Fat Steve's Blatherings

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A History of Plamegate So Far: Part III, Other Iraq Links to al-Qaeda


        There's a persistent opinion that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden hated each other, and never cooperated.  The evidence is all the other way.

  • Saddam started supporting terrorism in the 1970s.

  • In the 1980s, Saddam became a supporter of Islamic terrorism.  Osama considered Saddam an ally.

  • After the Gulf War, numerous reports showed the Saddam/Osama alliance strengthening, with Saddam using Osama as a cut out, and Osama being supported by Saddam.

  • By the late '90s, Saddam offered Osama refuge in Iraq, while Osama warned the West don't attack Saddam.

  • In 1998, Ansar al-Islam was founded, with Saddam and Osama reportedly acting as joint midwives.

  • But there was still a great deal of uncertainty in intelligence, and a great deal of resistance to removing Saddam from office after 9/11.  It was the interaction of these two views that resulted in Wilson being sent to Niger.

At Length:

        Though it must certainly seem unlikely, this history of the Plamegate mess will actually reach Plamegate, Real Soon Now.  I'll also get back to daily blogging.

        In part one, I sketched the political history of Iraq, and Saddam, and the reasons Bush 41 didn't replace him -- basically, because he'd have had to do then what his son is doing now, with the attendent risks and costs.  In part two, I dealt at some length with evidence that Saddam had a hand in the 1993 WTC bombing, either directing it, or supporting al-Qaeda terrorists in their operation.  In this part, we'll look at some other links between Saddam and al-Qaeda, plus terrorism more generally.

        It was never any great secret that Saddam supported terrorism.  There were links between Iraq and terrorists as early as the '70s.  After the Iranian coup of 1979, Saddam found it convenient to give his terrorism support a more Islamist cast.  But there were always claims that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden would never cooperate, because S. was a secularist, and O. b. L. was an Islamist.

        Right, that's why Stalin, the Bolshevik, never made a treaty with Hitler, the Nazi . . . Oh, wait.  He did.  But Stalin just declared himself neutral, he never actively interfered with the Allied war against Hitler . . . wait, sorry, he did that too.  But still, as the representative of a militantly atheist regime, Stalin didn't consider tapping into Russian religious sentiment, assigning chaplains to the Army, training new Orthodox priests, or appearing on the radio with the Grand Metropolitan . . . shucks, I forgot, Stalin also did that, as well as allying with the capitalists and playing down the revolutionary, anti-capitalist side of Bolshevism till WWII was over.

        In fact, there's no real evidence that Osama ever had a problem with Saddam.  In a piece that was originally on MSNBC (the link is now dead, but I posted a copy here; try that URL for any non-working link on this page), it was said about Osama that:
        He considered Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein an ally until Hussein threatened to invade Saudi Arabia. But, his associates claim, he was even more upset when U.S. troops were sent to Saudi soil to fight Hussein. In 1991, the Saudi government kicked him out of the country.

        Note that Osama liked to rant about "Crusaders" on the holy soil of the Arabian peninsula, but never had a problem with Western oil workers, and enclaves where the rule of Sharia didn't run.  Keeping out the Christian infidels only became a priority when they threatened Saddam and Iraq.

        Nor did Saddam have a problem with Islamists, as long as they weren't in Iraq trying to overthrow him.  Since the 1980s, Saddam has organised numerous Islamic conferences in Baghdad, expressly for the Mukhabarat to find foreign recruits.Saddam held one of these conferences in August of 2001, and it was notable in that only Islamic extremists were welcome.

        After the Sauds kicked him out, bin Laden went to Sudan, ruled by "the radical National Islamic Front," another Islamist group that somehow managed to be very friendly to Saddam-the-despicable-secularist:
        Saddam, under intense international scrutiny after the Gulf War, also had strong ties to Khartoum, and Iraqi intelligence was well represented in the stew of Islamic radicals, insurrectionists and foreign agents pouring through the city. . . .

        "We were convinced that money from Iraq was going to bin Laden, who was then sending it to places that Iraq wanted it to go," says Stanley Bedlington, a senior analyst in the CIA‘s counterterrorism center from 1986 until his retirement in 1994.

        "The years when bin Laden was establishing himself in Sudan also happened to be a time when there was a lot of Iraqi-Sudanese activity," says Steven Simon, a counterterrorism advisor for Clinton.

        As time went on, the relationship seems to have gotten stonger.  In 2002, CIA director George Tenet wrote a letter to Congress that said:
        Our understanding of the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda is evolving and is based on sources of varying reliability. . . .

        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's leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire W.M.D. [weapons of mass destruction] 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.

        Saddam also maintained a terrorism training camp at Salman Pak.  There were multiple reports from Iraqi defectors that non-Iraqi terrorists trained there, though who they were precisely was hard to say -- they were kept apart from the Iraqis.  The foreigners frequently appeared to be Islamists, though.  One former instructor said the training included "hijacking and kidnapping of airplanes, trains, public buses, and planting explosives in cities, sabotaging villages, sabotaging houses, assassinations."  The instructor, when he heard the details of 9/11, recognized the technique as one taught at Salman Pak.

        And of course, Czech intelligence swears, 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta, during one of his visits to Prague, met with an Iraqi "diplomat" who was expelled by the Czechs -- the "diplomat" being Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, an Iraqi intelligence officer who specialized in terrorism.  Two other 9/11 hijackers were also alleged to have met with Iraqi intelligence officials.

        It is perhaps worth noting that the plane available for training at Salman Pak was a Boeing 707, and the planes hijacked on 9/11 were all Boeing 757s and 767s, whose cockpit layout was very similar to the 707's.

