The Saddam-Al Qaeda connection

Posted: Jan 11, 2006 4:31 PM

The recent revelation by Stephen F. Hayes in The Weekly Standard that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had ties to – and was training thousands of – terrorists in the years prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is actually no revelation at all. It is being treated as such by many Americans, cautiously praised by the White House, and dismissed as groundless by those opposed to the war.

Don’t get me wrong: Hayes’ assertions are on the mark. But those with connections to the U.S. special operations community have long-known that the pre-war link between Saddam and the Al Qaeda terrorist network is not only a fact, but one that had to be addressed as part of the global war on terror.

I first began writing about this in August 2004 after a conversation with a good friend of mine, Commander Mark Divine, a U.S. Navy SEAL officer who had just returned from Iraq, where he was tasked with evaluating joint operations between SEALs and a then-developing Marine Corps special ops team. Divine told me, and I subsequently reported in National Review Online, “There is tremendous evidence to suggest there were terrorist training camps in Iraq before 9/11.”

I also wrote about the publicly and journalistically glossed-over 9/11 Commission Report that clearly stated, “[Osama] bin Laden himself met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in Khartoum in late 1994 or early 1995.” Bin Laden asked the Iraqi official for weapons procurement assistance and – get this – permission to establish terrorist training facilities in Iraq.

Granted, the Commission did say, “there is no evidence that Iraq responded to this request.” But my question today is: what about any evidence to suggest Iraq did not respond? There is no such evidence, and to me that is a far more important question, considering the fact that the Commission concluded, “the ensuing years saw additional efforts to establish connections.”

Moreover, there was Ansar al Islam, an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group with training camps in Northern Iraq prior to 2003. This group was hoping to establish an Islamist state in Iraq. But the – again, rarely read – 9/11 Commission Report clearly states, “There are indications that [by 2001] the Iraqi regime tolerated and may even have helped Ansar al Islam against the common Kurdish enemy.”

But don’t take my word for it, or the Commission’s.

In her book, Masters of Chaos, author and U.S. News & World Report senior writer Linda Robinson describes an attack on Sargat – an enormously significant international terrorist training camp in northeastern Iraq, near the Iranian border. The camp was being run by Ansar al Islam, and based on Robinson’s conversations with the U.S. Army special operators who led the attack, it is indeed "more than plausible" that Al Qaeda members trained there.

“[A Special Forces sergeant] believed, given the heavy fortifications, ample weaponry, and quality of the fighters, that his team had just invaded the world’s largest existing terrorist training camp since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” writes Robinson. “This was no way-station, in his view. It was remote yet in the heart of the region, so radicals could wreak havoc all over the Middle East.”

According to Robinson, the American Green Berets discovered among the dead in Sargat; foreign ID cards, airline-ticket receipts, visas, and passports from Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Tunisia, Morocco, and Iran.

Sargat wasn’t the only terrorist camp discovered by U.S. forces.

As Hayes reported, “Secret training took place primarily at three camps — in Samarra, Ramadi, and Salman Pak — and was directed by elite Iraqi military units.”

At Salman Pak, a facility south of Baghdad, “videos and other materials turned up after the invasion that showed terrorist training footage, where the targets were clearly Americans, along with other Jihadist propaganda,” Divine, who also operates, told me last week. “If this were an Iraqi military training site, or even a secret police site, it would not have had Jihadist focus, nor been visited by Arab members of Al Qaeda, as had been reported by several intelligence agencies.”

About the time Divine and I were having our initial conversation about the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection, Dr. Walid Phares – a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and author of Future Jihad – was poring over captured Iraqi intelligence documents (written in Arabic).

Last week, Phares told me he concluded from the documents, “There obviously were connections and talks, not only between Baghdad and the Jihadists of Osama Bin Laden, but between other Arab regimes such as Sudan, Syria and officials in Saudi Arabia and the radical Islamists who would later form Al Qaeda. In this regional maze, everybody talks to everybody and explores possibilities, plans.”

This is key to understanding the nature of terrorist organizations in the Middle East: Alliances are often ad hoc, opposing groups often train together, and the terrorists themselves switch loyalties depending upon whose leading what organization and what propaganda is being fomented by whom. To think otherwise would be dangerous for America and the world. And those on both sides of the U.S. political divide recognize Phares’ grasp of the complexities of global terrorism, particularly as they relate to the complex relationships that have existed in the Middle East for thousands of years.

