Links. Ties. Operational links. Sponsorship. These terms have vastly different meanings to different members of the media when they discuss relations between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the al-Qaeda network. This became clear yet again last week when news outlets reported on the Department of Defense-sponsored Iraqi Perspectives Project (all five volumes of which are now available here). The vast majority of news reports focused on a single sentence that was incorrectly taken to mean that no ties, links, relations or connections of any sort existed between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the al-Qaeda movement.
What exact word or phrase best describes the relations between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaeda, as well as other Islamic terror groups, is certainly debatable. What is not debatable, based on the Iraqi Perspectives Project, is that Saddam Hussein’s regime funded, trained, and assisted terrorist groups (including al-Qaeda proxies), and sometimes actually ordered them to attack American citizens, American interests, and American allies. To compound the danger, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was simultaneously using its intelligence and security apparatus to plot and conduct terror attacks of its own.
The most contentious issue regarding Saddam Hussein and terrorism may be the extent to which Saddam supported anti-American terrorist groups (as opposed to his more agreed-upon support for anti-Israeli groups), particularly Islamic terrorist groups. On this topic the report says that Saddam’s animosity towards the United States continued after the first Gulf War, so he reached out to and supported Islamic-fundamentalist and related terrorist organizations that also saw the U.S. as an enemy. Internal Iraqi documents reveal that Saddam’s regime knew it had to keep these relations top secret, due to the increased Western scrutiny that Islamic terrorism began receiving during the 1990s because of Iran’s open support for Hezbollah.
Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al-Qaeda (such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led at one time by bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri) or that generally shared al-Qaeda’s stated goals and objectives.
Captured documents reveal that the regime was willing to co-opt or support organizations it knew to be part of al-Qaeda — as long as that organization’s near-term goals supported Saddam’s long-term vision.
From 1991 through 2003 the Hussein regime “regarded inspiring, sponsoring, directing and executing acts of terrorism as an element of state power.” White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe commented to me that the report confirms that Saddam “had ties to regional terrorism” and that in a region where there was “no lack of terrorist groups willing to attack the U.S.,” it was not surprising to see who Saddam had been supporting.
The former regime’s stash of documents includes a list of some of the groups that were willing to commit these attacks on behalf of the Iraqi regime. The “Renewal and Jihad Organization” was one group willing to “carry out operations against American interests at any time.” The Egyptian Islamic Jihad (al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri’s group, which merged with Osama bin Laden’s terrorists to form al-Qaeda) is described in the report as having “agreed” on a plan for attacks against the Egyptian government. The Islamic Scholars Group in Pakistan is described by Iraqi officials as willing to “carry out any assignment we task them with.” Another Pakistani organization, which the report refers to as the Pakistan Scholars Group, is listed as not being “tasked with commando operations during the (Gulf) war,” possibly implying that the group was available to commit “operations” at Iraq’s beckoning. (For more on Saddam Hussein’s associations with Islamic groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ray Robison’s “Both in One Trench” is a must read.)
The report also reveals that in the late 1990s Saddam was willing to “support or co-opt” a group named “Army of Muhammad” that it knew to be loyal to Osama bin Laden. Iraq was aware that the group had plans to attack American military bases in Arab countries (a goal that Saddam’s regime shared) and American embassies (another shared goal). Internal Iraqi documents note that the group was seeking Iraqi assistance, though they do not mention what Iraq’s response was. Saddam was impressed with al-Qaeda attacks on American embassies and other targets, and his pattern of support for groups wishing to attack American interests suggests that refusing to grant the desired assistance to the Army of Muhammad would have been a deviation from normal behavior.
Another document lists an Islamic militant group in Afghanistan as dependent on Iraq for financing, and an Islamic group in Egypt as agreeing to make attacks in exchange for financing and training from Iraq. Saddam’s regime also provided supervision and oversight, as well as 30,000 rifles and 10,000 pistols, to help get a Sudanese terrorist training camp off the ground at a time when anti-American Islamic terror groups were prevalent in the country. According to the report, Saddam’s regime also maintained in-country training camps for all kinds of non-Iraqi groups, many of which were looking to destabilize America’s allies in the Middle East.
