Speaking in Iraq, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly told U.S. troops: “The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked. And 3,000 Americans — 3,000 not just Americans, 3,000 human beings, innocent human beings — got killed because of al-Qaeda. And we’ve been fighting as a result of that.”
The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock and Thomas Erdbrink took issue with Panetta’s comment because it appeared to be at odds with the Democrats’ talking points. They report that Panetta’s “argument” was “controversially made by the Bush administration but refuted by President Obama and many Democrats.”
Whitlock and Erdbrink continue (emphasis added):
[Panetta’s] statement echoed previous comments made by President George W. Bush and members of his administration, who tried to tie Saddam Hussein’s government to al-Qaeda. But it put Panetta at odds with President Obama, the 9/11 Commission and other independent experts, who have said there is no evidence al-Qaeda had a presence in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The Post’s reporters are right about one thing: President Obama has argued, as have many other Democrats, that al Qaeda did not have “a presence in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.” It is easy see that they are wrong, but that is their talking point.
The Post’s idea that there is a consensus about al Qaeda lacking a foothold inside Saddam’s Iraq prior to the war is pure fantasy, however.
Let’s start with the 9/11 Commission’s report, which is one of those books that few have actually digested. Whitlock and Erdbrink think the 9/11 Commission concluded that al Qaeda had no presence in Saddam’s Iraq. In actuality, the commission found:
In 2001, with Bin Ladin’s help [Kurdish extremists] re-formed into an organization called Ansar al Islam. There are indications that by then the Iraqi regime tolerated and may even have helped Ansar al Islam against the common Kurdish enemy.
In other words, not only was the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al Islam in northern Iraq, but the commission also found “indications” that Saddam’s regime “tolerated” and may have “helped” the group. (The commission also cited a 1999 email from famous Iraq-al Qaeda naysayer Richard Clarke. While working as a counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration, Clarke worried that bin Laden may “boogie to Baghdad” because it was well known that Saddam wanted him in Iraq at the time. Bin Laden decided against the move, obviously, but it is telling that Saddam would even offer safe haven.)
It was once widely understood that Ansar al Islam was in Kurdish Iraq prior to the war, so the Democrats relied on another talking point. While conceding that Ansar al Islam was there, the Democrats and much of the press argued that this region was beyond Saddam’s control and, therefore, we shouldn’t believe the group’s presence there said anything about al Qaeda’s relationship with Iraq. This, of course, ignores the “indications” of Saddam’s support mentioned in passing by the 9/11 Commission and found by others as well.
It also ignores the fact that al Qaeda was in Baghdad and regime controlled territory, too.
In his book, At the Center of the Storm, George Tenet discussed at length the intelligence concerning al Qaeda’s presence in Baghdad. Tenet says the CIA found “more than enough evidence” connecting Saddam’s Iraq to al Qaeda. The CIA was particularly concerned about a group of al Qaeda operatives and allies – including Ayman al Zawahiri’s lieutenant, Abu Musab al Zarqawi (the first leader of al Qaeda in Iraq), and Abu Ayyub al Masri (who stepped in for Zarqawi as leader of al Qaeda in Iraq but was killed in 2010) – who had set up shop in Baghdad prior to the war.
Abu Ayyub al Masri’s widow has since confirmed the CIA’s pre-war intelligence, explaining that she and her husband moved to Baghdad in 2002.
The CIA’s British counterparts found the same thing. Former British prime minister Tony Blair discussed the intelligence concerning al Qaeda’s network in Iraq collected by the Brits, prior to the invasion, in his memoir. In A Journey: My Political Life, Blair writes that “there was strong intelligence that al Qaeda were allowed into Iraq by Saddam in mid-2002 (with severe consequences later).” Like Tenet, Blair also discusses Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s presence in Baghdad – not just northern Iraq – prior to the war.
More than one month prior to the Iraq War, Osama bin Laden himself gave jihadists the go-ahead to fight alongside Saddam’s forces. In an audiotape released on February 11, 2003, bin Laden explained: “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 continued:
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.
An al Qaeda mouthpiece has confirmed that bin Laden’s terrorist organization relocated to Saddam’s Iraq with regime assistance to fight the “Crusaders.”
There’s much more, of course. For the Post, however, the point is that Panetta appears to have contradicted President Obama’s talking point. It apparently never occurred to the Post’s reporters that perhaps Obama is simply wrong.
After all, even Osama bin Laden once spoke of a “convergence of interests” between his al Qaeda and Saddam’s regime. Those interests converged in the form of the Iraqi insurgency, which American troops have been fighting for the better part of a decade.
Panetta was right to tell U.S. soldiers that the war they’ve been fighting in Iraq is part of the global war against al Qaeda and its affiliates. This is true whether one agrees with the decision to topple Saddam’s regime or not.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.