Let’s start by stipulating the incontrovertible: Iraq is a state sponsor of terrorism. You mention the State Department’s 2000 terrorism report; in fact, Iraq has been pretty much a regular on the annual list since it was first created almost 25 years ago. (The Reagan administration took Iraq off the list in 1982 because Washington saw Saddam Hussein as a valuable ally in containing and undermining the Khomeini regime in Iran. Iraq was put back on the list in 1990 after invading Kuwait.) And you’re right to mention the attempt to assassinate the first President Bush in 1993 and the plotting to attack the office in Prague that produces Radio Free Iraq programming.
You could have added the many killings of Iraqi dissidents abroad; support for the Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq, which seeks to topple the Tehran government; the subsidies for Palestinian suicide bombers; the safe haven and support given for many years to radical Palestinian groups, including the one led by Abu Nidal, who died in Baghdad last summer after reportedly committing suicide by shooting himself four times. (Talented fellow.) No question, Saddam Hussein uses terror as a tool of policy. Iraq is a distant third behind Iran and Syria on the terror list because Saddam mostly relies on his broken-down intelligence service—who my former boss Richard Clarke recently referred to as the Marx Brothers of international terror—to do the work and because he has not tried anything ambitious since the botched attempt on Bush. But Saddam is still in the business.
Making the case that he and the radical Islamists of al-Qaida are working together is entirely another matter. Obviously, we need to ask whether different enemies are working together against us. But before looking more deeply into motives, let’s look at the facts. The allegation of Iraqi involvement in the first World Trade Center bombing has never been substantiated. True, a conspirator named Abdul Rahman Yasin fled to Baghdad, and Ramzi Yousef had an Iraqi passport. But Iraqi papers could be procured on the black market, and the fact that Yasin was allowed to stay in Baghdad only means that the Iraqis found him useful—a potential chip to be played later. That’s where the trail ends. I don’t know of any FBI or Justice Department investigators or intelligence experts who believe there was more Iraqi involvement in WTC I. The main proponent of a link, as you note on your Web site, is Laurie Mylroie. She’s popular with the neocons who pushed for the invasion of Iraq—aka “The Cakewalkers”—but U.S. counterterrorism experts have never been able to corroborate her claims.
High points for the close reading of The Age of Sacred Terror, and I very much appreciate the compliment. You found the one datum that has, for some time, given me second thoughts about Iraqi complicity in Islamist terror. The Sudanese method of producing VX was indeed of Iraqi provenance. But remember, the plant belonged to Sudan. Osama Bin Laden invested in the regime’s Military Industrial Company, as he did in many, many other companies, farms, real estate, trading firms, etc. I’ve never been able to find evidence of contact between Bin Laden and the Iraqis or to demonstrate that Baghdad knew of al-Qaida’s involvement in the VX project. I’m guessing that no one in the Bush administration has either, or, given their desperation to show a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida, we would have heard about it. (I find it amazing that they never even point to the VX issue to support their case. They know the intelligence is solid. Perhaps they don’t want to revisit the missile attack against Khartoum in August 1998 and credit Bill Clinton with carrying out the first U.S. counterterrorism/counterproliferation strike and sounding the alert on al-Qaida. If it is the ABC syndrome—not Atomic, Biological, and Chemical, but rather Anything but Clinton—at work, that tells us a lot.)
Which leads us to the issue of the Iraqi intelligence agent al-Ani and the purported meeting with Mohamed Atta in Prague. The story, as I understand it from intelligence community sources, goes like this: After 9/11, Washington sent out an all-points bulletin to intelligence services around the world asking about the hijackers. Among the informants whom the Czechs spoke with was one who knew al-Ani and said that he had seen him with Atta. This lit up the U.S. intelligence community and the White House. But when the Czechs double-checked, the source recanted. By that time, plenty of officials in Prague had spoken about the connection, and the matter was becoming embarrassing. President Vaclav Havel, no less, had to walk it back. Jim Risen has written about this in the New York Times, and, although senior U.S. officials continued for a time to cite the report as if it were true (any wonder so many Americans believe Saddam was behind 9/11?), it is now completely discredited. Do you know any reason to think otherwise?
I would like to hear from al-Ani, as you suggest, but I wouldn’t expect to hear much. I also have not pre-emptively dismissed the possibility of an al-Qaida-Iraq liaison. On the contrary, as you know from Sacred Terror, after the bombing of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa, Dick Clarke insisted that we conduct a review of the intelligence involving al-Qaida, Iraq, and Iran to see if the CIA was missing something regarding state sponsorship of Bin Laden’s organization. Interestingly, the connections to Iran were more numerous. But in both countries, we saw that there had been cases of operatives transiting through these countries, sometimes even living for a time in them, and there were indications of passing contacts with Iranian or Iraqi officials. Still, we could not find anything that hinted at broader cooperation.
Let me just list a few other reasons why I’m skeptical about a serious connection between Iraq and al-Qaida:
- I mentioned Saddam’s reliance on his intelligence service to carry out his conspiracies. He doesn’t trust outside groups. He would be extremely wary of trusting one that was determined, like all jihadist groups, to topple secular regimes like his own.
- After the effort to assassinate former President Bush was uncovered, Saddam learned the same lesson that Libya’s Qaddafi did after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and that the Iranian mullahs would in the late 1990s after the attack on Khobar Towers: It is all but impossible to hide state sponsorship of a terrorist attack. I suspect that explains, in part, why he hasn’t targeted anything big since 1993.
- Saddam’s goal is regional domination. Supporting al-Qaida in its attacks against the United States would not help him achieve that. I believe Saddam wanted to continue working on a nuclear program until he had a bomb to blackmail his neighbors and deter the United States. He is certainly capable of miscalculating. But I think he would have seen attacking America as a gamble that would have risked bringing the wrath of the United States down on him before he had the bomb.
- Finally, Saddam has had weapons of mass destruction for decades. If he had wanted to cause America grievous harm, wouldn’t he have given al-Qaida or another group a chemical or biological weapon already? He has not done so because he wants to achieve mastery of the Persian Gulf, not provoke a premature fight with the United States.
Of course, now that he has that fight on his hands, and his back is to the wall, all that could change—wouldn’t you agree?