In recent days, the Wall Street Journal and Slate have charged that the U.S. government fumbled an opportunity to kill master terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Repeating a claim first made by NBC on March 2, 2004, critics argue that the U.S. had accurate intelligence about a Zarqawi-run camp in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Khurmal. They speculate that Zarqawi was in the camp, and could have been killed as early as June 2002, had the White House approved military action. Daniel Benjamin, director for transnational threats at the NSC from 1998-1999, calls the decision not to attack Zarqawi in 2002 “an enormous blunder.”
The critics are, however, only half right–and they have compensated for the other half with pre-election spin. First, they omit the background on how Zarqawi’s jihadists were discovered in northeastern Iraq, and how the U.S. government from the beginning failed to grasp the importance of events there. After all, the critics rely upon Pentagon and NSC sources who have their own explaining to do. Second, to make their case, the critics ignore the context in which the U.S. then operated in Iraq.
America’s Zarqawi problem began not–as the critics claim–in June 2002, but in October 2001, with the same intelligence failure that contributed to 9/11: the failure of imagination. Officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), an anti-Saddam group in the Kurdish safe haven of northern Iraq, came to the U.S. with compelling evidence that local Islamists had connections to Osama bin Laden. The evidence was also shared with the Turkish government, which, along with the U.S. and Britain, was protecting the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The PUK had picked up indications of links between local jihadists and bin Laden in the summer of 2001, according to a British journalist who was then in northern Iraq. Two of these jihadist factions united as Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam) on September 1, 2001, with Arabs trained in Afghanistan reportedly overseeing Jund’s formation–information that the U.S. received on September 4, 2001. Jund then seized the village of Biyara–and satellite hamlets such as Sargat and Tawela, in the mountains near the Iranian border–on September 11, 2001 (the timing was probably coincidental). Fierce fighting raged between Jund and the PUK until December 2001, when it was ended by an Iranian-brokered ceasefire and Jund changed its name to Ansar al-Islam. In one clash on September 23, 2001, Jund captured 42 PUK soldiers and then beheaded them.
The response from the U.S. government, alike was a cold rebuff. According to sources in Iraq, the U.S. and Turkey dismissed any link between the jihadists in the mountains of Iraq and bin Laden. Both took the cynical view that the Kurds were trying to draw the U.S. into a local squabble.
Only journalists took Kurdish claims seriously. William Safire quoted Kurdish officials on the presence of al Qaeda Arabs in northeastern Iraq in the New York Times on September 24, 2001. Although the PUK had captured a number of jihadist prisoners, no U.S. intelligence officer traveled to northeastern Iraq to interview them. Instead, Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker made the journey. In March 2002, Goldberg published an account of his meeting with an Iraqi Arab who had been trained in Afghanistan. In an irony not lost on the Kurds, the jihadist prisoner mistakenly assumed that his American visitor was from the CIA.
The Kurds returned with more evidence in April 2002 after a failed Ansar assassination attempt on Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih (now the Iraqi deputy prime minister). Finally, the penny dropped, and Ansar was linked to the shadowy Zarqawi.
Yet it was only in June 2002–the point at which NBC, the Wall Street Journal, and Slate essentially picked up the story–that the U.S. government drew up plans for an assault on Ansar. Still, taking military action was nowhere near as easy as the critics now claim.
For starters, there would have been no point in bombing Khurmal (“Kirma,” as NBC inaccurately called it), for the simple reason that Ansar was not based there. Ansar was in Biyara, some miles higher up in the mountains, close to the Iranian border.
Khurmal matters because it controls the only proper road into Biyara. Before March 2003, Khurmal was occupied by a small Islamist party, Ali Bapir’s Kurdistan Islamic Group, which pretended to mediate between the PUK and Ansar. Bapir is now in U.S. custody after captured documents revealed secret ties to Ansar. Colin Powell named Khurmal in his February 5, 2003, U.N. Security Council briefing for the simple reason that it is large enough to merit appearing on maps of the area.
What critics like Daniel Benjamin–who writes of northeastern Iraq as “a relatively ‘permissive’ environment”–miss is that U.S. military action against Ansar during 2002 would have been diplomatically tricky. The U.S. military plan could not be implemented without foreign approval–in this case, permission from Turkey. U.S. bombers and missiles had to cross Turkish airspace; Syria and Iran were hardly likely to help. Yet Turkey was skeptical of a Zarqawi-bin Laden connection, and was publicly unhappy at the prospect of any U.S. military action. Indeed, when CIA officers finally visited northern Iraq in July 2002, they were accompanied by Turkish intelligence operatives who stuck to them like glue–when they were not watching pornographic videotapes, that is (according to Bob Woodward). Turkish permission for overflights was only granted on March 20, 2003.
Nor was there ever any guarantee that Zarqawi was actually in Biyara to be on the receiving end of a U.S. bomb or a Kurdish bullet. There were, however, hundreds of Kurdish civilians living under the brutal, Taliban-style rule of Ansar. Contrary to what Gen. John M. Keane (U.S. Army, retired)–the vice chief of staff in 2002–told the Wall Street Journal, the danger of hitting innocent civilians was not “minimal,” but considerable. Ansar’s headquarters were in Biyara, with one office in the main village mosque.
When U.S. and Kurdish forces launched a combined air and land offensive on March 28, 2003, following the outbreak of the war with Saddam, they inflicted heavy losses on Ansar. Some 100 U.S. special-operations troops, along with 6,000 Kurdish fighters, were able to storm the Ansar enclave because they had massive air support coming through Turkey. Many Ansar terrorists–perhaps 250 of the 700 to 800 then around Biyara–were killed; others were captured; some found refuge in Iran. As for Zarqawi, nobody actually knows for sure where he was, or where he had been.
Speaking a year after the liberation of Biyara, the young Muslim cleric in the village told me that the U.S. bombing was “something amazing” and had been “accurate to the centimeter.” He’s not complaining.
–Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has interviewed prisoners from Ansar al-Islam and has visited Biyara and Khurmal.