to chaos in the region, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait might feel less inclined to support Washington. Saddam's long-term strategy, according to several sources, is to bully or cajole Muslim countries into breaking the embargo against Iraq, without waiting for the United Nations to lift it formally.
(Interestingly, after Colin Powell's presentation last month to the U.N. Security Council linking Hussein and al Qaeda, Dickey reversed course and referred to the evidence of these links as "egregious smokescreens.")
The timing here is critical. Operation "Desert Fox" began on December 16, 1998, and ended after just 70 hours, on December 19, 1998. Two days later, Hijazi was dispatched to meet with al Qaeda leaders. And the Newsweek report detailing the increased collaboration appeared shortly thereafter. And it wasn't just Newsweek.
In fact, Time magazine, in an issue also out January 11, 1999, one-upped its competitor by quoting bin Laden himself on the Iraq issue. "There is no doubt that the treacherous attack has confirmed that Britain and America are acting on behalf of Israel and the Jews, paving the way for the Jews to divide the Muslim world once again, enslave it and loot the rest of its wealth. A great part of the force that carried out the attack came from certain Gulf countries that have lost their sovereignty."
U.S. intelligence officials who have expressed skepticism about a Hussein-bin Laden relationship often point to religious differences as the reason for their doubts. Hussein was secular, they say, bin Laden a fundamentalist. True enough. But, as bin Laden's comments suggest, there were bigger concerns--that America and "the Jews" might "divide the Muslim world once again"--that would trump these differences and unite the two men against a common enemy.
The Hijazi meeting wasn't the only Iraq-al Qaeda around that time. Eleven months before bin Laden spoke to Time, then-President Bill Clinton traveled to the Pentagon, where he gave a speech preparing the nation for war with Iraq. Clinton told the world that Saddam Hussein would work with an "unholy axis of terrorists, drug traffickers, and organized international criminals." His warning was stern.
We have to defend our future from these predators of the 21st century. . . . They will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. We simply cannot allow that to happen. There is no more clear example of this threat than Saddam Hussein.
The timing, once again, is critical. Clinton's speech came on February 18, 1998. The next day, according to documents uncovered earlier this week in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein reached out to bin Laden. A document dated February 19, 1998, and labeled "Top Secret and Urgent" tells of a plan for an al Qaeda operative to travel from Sudan to Iraq for talks with Iraqi intelligence. The memo focused on Saudi Arabia, another common bin Laden and Hussein foe, and declared that the Mukhabarat would pick up "all the travel and hotel costs inside Iraq to gain the knowledge of the message from bin Laden and to convey to his envoy an oral message from us to bin Laden." The document further explained that the message "would relate to the future of our relationship with him, bin Laden, and to achieve a direct meeting with him." The document also held open the possibility that the al Qaeda representative could be "a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden."
There is certainly much more to learn about the "contacts with bin Laden" after this meeting. What is clear, though, is that it is no longer defensible to claim there were no contacts. The skeptics, including many at the CIA, who argued that previous evidence of such links was not compelling, ought to be convinced now. They may well argue that, given the timing of the contacts, Saddam reached out to al Qaeda only when he felt threatened. The facts as we know them today are consistent with such a conclusion. But as journalists continue to pore over documents, and military analysts begin to do the same, it would be hasty to imagine that we've already uncovered everything there is to find on the bin Laden-Saddam tie.
Whatever the differences between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, the two shared a hatred of America. One Iraqi official, some weeks after the September 11 attacks, publicly criticized the United States for rooting out al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The official was quoted in a report in broken English carried on The Pakistan Newswire of October 29, 2001, which said: "He stressed the US to stop bombardment on Afghanistan resulting in death of innocent children, women and elderly people." The official, who had been in his job since 1999, also expressed doubt that bin Laden was even a terrorist and responsible for 9/11. He "said the US President Bush should knock the door of international court of justice to address the situation because only court had authority to declare Prime suspect of September 11 tragedy 'Osama Bin Laden' terrorist or not.'"
You might recognize the official's name. It was published in Babil last fall: Abd-al-Karim Muhammad Aswad, "intelligence officer, official in charge of regime's contacts with Osama bin Laden's group and currently the regime's representative in Pakistan."
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.