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A Master Terrorist’s First Days in Baghdad

Before the U.S. entered Iraq.

9:45 PM, Apr 19, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Tenet goes on to say that the CIA considered this, as well as other evidence, to be “smoke” possibly indicating a deeper relationship between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. But the agency’s analysts did not know if there was “fire” – that is, they did not have good intelligence on the precise nature of the relationship between the Iraqi regime and the al Qaeda operatives who were conspiring in Baghdad. The agency simply did not know how closely the two were working together. The CIA also did not think that Saddam’s goons had “command and control” over the al Qaeda terrorists.

But, Tenet writes, “from an intelligence point of view it would have been difficult to conclude that the Iraqi intelligence service was not aware of their activities.” That is true. Saddam’s Baghdad was a neo-Stalinist capital, and it is difficult to believe that al Qaeda terrorists would set up shop there, coordinate their activities with other al Qaeda terrorists in northeastern Iraq, and engage in a variety of other activities without Saddam knowing it. One important al Qaeda terrorist was even briefly detained in Baghdad during this period, but Saddam ordered him released.

At a minimum, Tenet’s testimony rebuts one of the more prevalent Iraq war myths – that there were no al Qaeda terrorists present in Saddam’s Iraq until the American invasion opened the door for them.   

There is more to this story than Tenet lets on.

For example, there is evidence that Saddam actively fostered al Qaeda’s presence on Iraqi soil. In Abdel Bari Atwan's The Secret History of al Qaeda, Dr. Muhammad al Masri (a known al Qaeda mouthpiece) and Baathist sources explain that Saddam funded the relocation of al Qaeda operatives to Iraq “with the proviso that they would not undermine his regime.” Saddam also sent “messengers to buy small plots of land from farmers in Sunni areas” and “[i]n the middle of the night soldiers would bury arms and money caches for later use by the resistance.”

Dr. al Masri told Atwan that Iraqi army commanders “were ordered to become practicing Muslims and to adopt the language and spirit of the jihadis.” When al Qaeda operatives arrived in Iraq, they “were put in touch with these commanders, who later facilitated the distribution of arms and money from Saddam’s caches.”

From this vantage point, it is not surprising that the places where Saddam’s regime was strongest ended up hosting al Qaeda. Abu Ayyub al Masri himself was killed not far from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit.

There is additional evidence that Saddam called for terrorists throughout the region to relocate to Iraqi soil. And, in February 2003, Osama bin Laden himself called on Muslims to fight alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces. Saddam and his regime were “infidel” socialists, bin Laden said. But they were better than the Americans. “There is nothing wrong with a convergence of interests here,” bin Laden argued.

There are deeper ties here as well. Abu Ayyub al Masri was a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which Ayman al Zawahiri led since the 1980s. The EIJ’s cooperation and eventual merger with al Qaeda provided Osama bin Laden with much of the muscle and tactical capabilities his organization needed to blossom into an international terrorist threat. Zawahiri also influenced bin Laden in profound ways, crucially contributing to the terror master’s plans for creating an international jihadist coalition.  

Zawahiri always found utility in cooperating with rogue states when it suited his interests. For instance, the 9/11 Commission found that Zawahiri “had ties of his own” to Saddam’s regime.

Iraqi Intelligence documents discovered in post-Saddam Iraq provided additional context to the 9/11 Commission’s finding. One document, in particular, notes that Saddam’s intelligence services and Zawahiri’s EIJ agreed to cooperate in operations targeting Zawahiri’s long-time enemy: Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt.

Abu Ayyub al Masri was one of Ayman al Zawahiri’s longest-serving lieutenants. Zawahiri found it convenient to cooperate with Saddam on occasion.

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