Phares, who regularly conducts Congressional and State Department briefings, added, “The Saddam-Al Qaeda cooperation was centered around weakening the U.N.-sponsored, U.S.-British-backed sanctions against Iraq. Al Qaeda would strike U.S. interests, prompting a U.S. withdrawal from the region. Iraq would in-turn provide some facilities and other services to Al Qaeda’s operatives and local allies without necessarily becoming their main supplier or strategic partner.”

Consequently, international terrorists like Jordanian-born Abu Musab al Zarqawi were able to access many locations in Iraq prior to 2003. If nothing else, Zarqawi’s direct links to both Al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam, directly linked post-invasion Iraq and Al Qaeda. There is simply no way around that.

But there is much more to consider than Zarqawi, his crowd, and their freedom-of-movement. Intelligence gathered since the U.S. invasion indicates that as early as the late 1990’s, Iraq’s Unit 999 (a special branch of the old regime’s army) was directly involved in the training of foreign terrorists inside Iraq. Intelligence about U.S. and other Western forces was shared between operatives of the Iraqi intelligence services and Al Qaeda. And foreign terrorists operating in the region (outside of Iraq) who needed medical attention or other support received it once inside Iraqi borders.

Additionally, previously positioned operators – the “connections” – would have been necessary to coordinate the reception of Al Qaeda operatives crossing into post-invasion Iraq. Any student of guerrilla operations knows, the former must assist the latter to establish deep bases, recruit new members, and develop some semblance of trust in an untrusting tribal society.

So let’s forget for the moment any weapons of mass destruction (and the verdict is still out over whether or not WMDs were spirited across the borders). Forget the fact that Saddam was providing monetary support to the Palestinian families of suicide bombers. Forget the fact that he had violated umpteen U.N. resolutions since the end of Gulf War I. Forget the fact that his air-defense forces were regularly shooting at American and British pilots. Forget that he was a brutal dictatorial thug whose henchmen systematically raped, tortured, and murdered anyone who so much as hinted at any domestic political opposition. Forget all of the collaterally related geo-strategic reasons for gaining a foothold in the middle of the Islamist-fascist world during a global war against Middle-Eastern-based terrorism.

Instead, let’s consider the question that continues coming back to me:

Why is the White House not jumping all over the fact that terrorists were indeed training in pre-invasion Iraq as defensible proof of why we had no choice but to invade that country?

The answer is simple and unfortunate: Many in the mainstream media have been so successful at debunking any evidence, proof, or substantive facts as they relate to the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection, that any new information supporting any facts those of us in-the-know already know; will simply be rejected. The new information will be seen as desperate backtracking on old ground. The White House, which is committed to winning the war, will be seen as being in a defensive mode regarding issues that now have no strategic or tactical relevance in the future prosecution of the war. And the general public, which has been fed a steady diet of Iraq-is-the-wrong-theater since 2003, no longer knows what to believe.

Opponents of the war say the only Al Qaeda elements in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion were those in Kurdish areas not controlled by Saddam. This simply is not so, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it is. And if so; would not the U.S. – as a critical front in the global war on terror – have to invade those areas to shut down the Al Qaeda cells? Of course. And that in itself would have been a far more dangerous “limited war” with Iraq involving a direct ground confrontation with Saddam’s army anyway.

“Those who have decided that the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection claims (along with WMD) were ginned up by Bush to bolster the rationale for going into Iraq, are so firmly invested in those beliefs that they wouldn't believe any corroborating evidence anyhow,” says Divine.

True, but the facts are still with us, and the evidence for those facts – now supported by a growing body of post-invasion intelligence – is getting stronger. And to be fair to Hayes, the confirmation by 11 government officials of some two-million “exploitable items,” including notes, documents, tapes, CDs, floppies, and hard drives connecting the dots, is indeed a new revelation reinforcing what we already knew.

“There were terrorists training in Iraq prior to our invasion of that country,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Bruce Blount, former chief of staff of Allied Forces Southern Europe, in a phone conversation on Friday. “No question about it. There also were many things Saddam was doing – money, passports, visas, you name it – to further the terrorists ability to operate in other places throughout the world.”

Even more disturbing is what U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson (R -S.C.) said to me back in September 2004: “If this is what we know, imagine what we don’t know.”