Wednesday, June 16, 2004

"Non-Righteous Men": Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein

Wednesday, the 9/11 commission held the first of its final two days of hearings. The topic was al-Qaeda and the 9/11 plot. The big news from the hearings, at least according to the Washington Post and other media outlets, is that the "commission reported yesterday that it has found no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda, challenging one of the Bush administration's main justifications for the war in Iraq." This conclusion is drawn from the 12 page interim staff statement (PDF) released by the commission. The statement contains one paragraph on Iraq-al-Qaeda ties, which the Post summarizes as follows:

The staff report said that bin Laden "explored possible cooperation with Iraq" while in Sudan through 1996, but that "Iraq apparently never responded" to a bin Laden request for help in 1994. The commission cited reports of contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda after bin Laden went to Afghanistan in 1996, adding, "but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

Naturally, this has been taken by many as disproving the thesis that there were cooperative links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Instapundit, as usual, has a good roundup of blogger reactions. Overall, the staff statement is actually a very good summary history of al-Qaeda. A commission staff member e-mailed Instapundit with the following explanation of what the statement says about links between Iraq and al-Qaeda:

The AP and others have picked up on one sentence, which was carefully worded: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

The rest of the paragraph concisely summarizes the cases where we can identify cooperation and other connections where they exist.

The paragraph's ultimate conclusion, in my view is correct. There is simply not enough evidence to make the case that Saddam's regime was involved in 9/11 or that it conducted attacks jointly with al-Qaeda. The problem, however, is what is not addressed in the statement. There is far more to the story of Iraq-al-Qaeda ties than is acknowledged in that one paragraph.

One of my first posts was about Stephen Hayes' superb book The Connection, which details the substantial amount of evidence that Saddam and Osama did collaborate. Hayes' work can also be found in a series of articles published in the Weekly Standard. In a recent article summarizing his book, Hayes noted that bin Laden was in touch with Iraqi intelligence as early as 1992, based on hard documentary evidence:

In the spring of 1992, according to Iraqi Intelligence documents obtained by the ISG after the war, Osama bin Laden met with Iraqi Intelligence officials in Syria. A second document, this one captured by the Iraqi National Congress and authenticated by the Defense Intelligence Agency, then listed bin Laden as an Iraqi Intelligence "asset" who "is in good relationship with our section in Syria."

Additional documents have been found confirming that al Qaeda-Saddam ties continued after bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan in 1996. In April 2003, the Daily Telegraph found documents in Iraqi intelligence headquarters that revealed that Baghdad hosted a high level al-Qaeda envoy in March 1998:

The documents show that the purpose of the meeting was to establish a relationship between Baghdad and al-Qa'eda based on their mutual hatred of America and Saudi Arabia. The meeting apparently went so well that it was extended by a week and ended with arrangements being discussed for bin Laden to visit Baghdad.

Stephen Hayes, in the article cited above, refers to an even more intriguing document found in postwar Iraq:

A third Iraqi Intelligence document, this one an undated internal memo, discusses strategy for an upcoming meeting between Iraqi Intelligence, bin Laden, and a representative of the Taliban. On the agenda: "attacking American targets." This seems significant.

The fact that this document mentions the Taliban means that it cannot have been written any earlier than 1996.

The staff statement's conclusion that these contacts "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship" is also open to question. As CIA Director George Tenet stated in a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee in October 2002:

-We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda going back a decade.

-Credible information indicates that Iraq and Al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression.

-Since Operation Enduring Freedom, we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of Al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.

-We have credible reporting that Al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire W.M.D. capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to Al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.

-Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians coupled with growing indications of relationship with Al Qaeda. suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action.

(emphasis added-DD)

Other official government sources have also expressed a view of Iraq-al-Qaeda ties that goes beyond what is in the staff statement. For example, the US Government's indictment of Osama bin Laden, filed in November 1998, contains the following passage:

In addition, al Qaeda reached an understanding with the government of Iraq that al Qaeda would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al Qaeda would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq.

(emphasis added-DD)

It seems odd that the staff statement would express doubt over whether Iraq and al-Qaeda had a "collaborative relationship", when on at least two occasions in the last six years, the US government has stated that Iraq and bin Laden did collaborate on certain matters, such as training and weapons development.

(Update: The Washington Post reports that Patrick Fitzgerald, the US attorney who oversaw the 1998 embassy bombings case, was asked about the indictment when he testified before the 9/11 commission on Wednesday. In response, he stated that the Iraq "reference was dropped in a superceding indictment because investigators could not confirm al Qaeda's relationship with Iraq as they had done with its ties to Iran, Sudan and Hezbollah. The original material came from an al Qaeda defector who told prosecutors that what he had heard was secondhand.")

The staff statement also mentions that "(t)wo senior bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq." This is undoubtedly a reference to the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The results of their interrogations were first reported by James Risen in the New York Times on June 9, 2003:

Two of the highest-ranking leaders of Al Qaeda in American custody have told the C.I.A. in separate interrogations that the terrorist organization did not work jointly with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, according to several intelligence officials.

Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda planner and recruiter until his capture in March 2002, told his questioners last year that the idea of working with Mr. Hussein's government had been discussed among Qaeda leaders, but that Osama bin Laden had rejected such proposals, according to an official who has read the Central Intelligence Agency's classified report on the interrogation.

In his debriefing, Mr. Zubaydah said Mr. bin Laden had vetoed the idea because he did not want to be beholden to Mr. Hussein, the official said.

However, according to Hayes, Abu Zabaydah's comments went beyond what was reported in the Times. The infamous "Feith memo" from October 2003 summarized
Zubaydah's testimony
as follows:

During a 3 Sept 2002 interview, senior al Qaeda lieutenant Zubaida said that Bin Laden would ally al Qaeda with any entity willing to kill Americans. Zubaida explained, "my enemy's enemy is my friend." Bin Laden opposed a "formal" alliance because it may threaten al Qaeda's independence, but he saw the benefits of cooperation and viewed any entity that hated Americans and was willing to kill them as an "ally." Zubaida had suggested that the benefits of an alliance would outweigh the manageable risks to the integrity of al Qaeda. He said the potential benefits included access to WMD materials, such as weaponized chemical or biological weapons material, as well as funding and potential locations for safehaven and training.

(emphasis added-DD)

That bin Laden viewed Saddam as a de facto ally against the United States is confirmed by his own public comments. While it is true that bin Laden never, that we know of, spoke well of Saddam personally, the following passage from bin Laden's August 1996 Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places would seem to confirm the Feith version of Zubaydah's testimony.

To repel the greatest of the two dangers on the expense of the lesser one is an Islamic principle which should be observed. It was the tradition of the people of the Sunnah (Ahlul-Sunnah) to join and invade- fight- with the righteous and non righteous men. Allah may support this religion by righteous and non righteous people as told by the prophet (ALLAH'S BLESSING AND SALUTATIONS ON HIM). If it is not possible to fight except with the help of non righteous military personnel and commanders, then there are two possibilities: either fighting will be ignored and the others, who are the great danger to this life and religion, will take control; or to fight with the help of non righteous rulers and therefore repelling the greatest of the two dangers and implementing most, though not all, of the Islamic laws. The latter option is the right duty to be carried out in these circumstances and in many other similar situation.

(emphasis added-DD)

As Reuel Marc Gerecht noted in the January 2002 Atlantic Monthly, people "who think al Qaeda wouldn't ally with an irreligious Saddam Hussein or Iran's Shi'ite clerics should reflect" on that passage.

Furthermore, the Feith memo, as quoted by Hayes in his November 24, 2003 article "Case Closed", reveals that at least one other al-Qaeda detainee had a different story to tell regarding collaboration with Iraq:

During a custodial interview, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi [a senior al Qaeda operative] said he was told by an al Qaeda associate that he was tasked to travel to Iraq (1998) to establish a relationship with Iraqi intelligence to obtain poisons and gases training. After the USS Cole bombing in 2000, two al Qaeda operatives were sent to Iraq for CBW-related [Chemical and Biological Weapons] training beginning in Dec 2000. Iraqi intelligence was "encouraged" after the embassy and USS Cole bombings to provide this training.

The analysis of this report follows.

CIA maintains that Ibn al-Shaykh's timeline is consistent with other sensitive reporting indicating that bin Laden asked Iraq in 1998 for advanced weapons, including CBW and "poisons."

Finally, there is the presence in Baghdad in 2002 of jihadist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As ABC News reported on May 25th of this year:

During the summer of 2002, he underwent nasal surgery at a Baghdad hospital, officials say. They mistakenly originally thought, however, that Zarqawi had his leg amputated due to an injury.

In late 2002, officials say, Zarqawi began establishing sleeper cells in Baghdad and acquiring weapons from Iraqi intelligence officials.

It is true that it is an open question whether Zarqawi actually belongs to al-Qaeda. After all, he has his own terror network (al-Tawhid), and has reportedly never sworn bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden. However, Zarqawi has been implicated in the December 1999 millennium plot, among other attacks, and even in 2002 was a major figure in the radical Islamist terror movement. That Saddam's regime would harbor such a man in Baghdad, and supply him and his followers with weapons, is surely significant.

In light, then, of this information, all of which is part of the public record, four main questions regarding the commission's interpretation of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda come to mind?

1. Why did the staff statement not acknowledge that, in several cases, the reports of contacts have been confirmed by hard evidence in the form of captured Iraqi documents?

2. Why did the commission express doubt that these contacts led to a "collaborative relationship" betweeen Iraq and al-Qaeda, when on at least two occasions, the US government has stated, presumably based on much of the same evidence, that there was a certain degree of collaboration between the two?

3. Why is the testimony of al-Qaeda detainees such as Zubaydah and Mohammed, who say that there was no relationship with Iraq, seemingly given more credibility than the testimony of detainees like Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who say there was a relationship?

4. How do Iraq's pre-war ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi affect the commission's interpretation of the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship?

The point I am trying to make is not that Saddam was behind 9/11, or that bin Laden was following Saddam's orders. The point is that there is plenty of credible evidence in the public record to indicate that Iraq-al Qaeda ties were more extensive than yesterday's staff statement seems to imply. In particular, there is credible evidence that, contrary to the statement's wording, Saddam and al-Qaeda did indeed have a 'collaborative relationship" in certain respects, such as training in the use of WMD. It is true that the staff statement is just an interim summary document, and that the commission staff obviously had access to a great deal of classified intelligence information. It is to be hoped that the final commission report will attempt to deal with this topic at greater length. If given the opportunity, the commission might well be able to provide satisfactory answers to these questions. Still, based just on an analysis of material that is already in the public record, on the topic of ties between Saddam and al-Qaeda, the staff statement actually raises more questions than it resolves.


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