Monday, January 16, 2006

The Saddam terror connection: Is there anything to it?

The January 16 issue of The Weekly Standard has a cover story by Standard editor Stephen F. Hayes called "Saddam's Terror Training Camps," arguing that documents found in Iraq are providing daily evidence of Saddam's involvement in sponsoring radical Islamic terrorism.

Hayes writes:

The former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein trained thousands of radical Islamic terrorists from the region at camps in Iraq over the four years immediately preceding the U.S. invasion, according to documents and photographs recovered by the U.S. military in postwar Iraq. The existence and character of these documents has been confirmed to The Weekly Standard by eleven U.S. government officials.

The secret training took place primarily at three camps--in Samarra, Ramadi, and Salman Pak--and was directed by elite Iraqi military units. Interviews by U.S. government interrogators with Iraqi regime officials and military leaders corroborate the documentary evidence. Many of the fighters were drawn from terrorist groups in northern Africa with close ties to al Qaeda, chief among them Algeria's GSPC and the Sudanese Islamic Army. Some 2,000 terrorists were trained at these Iraqi camps each year from 1999 to 2002, putting the total number at or above 8,000. Intelligence officials believe that some of these terrorists returned to Iraq and are responsible for attacks against Americans and Iraqis. According to three officials with knowledge of the intelligence on Iraqi training camps, White House and National Security Council officials were briefed on these findings in May 2005; senior Defense Department officials subsequently received the same briefing.

The photographs and documents on Iraqi training camps come from a collection of some 2 million "exploitable items" captured in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan. They include handwritten notes, typed documents, audiotapes, videotapes, compact discs, floppy discs, and computer hard drives. ...

The discovery of the information on jihadist training camps in Iraq would seem to have two major consequences: It exposes the flawed assumptions of the experts and U.S. intelligence officials who told us for years that a secularist like Saddam Hussein would never work with Islamic radicals, any more than such jihadists would work with an infidel like the Iraqi dictator. It also reminds us that valuable information remains buried in the mountain of documents recovered in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past four years.

Hayes, it should be noted, is not an unbiased observer. He is a major promoter of the "Saddam-Al Qaeda connection" theory, and has written a book on the subject. About that book, former FBI counterterrorism analyst Matthew Levitt, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and adjunct professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, had this to say:

Hayes skillfully weaves old information with new revelations, and dutifully presents caveats about the veracity and verifiability of both. Much of the material he presents has been confirmed but, in large part because of the book's heavy reliance on a collection of possibilities, public statements and other circumstantial evidence, Hayes raises more questions than he answers.

Those facts that are confirmed -- e.g., meetings between senior Iraqi and al Qaeda envoys and Hussein's connections to the Kurdish al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Islam -- are pieces of a puzzle. On their own, and even together, they fall short of the certitude that the book's title leads readers to expect. The most explosive and damning material remains unconfirmed. Connecting these dots, one finds a disturbing outline of the former Iraqi regime's links to terrorists, but the picture still reveals no smoking gun.


So even though "The Connection" points toward disturbing links between Iraq and al Qaeda, there was a far tighter connection between al Qaeda and, say, Sudan -- a point Hayes makes in the chapter on "A Home for Terror." Hayes offers several intriguing insights into possible links between Iraq and the Sept. 11 plot, though he also acknowledges "there is no proof that the Iraqi regime had any operational involvement in the September 11 attacks."

What evidence there is, Hayes notes, is "circumstantial and highly speculative." Instead, he points to the "unique threat" presented by the "potential collaboration" between Osama bin Laden and Hussein. "By the time the Iraq war began," he writes, "the evidence of Iraqi links to al Qaeda went well beyond a few dots. It was a veritable constellation." A constellation of suggestions, however, still is not a convincing argument. "The Connection" raises several important questions, but it left me unconvinced and still asking: Why now?

The information in the captured documents may well help fill the gaps that troubled Levitt. So the question is, is this important? I have never been very impressed with the argument that Saddam Hussein's secular regime could not have collaborated with radical Islamists; totalitarian regimes and movements of all stripes are rarely scrupulous about ideological purity in their allies. (Stalin had no qualms about exploiting religion for his purposes -- for instances, when he needed the Russian Orthodox Church to help whip up patriotic feeling during World War II -- and it's unlikely that Hussein would be any more principled.) Hayes makes a pretty good case that Saddam repeatedly presented himself as a "holy warrior" for Islam when the occasion called for it. And certainly, he and the Al Qaeda had a common enemy in the U.S.

