The Magazine

Al Qaeda in Iraq

What Tony Blair knows (and Barack Obama doesn’t).

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In a campaign speech on July 14, 2007, Senator Barack Obama railed against the Iraq war and President Bush’s obstinate refusal to end it. “We cannot win a war against the terrorists if we’re on the wrong battlefield,” Obama said. In another speech a few weeks later, he said, “The president would have us believe that every bomb in Baghdad is part of al Qaeda’s war against us, not an Iraqi civil war. He elevates Al Qaeda in Iraq—which didn’t exist before our invasion—and overlooks the people who hit us on 9/11, who are training new recruits in Pakistan.” 

Al Qaeda in Iraq

Obama’s argument was by no means unique. It was fashionable at the time to claim that Iraq was in the midst of a “civil war” and, therefore, a surge of American troops (which Obama opposed) would unnecessarily place American lives at risk. Obama’s major rivals in the 2008 presidential campaign, including Senator Hillary Clinton, made similar arguments. 

The claim that Al Qaeda in Iraq “didn’t exist before our invasion” was not Obama’s alone, either. Through two presidential elections (2004 and 2008) and countless debates about the war, the Democrats and their surrogates have made this allegation repeatedly. It is flat wrong. 

The latest account to contradict the Democrats’ talking points is that of former British prime minister Tony Blair. In his new autobiography, A Journey: My Political Life, Blair is unapologetic about the decision to topple Saddam’s regime. But he is understandably disturbed by the violence that followed. 

“I can’t regret the decision to go to war for the reason I will give,” Blair writes. “I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded, and that too is part of the responsibility.” The “nightmare” is the Iraqi insurgency, which Blair rightly blames on al Qaeda (and Iran). 

To be sure, Blair does not contend that Saddam’s ties to al Qaeda made regime change necessary. “[T]he assessment of the threat was not based on Saddam’s active sponsorship of terrorism or terrorist groups,” he writes. As Blair sees it, Saddam’s Iraq was not “the same threat as Afghanistan” because there was no direct connection between Iraq and the September 11 attacks. In addition, British intelligence officials thought the link between Saddam and al Qaeda was “hazy.”

Naysayers will undoubtedly seize upon these passages as further proof that Saddam’s Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda. But contrary to Obama and the Democrats, Blair also says “there was strong intelligence that al Qaeda were allowed into Iraq by Saddam in mid-2002 (with severe consequences later).” 

Blair elaborates: 

There is an interesting sidebar to this. It later emerged that [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, the deputy to bin Laden, had come to Iraq in May 2002, had had meetings with senior Iraqis and established a presence there in October 2002. This intelligence has not been withdrawn, by the way. Probably we should have paid more attention to its significance, but we were so keen not to make a false claim about al Qaeda and Saddam that we somewhat understated it, at least on the British side.

Blair’s testimony directly contradicts the Democrats. Still, in the British manner, he continues to understate the case. 

Intelligence compiled by American officials, as well as the testimony of known al Qaeda associates, confirms that al Qaeda established a significant presence in Iraq prior to March 2003. The evidence that al Qaeda was in Iraq before the war is simply overwhelming. And it helps to explain why the insurgency became so lethal. 

Even though Blair says it “later emerged” that Zarqawi had set up shop in Iraq in 2002, this connection was actually a formal part of the American case for war. Secretary of State Colin Powell included a section on Zarqawi’s network in Iraq in his February 5, 2003, presentation before the United Nations. 

Former CIA director George Tenet reveals in his own autobiography, At the Center of the Storm, some of the intelligence that backed up Powell’s presentation. More than one dozen other al Qaeda terrorists had joined Zarqawi in Baghdad. One of them was an Egyptian known as Abu Ayyub al Masri, who had served Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, since the 1980s. After Zarqawi was killed in 2006, al Masri took his place as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Masri himself was killed earlier this year, and his widow confirmed that they had moved to central Baghdad in 2002.

Zarqawi and al Masri led a campaign of spectacular terrorist attacks against the Iraqi people, security personnel, and coalition forces. It was their savagery that, to a large extent, brought Iraq to the brink of total chaos—and ultimately provoked the Anbar Awakening. It is crucially important, then, that Zarqawi and al Masri were operating inside Iraq before American or British forces ever set foot there. They were clearly preparing for war.  

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers