Osama bin Laden sealed Saddam Hussein’s fate last Tuesday when, in a Messianic rendering of his latest fatwa against Americans, he admitted a “convergence of interests” with Iraq and renewed his threat to bring down traitorous Arab governments across the region. His call to set aside differences with Saddam’s “socialist” movement strengthened perceptions that he views Baghdad’s strongman as little more than a potentate of one al Qaeda’s global villages, otherwise known as the Muslim Ummah.
In a sense, it was his version of George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us, or with the terrorists” call to arms. But the vagaries of bin Laden’s Islamist language still did not offer forensic evidence to skeptics of the Iraq-al Qaeda nexus, a key determinant in the Bush administration’s debate with the United Nations about when and how to best disarm the Iraqi regime.
That will require asymmetrical thinking, not legalistic reliance on forensic data. The threat posed by Iraq’s collaboration with al Qaeda is born of conveniences in which the contained and monitored Iraqi leader is only too happy to spread his viral and chemical recipes through the Saudi fugitive’s established, ideologically driven network of willing homicidal maniacs stationed around the world-a network bin Laden is desperate to maintain and use.
The systematic dismantling of al Qaeda’s European terror cells over the past two months was a driving force in the timing and temperament of bin Laden’s Tuesday fatwa. By tying himself to Iraq, even nebulously, he hoped to provoke U.S. action before diplomacy could heal the widening trans-Atlantic rift with NATO members and before his retaliation infrastructure could be further dismantled, rendering it all but impotent to respond to a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The forensic evidence of Iraq’s deceit on continuing development of chemical and biological weapons is now pretty clearly documented and the verdict is in — guilty as charged. The only reason U.S. intelligence officials don’t give United Nations weapons inspectors the exact location of the mountain bunkers where Saddam has hidden the largest part of his biochemical arsenal is because it would get every one of them killed the minute one UNSCOM jeep or helicopter headed in that direction.
The nature of evidence about Iraq’s relationship with al Qaeda, while more subjective, is no less compelling. But it will require the Bush administration to do a much better job of educating the American public about why ideologically driven terrorism, such as al Qaeda’s, does not lend itself to the same forensic examination of Saddam’s terrorism-for-ransom mendacity. The American people have to learn that bin Laden’s brand of terror shows few fingerprints until the bombs explode in our face.
The real danger Americans face today is not from Iraq’s existing biochemical-weapons cache, but from Saddam’s transfer of recipe books and formulas to al Qaeda, and access to the scientists who teach from them, for developing weapons of mass murder on site at its terrorist hideouts around the world. And not just now, but for decades to come.
Close analysis of the available evidence lets us see how this nexus works. For the past seven years, I have witnessed Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda operations in various countries firsthand, visiting with his followers in safe houses in Sudan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Indonesia, and Malaysia — some as recently as September last year. I have spent tens of hours trying to fathom and decode their hatred for westerners and even brought the terror groups less radicalized adherents into the peace framework that led to a ceasefire of hostilities between Muslim separatists and Indian security forces in Kashmir in 2000.
But the al Qaeda that struck America on September 11 is no longer an organization with a flowchart of country-specific responsibilities and 37 card-carrying vice presidents planning and coordinating actions in each locale. The Afghan bombing campaign saw to that.
No, al Qaeda today is a viral infection with a few powerful germinators — Egyptian-born mastermind Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, Pakistani-born Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, to name the top three — who have been exceedingly successful in infecting a wide berth of radical Islamist groups from Indonesia to France. These groups, like the cancerous Algerian terror cells broken up throughout Europe during the past month, are well established in their local environments and are willing to host al Qaeda’s overseers while continuing to execute their own politically motivated agendas locally.
One such group, identified in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s compelling presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, characterizes the new al Qaeda overlay model with alarming clarity. Ansar al-Islam, a northern Iraqi terrorist operation run by Kurdish Muslim extremists — many of whom trained at Osama bin Laden’s terror camps in Afghanistan — is battling secular Kurds opposed to Saddam’s rule in northern Iraq.
According to confessions obtained from al Qaeda subordinates arrested in the region in recent months, Ansar operates with the military and financial resources of Saddam’s intelligence directorate, the Mukhabarat. The terror group, resident geographically in an ungovernable region along the Iran-Iraq border, is now capable of becoming an al Qaeda pop-up biochemical-weapons lab for the production and distribution of poisons whose recipes and formulas are provided by its state sponsors.