I think Levitt's question still stands: assuming there was a Saddam/Al Qaeda connection, was it a proper casus belli? Why Iraq (and not, say, Sudan)? Nonetheless, it seems to me that the issue is worth exploring. Interesting, Hayes makes clear that the reasons it has languished don't just have to do with "the liberal media" but also with administration policies. A part of it was the exclusive, not to say obsessive, focus on the WMD issue:

Nearly three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, only 50,000 of these 2 million "exploitable items" have been thoroughly examined. That's 2.5 percent. ...

Most of the 50,000 translated documents relate directly to weapons of mass destruction programs and scientists, since David Kay and his Iraq Survey Group--who were among the first to analyze the finds--considered those items top priority. "At first, if it wasn't WMD, it wasn't translated. It wasn't exploited," says a former military intelligence officer who worked on the documents in Iraq.

"We had boxloads of Iraqi Intelligence records--their names, their jobs, all sorts of detailed information," says the former military intelligence officer. "In an insurgency, wouldn't that have been helpful?"

The other obstacle to the release of the documents is spin control and distrust of the media:

The main worry, says [Pentagon spokesman Larry] DiRita, is that the mainstream press might cherry-pick documents and mischaracterize their meaning. "There is always the concern that people would be chasing a lot of information good or bad, and when the Times or the Post splashes a headline about some sensational-sounding document that would seem to 'prove' that sanctions were working, or that Saddam was just a misunderstood patriot, or some other nonsense, we'd spend a lot of time chasing around after it."

Of course, this could make skewed news a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The release of the captured Iraqi documents should be expedited. It seems to me that this is one issue on which the "liberal" and "conservative" media -- and bloggers of all persuasions -- could agree.


Revenant said...

The release of the captured Iraqi documents should be expedited.

I agree.

The translation rate thus far isn't necessarily bad, though. It comes to around seventy documents per working day since the end of the initial war.

Cathy Young said...

70 documents per working day? With the kind of resources the military has, that isn't much.

Especially considering that, as Hayes points out, some of these documents could provide tips regarding current terrorist activities in Iraq that are targeting our troops.

Revenant said...

70 documents per working day? With the kind of resources the military has, that isn't much.

I guess that depends on how big the average "document" is. I was figuring that 70 documents would come to 3000-5000 pages. Given the multiple bottlenecks (qualified Arabic translators with security clearance, document review to determine what needs to be classified, etc) that doesn't seem bad. If the average document size is a lot smaller, then yeah, that's not so good.

I don't think it was a mistake to focus on WMD-related documents, either. We still don't have a clear picture of the Iraq WMD situation -- there are, for example, weapons Hussein declared having, failed to account for the disposal of, and which we now cannot find. Did he lie about their existance? Are they hidden? Sold to Syria? We don't know. Given that even a single chemical weapon attack could kill more Americans than insurgents have thus far killed, prioritizing the WMD intelligence was a reasonable option to take.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be great if we had less speculation among reporters and more facts.

Here is a major opportunity to seek the facts.

Frankly I have cancelled my newspaper subscriptions because I am tired of seeing editorials masquerading as front page headlines.

Anonymous said...

revenant wrote: " . . . a single chemical weapon attack could kill more Americans than insurgents have thus far killed . . . "

Extremely unlikely. The sarin gas attack in Tokyo a few years ago killed a few dozen people, and that was using a liter of sarin under "ideal" conditions: a highly crowded, enclosed, poorly ventilated space.

Given that a) most chemical weapons degrade over time; and b) it's been almost a decade since Saddam actually produced any WMD's of any kind, I'm willing to conclude that there are more pressing problems in Iraq right now than WMD's.

flaime said...

I thought the terrorist training camps were discovered in the Kurdish northern territories, which, for 10 years or more, were beyond the reach of Hussein?

William R. Barker said...

Cathy wrote...

I think Levitt's question still stands: assuming there was a Saddam/Al Qaeda connection, was it a proper casus belli? Why Iraq (and not, say, Sudan)?


O.K., one more time...

The war to topple Saddam in 2003 (as opposed to a war against Sudan... or Iran... or Syria... or North Korea...) was a natural offshoot of the war to throw Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991.

If the FIRST Gulf War had never occurred... chances are the Second Gulf War never would have occured.