Other documents show that a Kurdish Islamic group received “financial and moral support” from Saddam’s regime and that the regime wanted to establish an organizational relationship with the group. This is probably the group referred to later in the report as conducting attacks against American and other U.N. humanitarian workers, as well as Kurdish officials and civilians, on behalf of the Iraqi regime.
A September 2001 document mentions Saddam’s efforts “make common cause” with a number of Islamic radical groups in Kuwait, including a Shiite group. Another document mentions a Sri Lankan group that volunteered to carry out suicide bombings on Saddam’s orders during the first Gulf war. Additional internal memos show Iraqi officials reporting to one another that Hamas was willing through the 1990s to conduct suicide attacks against Americans on behalf of Saddam’s Iraq. These memos also listed Abu Abbas, the notorious Palestinian terrorist, as another man willing to lead his forces for Saddam in attacks against Americans.
The sheer number and consistency of Saddam Hussein’s contacts and agreements with, and assistance for, terrorist groups show that these relationships were part of a larger pattern, as Saddam looked to expand his relations with anti-American Islamic militant and terror groups. The authors note that some of these groups took orders from Saddam’s regime to carry out attacks on American interests and allies.
A less contentious issue is the use of terrorism by arms of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and security branches. In 1993 Saddam ordered his men to “form a group to start hunting Americans present on Arab soil, especially Somalia.” This occurred within days of al-Qaeda’s decision to do the same thing. In 1990 terrorists acting on behalf of the Iraqi regime attempted to bomb an American ambassador’s home in Jakarta and an American Airlines office and the Japanese embassy in the Philippines.
The regime later showed a willingness to use suicide terrorism, possibly due to the limited effectiveness of previous anti-U.S. attacks. A late September 2001 document reveals that the Iraqi regime had been recruiting volunteers for suicide attacks. The authors state that training for suicide bombings became so routine that eventually a formal national policy and training schedule were adopted. Some of the regime’s willing “martyrs” were likely the topic of a document pertaining to plots in Saudi Arabia, for which these suicide bombers signed secret agreement forms affirming their commitment to Saddam. Plots described in additional documents (and possibly referring to the same plots) discussed blowing up buildings in Saudi Arabia (a country that did see terror attacks of this nature during the 1990s) and killing members of Kuwait’s royal family. Again, it should be noted that these terrorist attacks were to be committed at Saddam’s behest and to be done secretly.
The files continued to detail orders for “operatives (being) sent into countries around Iraq to attack American installations.” In these examples we have direct orders from Saddam to Iraqis and non-Iraqis to target and kill Americans.
The former regime’s documents also discuss a 1999/2001 plan called “Operation Basra Revenge” that would have used missiles, rockets, and later suicide attacks with speedboats to “destroy American and British naval vessels.” (This document was pointed out by the writer Scott Malensek.)
The report details the regime’s production of suicide vests, IEDs, and car bombs for plots that included targets in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Saddam’s embassies in these countries were warehouses for missile launchers, plastic explosives, TNT, Kalashnikovs, booby-trapped suitcases, and grenades. These tools were all available to a regime that had internal orders to attack American civilians, military members, bases, embassies, and ships.
All this capability would be meaningless, of course, if there were no intention of using it. The authors make clear that Saddam was willing to conduct anti-American terrorism, saying: “Evidence that was uncovered and analyzed attests to the existence of a terrorist capability and a willingness to use it until the day Saddam was forced to flee Baghdad by Coalition forces.”
Instead of squabbling over who is and isn’t a member of al-Qaeda and what the requirements of a “link” or “connection” are, this report details Saddam’s broad support for (and sometimes direction of) a multitude of terrorist groups targeting Americans and American allies. Based on the Iraqi Perspectives Project, Saddam’s Iraq did not just use terrorism against America and her allies but took advantage of “the rising fundamentalism in the region” as an “opportunity to make terrorism . . . a formal instrument of state power.” Because of Saddam’s removal, which came at considerable cost in American blood and gold, a “formal instrument” of state terrorism is no longer secretly plotting to kill Americans. The American public deserves to know what a threat was removed for that price.
– Mark Eichenlaub is the manager and editor of www.regimeofterror.com, a site dedicated to detailing Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism.