Daily Archives: January 17, 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.

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