Orthodox opinion in the Democratic Party holds that there was never any real linkage between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Osama bin Laden, and the Bush administration either “exaggerated” or outright lied about such a connection during the build-up to war. This assumption has become pervasive on talk shows and editorial pages. Indeed, many Democrats and liberal pundits speak as if the Baathist-al Qaeda connection had been conclusively refuted.
For its part, the administration has generally shied away from offering specific evidence of ties since the regime fell in April. Opponents have interpreted this hesitance as a concession that there wasn’t any Saddam-al Qaeda relationship after all. They have also seized on the president’s recent statement that there are no indications Iraq was complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush was probably correct to separate Baghdad from Sept. 11 (though the Czech government still maintains that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague in April 2001). But the administration’s seeming timidity on the broader issue of pre-war links between Saddam and bin Laden is puzzling. To be sure, it is now indisputable that Baathist Iraq had some degree of contact with al Qaeda during much of the past 10 years. Those still not persuaded should consider all that’s emerged since the war began last March.
U.S. forces have apprehended Farouk Hijazi, the Iraqi spymaster and former ambassador to Turkey. Hijazi has confessed to meeting with top al Qaeda brass, under Saddam’s orders, in 1994 in Sudan—as had long been speculated by American intelligence. He will not admit to a much-rumored December 1998 summit with bin Laden in Kandahar, at which time he allegedly offered the Saudi exile refuge in Iraq.
The Kandahar meeting seems quite plausible, however, given other evidence that’s come to light. For one thing, bin Laden’s “official biographer,” Hamid Mir of al Jazeera, has made indirect reference to it. Harvard lecturer and terrorism specialist Jessica Stern, a former Clinton official, writes in Foreign Affairs that Mir claims to have “‘personal knowledge’ that [Hijazi] tried to contact bin Laden in Afghanistan as early as 1998.”
In addition, Iraqi intelligence documents uncovered last April by reporters for the Toronto Star and London’s Sunday Telegraph confirm that an al Qaeda envoy visited Baghdad in March 1998. The papers were found in the bombed-out headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam’s intelligence service. Using Liquid Paper, the Iraqis had tried to cover up all references in the documents to bin Laden; but by applying dried fluid journalists were able to reveal his name in three separate places.
One document, labeled “Top Secret and Urgent” and dated Feb. 19, 1998—the day after President Clinton gave a major Pentagon speech on the danger posed by Saddam—contains a letter outlining a proposed visit by a bin Laden operative to Iraq from Sudan. Baathist officials hoped the trip would allow them “to gain the knowledge of the message from bin Laden and to convey to his envoy an oral message from us to bin Laden.” And what would that “oral message” concern? According to the letter, it “would relate to the future of [Iraq’s] relationship with him, bin Laden,” and ideally lead to “a direct meeting with him.” The letter stresses that the regime “may find in this envoy a way to maintain contacts with bin Laden.” The other two documents verify that the unnamed al Qaeda member came to Baghdad in March 1998, and ended up staying for a week longer than expected.
As Mideast expert Mansoor Ijaz—who negotiated Sudan’s 1997 counterrorism offer to the Clinton administration—has noted, the Mukhabarat headquarters also yielded proof that the regime had funded Abu Sayyaf, al Qaeda’s regional affiliate in Southeast Asia, through its embassy in Manila. This matches up with reports by Philippine intelligence. Indeed, the Philippine government expelled Husham Hussain, deputy secretary of the Iraqi embassy, in February for terrorist connections. Phone records show that Hussain called two leading members of Abu Sayyaf directly before and directly after an Abu Sayyaf bombing in Zamboanga City in October 2002, which killed two Filipinos and a U.S. soldier.
The CIA, which has traditionally doubted the possibility of a Saddam-Osama alliance, is now much less skeptical about such collusion. Stephen Hayes reports in the Weekly Standard: “The CIA has confirmed, in interviews with detainees and informants it finds highly credible, that al Qaeda’s Number 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, met with Iraqi intelligence in Baghdad in 1992 and 1998. More disturbing, according to an administration official familiar with briefings the CIA has given President Bush, the Agency has ‘irrefutable evidence’ that the Iraqi regime paid Zawahiri $300,000 in 1998, around the time his Islamic Jihad was merging with al Qaeda.”
In addition to this new evidence about Zawahiri, a senior al Qaeda agent captured by Moroccan authorities in June 2002 has been identified as an officer in Saddam’s secret police. Abu Zubayr had worked in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, and later plotted to target U.S. and British ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. During interrogations, he has purportedly said that Iraq provided chemical weapons, and weapons training, to al Qaeda.
On the issue of WMD collaboration, we also have the startling testimony of ex-Navy secretary John Lehman. A member of Congress’s Sept. 11 commission, Lehman has been privy to classified intelligence on al Qaeda. “There is no doubt in my mind,” he told the commission in July, “that [Iraq] trained them in how to prepare and deliver anthrax and to use terror weapons.” It’s impossible to know, of course, just how strong the evidence to which Lehman referred might be. But if it’s as compelling and unassailable as he implies, one wonders when President Bush will deem the moment right to ask that it be declassified and made known to the American public.
The administration has, understandably, moved past justifying its decision to invade and on to articulating plans for winning the peace. But Bush would be mistaken not to respond firmly and definitively to critics who accuse him of fabricating pre-war Iraqi links to al Qaeda. This connection was crucial to his argument that toppling Saddam was part of the larger war on terror.
Rather than just vaguely stating that the Baathists and al Qaeda were allies, the president should specify the concrete evidence of their apparent relationship, a relationship borne of mutual enmity toward the United States and Israel. Those who wish to discredit the liberation of Iraq will invariably deny the linkage ever existed. Bush must not let their denials go unchallenged.
Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.