The Connection: How al Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America by Stephen F. Hayes (HarperCollins, 224 pp., $19.95)
“Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie,” screamed the New York Times headline. The Times could not have been more wrong. The 9/11 Commission staff had released a report containing an offhand paragraph that appeared to undermine the notion of any meaningful relationship between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Osama bin Laden’s international terrorist network. But even the commission staff grudgingly acknowledged that there had been contacts, though it left the impression these had been unconsummated dalliances.
It’s a shame that neither the Times nor the commission seems to have read Stephen F. Hayes’s revelatory new book, The Connection. Hayes, a Weekly Standard staff writer, has for months tirelessly probed the shadowy relations between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The bottom line of his fast-paced eye-opener is that the “Qaeda-Iraq tie” is established by overwhelming evidence, and posed a serious threat to the United States.
Its roots date back to 1990, shortly after the Islamist coup that converted Sudan into a terrorist haven to which bin Laden would move his fledgling al-Qaeda. Saddam had invaded Kuwait, and found himself under siege by a U.S.-led coalition–which in turn provoked Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi, bin Laden, and others to begin calling for worldwide jihad. Turabi embraced Saddam and brokered an uneasy accommodation between Iraq and the militants–inducing the secular Baathist to incorporate elements of Islamic sharia into Iraqi law, while convincing wary militants that aligning with Saddam was a necessary evil.
It worked. Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) records recovered last year reveal that, by 1992, bin Laden was already regarded as an IIS asset, while Saddam was hosting Ayman al-Zawahiri of Egyptian Islamic Jihad–who would later become bin Laden’s second-in-command. By 1994, the two sides came to an understanding: Al-Qaeda would not work against Iraq, but would cooperate with it on some projects, including weapons development. IIS provided al-Qaeda with phony passports; Iraq also set up secret training camps for terrorists, where the IIS special-operations division provided schooling in assassination and hijacking.
If these early contacts now appear jarring, it owes to the verve with which the anti-Bush, anti–Iraq-war propagandists have whitewashed Saddam’s promotion of terrorism–a history that, Hayes recounts, was once a staple of Clinton-administration rhetoric, and led one defector (an IIS terrorist-trainer) to observe that “Saddam is the father and the grandfather of terrorists.”
Hayes convincingly dispels the myth that a “heathen” like Saddam could never have made common cause with radical Muslims. Saddam was more an opportunist than a committed secularist. In the 1990s, as necessity drove him further into the arms of militants, he energetically countered that secularist image, infusing his speeches with jihadist fire and assiduously courting radicals through “Popular Islamic Conferences” that brought together the most vicious militant organizations on earth.
Bin Laden himself is equal parts zealot and realist. The hazards of knitting together a fractious international terrorist network, one grounded more on hatred of the U.S. than ideological consistency, have often impelled him to strike strategic deals with the likes of Turabi (more modernist than bin Laden) and Hezbollah (Shiites, whom radical Sunnis like bin Laden have historically despised). Entanglements with Saddam were well within the parameters of practical entente. But each side had great incentives for keeping the dealings secret: Saddam sought to avoid a ruinous confrontation with the U.S., and bin Laden needed to keep his global confederation together.
In early February 1998, Zawahiri was in Iraq, negotiating training arrangements and collecting $300,000 from the IIS. Saddam, meanwhile, was making a mockery of weapons inspections, prompting a warning from President Clinton on February 17 against a “rogue state with weapons of mass destruction ready to use them or provide them to terrorists.” Two days later, the IIS was finalizing arrangements for a visit to Baghdad by a trusted envoy of bin Laden. The envoy arrived in early March, about two weeks after bin Laden issued his infamous fatwa calling on Muslims to murder Americans, including civilians, worldwide.
Al-Qaeda was then plotting the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which occurred on August 7, 1998–an operation that inspired Saddam’s son, Uday, to publish an editorial lionizing bin Laden as “an Arab and Islamic hero.” In Pakistan and Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda had relocated under the protection of the Taliban, high-level IIS officials were dispatched to meet with bin Laden. In the Czech Republic, Saddam instructed an IIS operative to recruit Islamic militants for a bombing operation against an American target: Radio Free Europe in Prague. That plot stalled when the IIS operative defected, but fears of its revival stirred when the operative’s replacement, Ahmed al-Ani, was surveilled casing the target.
Al-Ani is center stage in one of the two most fascinating Iraq/Qaeda intersections, both of which raise the specter of complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Czech intelligence has developed powerful evidence of a meeting between al-Ani and the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, in Prague in April 2001. That evidence–an eyewitness identification of Atta coupled with a corroborating entry in al-Ani’s calendar–continues to be attacked by naysayers. But the doubters have no convincing rejoinder to an indisputable fact: The preceding year, Atta traveled to Prague twice within a matter of days under very suspicious circumstances immediately prior to entering the U.S. to begin preparations for the suicide hijackings.
The other startling 9/11 implication involves Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Military records uncovered since Saddam’s fall appear to indicate that Shakir was a lieutenant colonel in Saddam’s elite Fedayeen. In 1999, he was assigned by IIS to Malaysian Airlines as a “greeter”–a functionary who assists VIPs through the airport customs process. The VIP Shakir was dispatched to help on January 5, 2000, was Khalid al-Midhar, one of the eventual 9/11 hijackers. As Hayes details, Shakir not only helped Midhar through customs but accompanied him to a three-day meeting, attended by Qaeda operational leaders, that appears to have been a planning session for both the 9/11 attacks and the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Following the meeting, Midhar headed to the U.S. to prepare for the suicide hijackings; Shakir returned to work for two days and then never went back again.
When Shakir was detained in Qatar six days after 9/11, he possessed contact information for major Qaeda-linked terrorists. Upon being released, he tried to return to Baghdad but was stopped at his connection in Jordan. There, he was held for months and made available to the CIA. The Jordanians, meanwhile, came under heavy pressure from Saddam’s regime to return Shakir to Iraq. The CIA unwisely agreed to a Jordanian suggestion that Shakir be released.
The truth of the Iraq/Qaeda relationship has been murkier than necessary because of the failures of the U.S. intelligence community, components of which rejected even the possibility of collaboration and now instinctively belittle each new revelation instead of reexamining their premises. What was Atta doing in Prague, and Shakir in Malaysia? In light of al-Qaeda’s singular dedication to attacking the U.S., why would it repeatedly take the time for summits with high-ranking Iraqi officials? What are we to make of northern Iraq’s Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Islam, which has played a crucial role in anti-Coalition terrorism, and has featured the combined efforts of Qaeda associates and high-ranking officials of the deposed regime? Stephen Hayes has performed an invaluable service in demonstrating just how salient these questions are. It is time for the intelligence community and the media to start answering them.
–Mr. McCarthy led the 1995 prosecution of the terrorist, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.BIO