        By the late '90s, the contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda were quite frequent.  Farouq Hijazi, formerly a brigadier general in the General Intelligence Directorate, is reported to have first met with bin Laden in 1994, in Sudan.  In '98, Hijazi travelled to Afghanistan, bin Laden's then base of operations, for a personal meeting and offer of refuge if b. L. should need it.  Bin Laden, in turn, may have visited Baghdad that year.

        It was also around 1998 that "Jund al-Islam" was founded, later called "Ansar al-Islam."  Under the 'Ansar' name, the group was well known for its operations in northern Iraq, where they attempted to surpress the Kurds and impose an Islamist government on the region.  Somehow, though, Saddam-the-Secularist never expelled them.  In fact, he's said to have helped in their founding and training, and sent the some Republican Guards to help them.  Ansar al-Islam also had close ties to al-Qaeda, who seem to have supplied it's first membership core.

        And in discussing 1998, it's worth noting that it was the year that U.S. and Iraqi hostility temporarily peaked, with the UNSCOM inspectors expelled, and Clinton ordering cruise missile attacks.  Saddam response was reported to be a quest for a alliances with terrorists groups.  1998 was also the year that bin Laden issued a fatwa to all Muslims, enjoining them to kill USAmericans wherever they could.  The U.S. troubles with Iraq,are specifically mentioned as justification for said fatwa.

        And so, when September 11th, 2001 rolled around, there was a lot of evidence already that Saddam was aiding Osama and friends.  But no amount of evidence would convince some people that Saddam and Osama would work together.

        As Richard Perle noted:
        The easiest thing for intelligence organizations to do is unconsciously slip into a world-view that becomes a filter that causes you either not to look, or even when you see, to ignore and fail to register information inconsistent with that world-view.  And it has been the view of the intelligence establishment for a long time now that Saddam, who is secular and not a religious fanatic like Osama bin Laden, behaves in a manner different from the terrorists.

        So they're not looking. Even when there's evidence; they tend to discount the evidence.

        The decision to treat terrorism as a criminal problem, punishable in court, meant severe restrictions on information sharing within the federal government.  As I pointed out in part one, many people didn't want to attack Iraq, for reasons the last two years have illustrated rather extensively.  But neither did they want to stand up in public and say 'We're afraid to deal with Saddam.'  Woolsey acidly commented:
        The State Department, for example, negotiates with, and normally tries to make common cause with, foreign governments.  And like any normal group of people, it seeks a role in the bigger picture for what it does.  So it tends to push for the importance of coalition-building and cordial relations in the big scheme of things.  No doubt we will have more and happier coalition partners (at least in the short run) if we don't raise the uncomfortable issue of a possible need to confront Saddam. . . .

        For its part, the CIA has always had an institutional bias in favor of information coming from recruited agents rather than volunteers and defectors.  There are exceptions, but in a number of circumstances--some with which I have long personal familiarity--defectors especially have been dealt with in less than exemplary fashion by the Agency.  Something similar might be said for democratic resistance groups--their occasional fractiousness makes them hard to discipline.  Sometime during 1995, these tendencies seem to have joined to produce substantial hostility at Langley to the Iraqi National Congress.  As one wag puts it, "If the INC showed up out there with Osama's and Saddam's heads on a plate, a number of people would say, 'I'll bet that's the Pope and the Dalai Lama.' "

        Many were unable to give up their hopes for a UN diplomatic solution, no matter how many times it had failed previously.  Of course, with what we now know of the the Oil-For-Fraud-Food Program, huge numbers of people had a direct financial stake in disputing links with Saddam and terrorism.  Others were on the Arab payroll in other ways, as lobbyists, or as "scholars" receiving grants donations for studies as long as they echoed the paymaster's line.  A faction in the intelligence community was committed to a view that terrorist groups were only loosely linked, and seldom state sponsored, which provided a nice excuse for their failures to dectect terrorist attacks in time to stop them.  Of course, if Saddam was cooperating with al-Qaeda, the same clowns in the intelligence community who'd failed in so often would have more egg on their faces.  And as Charles Duelfer noted, the U.S. just isn't too good at recognizing longterm strategic threats.

        And in justice to the dissenters, the intelligence information was far from clear-cut.  All the assurances that Saddam retained large stocks of chemical and biological weapons would end up looking pretty bad.  Many of the sources for these stories were members of the Iraqi National Congress, people with an obvious motive to say anything that would get the U.S. to invade Iraq.  And sometimes things were very complicated — for instance, it's true that Iraq didn't account for all its chemical weapons, but it's also the case that most Iraqi chemicals didn't store well (see the Duelfer Report).  This didn't matter in the Iran/Iraq War, because the chemicals were used as fast as they could be produced.  But it did after the Gulf War, they deteriorated.  The sanctions weren't perfect, but they, and the Gulf War bombing, had so hacked up Iraq's economy that it was difficult to run or maintain any industrial process.  So, no new chemicals either.  By the time Saddam finally kicked out the inspectors, his production equipment was in awful shape, and in 2003 he hadn't been able to get it repaired or replaced — yet.  Equally, he was trying to do so, and intended to rebuild his chemical arsenal — but quietly and secretly, so as not to give the UN a reason to maintain the sanctions.  The inspections regime was known to have wrecked much of Saddam's uranium enrichment technology, but the fact that he'd concealed so much, for so long, made many nervous that he had more out there.

        It was in the midst of this confusing situation, with strong opinions in conflict, and disagreements both honest and dishonest, that the Plamegate affair unfolded.  In part four, we'll finally start to look at Joe Wilson's mission to Africa.

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