Nine Years Later, Remembering the Saddam-Bin Laden Connection

by N. M. GUARIGLIA April 12, 2012

In 2003, it took U.S. forces only three weeks to capture Baghdad.  The ensuing Iraq insurgency and sectarian violence would last more than eight years, with the official conclusion of Gulf War II coming on December 15, 2011.  In retrospect, historians can now weigh the pros and cons of our decision to intervene in Iraq.  An abundance of tactical, operational, and strategic mistakes were committed that made the war longer and far costlier than initially anticipated.  These mistakes are clearer to see with the benefit of hindsight.

Reasonable minds can disagree on whether the war was worth it.  But we are doing a disservice to history if we allow the conventional wisdom of the present to supplant objective analysis.  For instance, there is a common myth regarding Saddam Hussein: that his regime did not work with Islamic terrorists.  This myth proffers the notion that our Middle Eastern adversaries are resistant to reconciling their differences and would allow ideological rivalries to prevent them from cooperating with one another in their violent efforts against the West. 

There are two subcomponents to this idea.  The first is: Sunni fundamentalists would not work with Shi'ite fundamentalists.  This is false, as we see with Iran and al-Qaeda, Iran and Hamas, Iran and Sudan, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, and so forth.  The second: "secular" Arab dictators (Ba'athists like Saddam) would not work with Islamist fundamentalists like al-Qaeda.  This, too, is false.  These misconceptions are propagated by the media and politicians, even espoused as fact by misguided members of the U.S. intelligence community. 

Someone should put a stop to this-not to re-litigate the justification for the war, but to ensure that the full extent of Saddam's crimes are not white-washed from history.  Dead tyrants shouldn't be afforded such leniency.

The intelligence failures pertaining to Saddam's weapons programs helped create the popular perception that all of the prewar intelligence on Iraq was wrong-including intelligence tying Saddam to al-Qaeda.  In the wake of the 9/11 Commission Report in 2004, the national media enshrined this view as irrefutable: "Saddam Hussein's government had no connection to al-Qaeda."

But this was a misreading of the Commission's findings.  The Commission claimed to have "seen no evidence... [of] a collaborative operational relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaeda (pp. 66).  This is to say, there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden ever conspired on a specific operation, on a specific date, at a specific location.

It should be noted that al-Qaeda, though often the recipient of both overt and covert state sponsorship (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan), has never been known to seek a state patron with which it would collaborate operationally in the manner suggested by the 9/11 Commission.  So this ought to have come as no surprise.  Indeed, the very premise behind the "preventative" Iraq intervention was to prevent such collaboration.

Additionally, it should be noted that the lack of a proven "collaborative" relationship between Saddam and al-Qaeda never precluded the existence of a cooperative strategic partnership between the two.  In September 2003, six months into the Second Gulf War, the United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) tasked the Joint Advanced Warfighting Program (JAWP) to translate more than 600,000 captured documents found throughout Iraq (along with hours of audio and video footage).  This intelligence was archived in a Pentagon database called Harmony.  The study was conducted by JAWP at the Institute for Defense Analysis, and was titled the Iraqi Perspectives Project

As of August 2006, just 15 percent of the documents had been translated.  These initial translations, though preliminary, reveal an extensive partnership between Saddam's Ba'athist regime and Osama bin Laden's global network.  The Harmony documents show a long stretch of contacts between Saddam and al-Qaeda operatives, offers of safe haven, requests for asylum, and a broad relationship between Saddam and al-Qaeda's affiliates all over the world. 

While the claim could be made that these international affiliates are "not really al-Qaeda," the intelligence contained in Harmony suggests just the opposite: 1) the al-Qaeda affiliates are not only direct surrogates of al-Qaeda central, they are also of like-mind-thereby proving Ba'athists and Islamists would work together; and 2) the documents describe the partnership between Saddam and al-Qaeda central, dating back to the formation of al-Qaeda.  For example, Saddam Hussein offered Osama bin Laden himself safe haven in Iraq in 1999.  The al-Qaeda leader declined, judging his circumstances in Afghanistan to be more preferable than Iraq.

At the time, reports of Saddam's offer to bin Laden came as no surprise to U.S. intelligence.  The intelligence community rationally assumed the two would work in tandem if they each deemed it advantageous.  After all, years before Saddam's offer of asylum, it was bin Laden who reached out to Saddam.  Bin Laden was being sheltered in Sudan and Hassan al-Turabi, the Sudanese Islamist leader, brokered a non-aggression pact between the Iraqis and al-Qaeda.  Each side obliged.  According to the 9/11 Commission (pp. 61), in late 1994 or 1995, bin Laden met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Khartoum and requested safe haven and training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons.

While there is no evidence that Baghdad responded to this particular request, that the request was made speaks volumes.  It displays bin Laden's willingness to work with non-Wahhabi "heretics" as long as it helped his cause.  Meanwhile, Saddam's offer of asylum to bin Laden five years later proves Saddam's desirability to use Islamic terrorism as a tool of statecraft.  Only mere circumstance prevented an open Saddam-Osama alliance during the late 1990s.  The intent was there.  In an entirely plausible alternative history, the war in Afghanistan might have never occurred, as bin Laden's whereabouts in the aftermath of 9/11 would have been in Saddam's Iraq.  As concluded by the Institute for Defense Analysis:

During the 1990s, both Saddam and bin Laden wanted the West, particularly the United States, out of Muslim lands... Both wanted to create a single powerful state that would take its place as a global superpower... In pursuit of their own separate but surprisingly ‘parallel' visions, Saddam and bin Laden often found a common enemy in the United States... Common interests, even without common cause, increased the aggregate terror threat.

