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.”
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).”
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.
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.”
That is not how Blair sees it. Al Qaeda and “militant Islam” were the source of the “mess” inside Iraq. These were the same forces “we were fighting everywhere,” Blair writes. “Fighting them in Iraq was not therefore a diversion from the real battle. It had become part of it.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.