Revisionism aside, Bush and the administration and neocons in general "sold" the war on a number of issues, foremost being the threat of Iraq's assumed (by pretty much EVERYONE) WMDs, but also on the logic of the Clinton era (1998) declaration of official U.S. policy being regime change in Iraq, also on Saddam's support and potential support for destabilizing terrorism, also on the issue of creating a new pro-western bulkhead in the Middle East (to play the role of the Shah's Iran), also to reinforce that nations not formally aligned with America (*GRIN*) have no right to ignore various UN mandates, also on humanitarian grounds (that every day Saddam and his sons and clique ruled Iraq was another day of misery for the bulk of Iraq's people), also as a delayed reaction to make it plan that no foreign leader can get caught trying to arrange the assasination of a U.S. President (Bush the Elder) without the most serious repercussions, and probably, to send a clear message to North Korea, Iran, and other American enemies that America is not a paper tiger and that we're still capable of blowing our enemies to hell should we feel the urge.

I know... I know... that was one heck of a run-on sentence... but you get the point. There were a number of reasons behind choosing Saddam to topple and Iraq to nation-build in, but ultimately, to answer Cathy's question, the reasons why "Iraq" vs. "Sudan" relate ultimately to the FIRST Gulf War... a war which never really ended.

Revenant said...

I thought the terrorist training camps were discovered in the Kurdish northern territories?

From the article above:

"The secret training took place primarily at three camps--in Samarra, Ramadi, and Salman Pak--and was directed by elite Iraqi military units".

I'm not sure where Salman Pak is, but Samarra and Ramadi are well inside of the area Hussein retained control of, in Sunni Arab territory.

Mark B. said...

I can believe Saddam did his best to make use of various extremist and fundamentalist groups to forward his regional goals - I note that the organizations named are focused primarily on overthrowing more secular regimes in their parent countries, although I'm sure they're happy to attack Western targets as well. What I don't see is any evidence that Saddam provided anything like the same levels of support for Al Qaeda, or that he had any role in planning or backing attacks on the US. This in fact would have been counterproductive to his strategy of wearing down the West and eliminating sanctions, leaving him with a free hand to continue WMD or other programs and regaining regional dominance.

I also have to note that Saddam was far from alone in this behavior - our current ally, General Musharref ran bases and training camps in Pakistan for Islamic terrorists for years, in his case to provide a ready source of fighters for the guerilla war in Kashmir. He also turned a blind eye to Taliban and Al Qaeda operations on his doorstep. Why didn't we consider Pakistan a dire threat to US security?

Revenant said...

This in fact would have been counterproductive to his strategy of wearing down the West and eliminating sanctions

Not necessarily. He may have felt that helping start a war between Islamic terrorist groups and the USA would have actually helped get the USA off his back by forcing us to direct our efforts elsewhere.

Remember, the conventional wisdom in much of the world outside of America was that the war in Afghanistan would turn into an unending quagmire ending in our ignominious defeat by the folks who'd kicked out the Russians. The fact that we trounced the Taliban in short order and said "ok, who's next?" came as a shock to most of the world. Or maybe he shared bin Laden's belief that a nasty terrorist attack would inspire the USA to pack up and leave the middle east.

It is important to remember that Hussein's skill as a strategist covered the full range from "moronic" to "barking mad". Just because all the reasons for an Iraq/Al Qaeda alliance are questionable and/or stupid doesn't mean Hussein didn't believe them anyway.

Why didn't we consider Pakistan a dire threat to US security?

Because there's no point in publically playing up a threat that you can't actually do anything about. Pakistan already had nuclear weapons by that point. Our only option now is to play ball with Musharaaf and hope for the best.

Ari Tai said...

A yet-to-be-researched and told story relates to the effectiveness of the Iraqi secret police and intelligence service. They (like the Iranian secret police) operated world-wide, and had their fingers in most things Arabic and Muslim, both for controlling their own people, and aggravating their enemies.

The question that needs to be answered isn't "did Iraq support AQ's 9-11 efforts in some operational sense?" but "did Iraq know enough about AQ's plans to interdict them, had they been so inclined?"

There can be no doubt that Mr. Hussein was condemned by his own lack-of-action per Mr. Bush's September 11th statement: "We make no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them." Even the Soviets at their worst were careful to limit the provocations by groups in their sphere of influence.

Anonymous said...

Where can translated and released Iraq documents be found online?

Bladedoc said...

I'm late to this party but I have to note that the Tokyo sarin attacks were not even remotely ideal. The location chosen was pretty good but the dispersal system was inadequate. To my recollection they used balloons full of gas that they popped with sharpened umbrellas. This method is not able to spread the gas a significant distance at any decent pace. Aum Shinrikyo had a history of very badly executed biological attacks prior to this as well. If they had obtained access to the ventilation system hundreds would have died.

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