It is widely known that Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s chief biochemical engineer, was at the safe house in Afghanistan where traces of Ricin and other poisons were originally found. What is not widely known-but was briefly alluded to in Sec. Powell’s U.N. address-is that starting in the mid-1990s, Iraq’s embassy in Islamabad routinely played host to Saddam’s biochemical scientists, some of whom interacted with al Qaeda operatives, including Zarqawi and his lab technicians, under the diplomatic cover of the Taliban embassy nearby to teach them the art of mixing poisons from home grown and readily available raw materials.
CIA Director George Tenet confirmed the outcome of this arrangement last week in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee when he said that “…Iraq has provided training in poisons and gases to al Qaeda… the results of which were successful…”
In October 2001, a senior Taliban official who viewed al Qaeda and bin Laden as a cancer on their fundamentalist movement offered to provide a delegation I was to lead to meet them with “…significant insights into Iraq’s terrorist collaborations in the region…” In exchange, these Taliban doves wanted us to convey to Washington that they needed reprieve from the looming campaign to crush them with American smart bombs in order to market the sellout to Taliban hardliners.
My friend, James Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence, and others had agreed to accompany me to Kabul as observers if the Taliban’s invitation included prior assurances that the eight Christian aid workers held on charges of proselytizing would be released into our custody as a sign of their goodwill. Gathering data on Iraq’s collaborations figured high on the list of priorities for discussion with senior Taliban leaders — a point I made amply clear in my initial correspondence to the Taliban ambassador in Islamabad.
Their invitation, which took days of wrangling to agree on the two or three key words which gave the meeting any relevance, arrived in my Copenhagen hotel room only three hours before the first bombs fell on Kabul on October 7, 2001.
Iraq continues to deny any involvement in training al Qaeda operatives, and Pakistani intelligence very effectively, and quickly, suppressed evidence of these clandestine meetings after September 11. But erasing the fingerprints cannot change the irrefutable fact that Ricin and other chemicals first found in al Qaeda’s Afghan safe houses after years of covert collaborations with Iraq inside Pakistan and Afghanistan are now being repeatedly uncovered in al Qaeda affiliated terror cells throughout Europe.
Interestingly, the discoveries of Ricin in Europe come after Zarqawi visited at least one of the cells in early November last year. And not just any cell. He was allegedly transported by well-paid Albanian mercenaries through southern Turkey via the Balkans into France — that’s right, France — where he spent the month of Ramadan teaching Algerian radicals how to make the toxic poison for which there is no known antidote. French police interrogations have revealed that the same Algerians arrested in Paris traveled to Barcelona, where later another al Qaeda cell was rooted out.
Traces of Ricin apparently found in the Paris apartment of the Algerian cell demonstrate with great clarity how Zarqawi’s presence in Europe enabled the export and distribution of formulas and ingredients through al-Qaeda’s nebulous global network to endpoints for deployment while giving Saddam plausible deniability of any involvement.
There is other evidence of Ansar’s al Qaeda overlay. While recuperating at base camp in the late summer, Zarqawi gave an order (in line with al Qaeda’s new directive for political assassinations) to have Laurence Foley, an American diplomat working for USAID in Amman, assassinated. His direct involvement was confirmed by the two murder suspects arrested in Amman during their confessional statements.
Then, on Feb. 9, a prominent secular Kurdish leader, Gen. Shawkat Haji Mushir, and five others were murdered in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq in apparent retaliation for the Powell expose of Ansar and Zarqawi. The modus operandi of the murder was eerily similar to the September 2001 bin Laden-sponsored assassination of Afghan resistance leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, where al Qaeda operatives posing as journalists exploded the TV camcorder in Masood’s face.
How much more data is needed to demonstrate al Qaeda’s growing hand-in-glove relationship with terrorism’s modern-day godfather. The sooner we dispel ourselves of the notion that forensic evidence is the only way to define terror links between states that sponsor terrorism and well-financed, ideologically driven terrorist networks, the sooner we will be able to effectively defend ourselves against their tireless efforts to destroy us.
— Mansoor Ijaz, chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York, negotiated Sudan’s counterterrorism offer for data on al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to the Clinton administration in 1997 and proposed the framework for the July 2000 ceasefire in Kashmir between Muslim separatists and India’s security forces.