John Hinderaker at Power Line writes, "â€¦our principal news media outlets have fabricated an alternative reality around the Iraq war by simply misreporting the facts." That's true, especially with regards to Saddam's terror ties. And, as Power Line has noted on a number of occasions, the media has gotten a lot of help from partisan members of the U.S. Intelligence Community (both current and former).
Take, for example, this recent column by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek concerning the Iraqi Perspectives Project's recently released study of Saddam's intelligence files. You would never know from Isikoff's piece that the report contains documents linking Saddam's regime to six terrorist groups that are all part of Osama bin Laden's terrorist empire, including two groups that form the core of al Qaeda. Nor, would you know that Saddam's regime cooperated with these groups at various times. Instead, all you'll find is spin.
The spin is provided by Paul Pillar, a former high-ranking analyst at the CIA who has made his anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war inclinations known. Pillar has spun tale after tale about Saddam's regime and al Qaeda. He is heavily invested in the notion that Saddam's "secular" regime did not work with the Islamists of al Qaeda. Pillar is, quite clearly, a man with an agenda. Here are the most relevant lines from Isikoff's piece:
The report did find plenty of evidence that Saddam's regime had close ties to other (mainly Palestinian) terror groups and had maintained contacts with some radical Islamic movements-including, according to one 1993 document, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Last week Vice President Dick Cheney said the document showed there was a "link between Iraq and Al Qaeda." But Pillar notes the Egyptian group-headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri-didn't merge with Al Qaeda until years later. "This is the same kind of word game they played before the war," Pillar says.
This is nonsense. Pillar is pretending that because Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad (the "EIJ") had not formally merged with bin Laden until 1998 or 2001 (depending on who you talk to) that a connection between Saddam and the EIJ doesn't represent a link to al Qaeda. On the contrary, as I pointed out in a recent post over at Power Line, Zawahiri and the EIJ began to work closely with bin Laden in the mid-1980's--long before their formal merger. Numerous sources, including Zawahiri's lawyer in Egypt, Montasser al-Zayyat, have reported on the long-standing relationship. Lawrence Wright has also provided numerous details in his reporting for the New Yorker and in his book The Looming Tower.
A clear pattern emerges from the available evidence: Zawahiri and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad were major influences on Osama bin Laden early on, long before their formal merger. There were, of course, tactical differences from time to time, but this never stopped the two groups from working hand-in-glove. In fact, as Wright, al-Zayyat, and other sources have reported, it was Zawahiri and his EIJ lieutenants who steered bin Laden towards the absolute jihadist approach that defines al Qaeda. They were, in fact, always as much a part of al Qaeda as bin Laden himself. It is highly significant, therefore, that the IIS document Pillar and Isikoff refer to says that the IIS and the EIJ had an agreement in place to collude against Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt. (Subsequent documents show that Saddam wanted the EIJ to focus on hunting Americans in Somalia. I'll have more on this in the near future.)
The evidence is rather unambiguous in this regard. So, we are left with two options: (1) Pillar doesn't know this, or (2) He is spinning this story to serve his own agenda. Either way, Isikoff's blind reliance on Pillar to dismiss this important connection between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda does not inspire confidence. Of course, as Robert Novak has reported, Isikoff has relied heavily on Pillar in the past.
One more thing: The 1993 document Isikoff and Pillar dismiss contains more than just a connection between Saddam and the EIJ. Iraqi intelligence reports that they have had a "direct relationship" with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a longstanding and close ally of bin Laden. It turns out Hekmatyar and his group, the Hezb-e-Islami, had been receiving funds from Iraq since 1989. A subsequent document contains Saddam's order to assign a mission to Hekmatyar's group to "hunt" Americans in Somalia. That's how close the relationship was. And the 1993 document also says that the Iraqi regime and the Sudanese regime, which was then hosting al Qaeda, struck a significant agreement. Iraq agreed:
To make use of the Arab Islamic elements that were fighting in Afghanistan and do not have current operating bases. They are dispersed in Sudan, Somalia and Egypt.
That is, Saddam agreed "to make use of" the so-called Arab Afghans, who made up almost the entirety of al Qaeda's first generation of terrorists (including EIJ members).
A good analyst would want to know what came of this agreement and carefully piece together what is known and unknown in subsequent years. After all, the trail of evidence does not end there.
Paul Pillar is too busy playing word games.