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Al Qaeda in Iraq

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

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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In Baghdad, Tenet says, Zarqawi’s cell found “a comfortable and secure environment” to funnel supplies and fighters to “up to two hundred” al Qaeda fighters who had relocated to camps in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq beginning in late 2001. The camps were run by an al Qaeda affiliate named Ansar al Islam (AI), which would later play a significant role in the Iraqi insurgency. The CIA found that AI was experimenting with poisons on animals and, “in at least one case, on one of their own associates.” 

Prior to the war, the CIA got much about Iraq wrong. But here is an instance where the agency got something right. 

Less than one week after Secretary of State Colin Powell made the case for war with Saddam’s Iraq based on the CIA’s intelligence, Osama bin Laden decided to make his own case for war. Bin Laden, however, was on Saddam’s side. 

In an audiotape released on February 11, 2003, bin Laden explained why. “It is true that Saddam is a thief and an apostate, but the solution is not to be found in moving the government of Iraq from a local thief to a foreign one,” bin Laden argued. “There is no harm in such circumstances if the Muslims’ interests coincide with those of the socialists in fighting the Crusaders, despite our firm conviction that they are infidels.  .  .  .  There is nothing wrong with a convergence of interests here.”

Bin Laden’s message was clear. Saddam may be a socialist “infidel,” but he is preferable to the United States and Britain. The terror master called on Muslims to fight alongside Saddam’s forces. And Saddam himself clearly saw a “convergence of interests” as well. 

In an interview with Agence France-Presse in 2004, Hudayfa Azzam said that Saddam had welcomed al Qaeda “with open arms” and “strictly and directly” controlled their activities inside Iraq. Azzam was in a position to know. He is the son of one of al Qaeda’s earliest and most influential leaders, Abdullah Azzam, and maintained extensive contacts with al Qaeda leaders inside Iraq. 

Muhammad al Masari, a Saudi who operates a known al Qaeda front in London and has helped recruit suicide bombers to fight in Iraq, has offered a similar account. In his book The Secret History of al Qaeda, Abdel Bari Atwan recounts a conversation he had with al Masari. Saddam “saw that Islam would be key to the formation of a cohesive resistance in the event of invasion,” according to al Masari. Thus, Saddam funded the relocation of al Qaeda operatives to Iraqi soil. Al Masari says that Saddam also ordered officers in the Iraqi military to purchase “small plots of land from  .  .  .   farmers in Sunni areas” and then bury “arms and money caches for later use by the resistance.” 

There is much more evidence in this vein, including, for instance, Iraqi intelligence documents recovered after the fall of Saddam. Some of the documents demonstrate that Saddam called on hundreds of terrorists from around the Middle East to come to Iraq in the months leading up to the war. Many of them had been trained by Saddam’s regime beginning in the late 1990s. In early 2003, Saddam opened his border with Syria to allow this stream of terrorists in. In one recovered document, Saddam ordered his military to “utilize” Arab suicide bombers against the invading forces. This was almost certainly a reference to al Qaeda. 

All of this may sound like a belated attempt to relitigate the case for war. It is not. Reasonable people can differ on how to handle Saddam’s prewar sponsorship of terrorists, including al Qaeda. Tony Blair does not present Saddam’s terrorist ties as a major justification for war. By the same token, it is simply false to claim, as Obama and the Democrats have, that Al Qaeda in Iraq “didn’t exist before our invasion.”  

More important, the Democrats’ politically convenient antiwar arguments have obscured a deeper truth. The war for Iraq was clearly part of the broader war against al Qaeda. Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda made it so. This is undoubtedly what Blair meant when he wrote that Saddam’s decision to host al Qaeda inside Iraq had “severe consequences” and that Britain and the United States probably “should have paid more attention” to this intelligence. 

In the end, Blair laments the fact that he did not do more to connect the struggle for Iraq with the broader war against Islamic extremism. Indeed, the Democrats still pretend that Iraq was a distraction. 

When President Obama announced the end of combat operations in Iraq on August 31, he referred to al Qaeda’s presence in Iraq only in passing. Obama argued that “because of our drawdown in Iraq, we are now able to apply the resources necessary to go on offense.” The implication was that the war in Iraq was the “wrong battlefield.” 

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