This excerpt exposes the mind of a tyrant and reminds Westerners never to "mirror-image."  Many of the reasons we assumed Saddam would not want to work with al-Qaeda were precisely the reasons he worked with them.  It was believed that a totalitarian Arab ruler obsessed with survival and control would not support uncontrollable terrorists.  But for Saddam, al-Qaeda's unpredictable behavior was all the more reason to keep them close.  As Michael Corleone of The Godfather series says, "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."  The rise of al-Qaeda, according to the documents, "gave Saddam the opportunity to make terrorism, one of the few tools remaining in [the] ‘coercion' toolbox, not only cost-effective but a formal instrument of state power."  In other words, Saddam knew the U.S. did not want him to work with al-Qaeda-so that is why he worked with al-Qaeda.  It's as simple as that.

There was ample evidence for U.S. intelligence to come to this conclusion.  For decades, Saddam sheltered some of the world's most wanted terrorists, using them as personal mercenaries for his regime.  Abu Abbas of the Palestinian Liberation Front, the man who wheeled the disabled American Leon Klinghoffer overboard the Achille Lauro, was long sheltered by Saddam and eventually captured by U.S. forces in Baghdad.  Abdul Rahman Yasin, the man who mixed the chemicals for the original World Trade Center bombing in 1993, was sheltered by Saddam.  For years, Saddam subsidized the families of Hamas suicide bombers.  In fact, Saddam's own intelligence service, the IIS, had conducted terrorist and sabotage operations throughout the world-including an attempt on the life of former President George H. W. Bush (prompting President Clinton to launch 24 cruise missiles at IIS headquarters in 1993).

The infamous Abu Nidal, whose namesake organization killed over 900 civilians in more than 20 countries, was also sheltered by Saddam.  That was until Saddam ordered Nidal's murder in 2002.  Saddam feared that the U.S. would buy Nidal's loyalties during the looming invasion, bribing his operatives into conducting sabotage attacks against the crumbling regime.  Saddam's paranoia was legendary.  His unending distrust of allies-including his inner-circle; including his own sons-should have discredited all pop-psychological assessments that contended Saddam would not work with al-Qaeda because "he did not trust them."  Saddam didn't trust anyone!  This fact never meant anything in regards to which allies Saddam would and would not align himself with.

The same case could be made for Osama bin Laden's inner-circle; the reason they were said to hate Saddam was their rationale for seeking his assistance.  During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, bin Laden's followers aimed to meet Saddam's army in battle in order to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi invasion.  However, as the years passed, and as al-Qaeda's rivalry with the Saudi royal family exacerbated, bin Laden's upper echelons within the Saudi-wing of al-Qaeda viewed Saddam not only as an ally against the West, but also as an ally against the Saudi royals.

The Egyptian-wing of al-Qaeda was also aligned with Saddam.  The Egyptian terrorist, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's longtime second-in-command and the current leader of al-Qaeda, was a beneficiary of Saddam's support throughout the 1990s.  According to the documents (pp. 17), Saddam was supporting Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the predecessor to al-Qaeda once led by Dr. Zawahiri.  An IIS memo dated March 18, 1993 describes the regime's views of EIJ and Saddam's intention to use Zawahiri's group as a proxy.  The memo reads: "In a meeting in the Sudan we agreed to renew our relations with the Islamic Jihad Organization in Egypt.  Our information on the group is as follows... Its goal is to apply Islamic shari'a law and establish Islamic rule... It is considered one of the most brutal Egyptian organizations... We have previously met with the organization's representative and we have agreed on a plan to carry out commando operations against the Egyptian regime" (pp. 14).

The Harmony documents reveal Saddam's willingness to co-opt or support organizations he knew to be a part of al-Qaeda-so long as their short-term objectives coincided with his long-term goal of regional domination.  Iraq had trained tens of thousands of non-Iraqi jihadists in terror camps based throughout western Iraq.  Of these fighters were members of the Sudanese Islamic Army and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the Algerian branch of al-Qaeda

The year prior to his removal from power, Saddam hosted at least thirteen known conferences for regional terrorist organizations, and had issued hundreds of passports for known operatives (pp. 19).  The regime sought to use a previously unknown terrorist network based in Jordan for "armed jihad against the Americans and Western interests" (pp. 14), and was offering "financial and moral support" to al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq (pp. 23).

This Kurdish group was Ansar al-Islam.  For a time, Ansar al-Islam was thought to have been opposed to Saddam.  But this, too, was a misconception based on two erroneous assumptions: 1) that Saddam was unable to support a proxy group in Kurdish Iraq due to the region's autonomy and the U.S. enforcement of the no-fly zone; and 2) that hostilities between the Kurdish Islamists and Saddam would make cooperation unlikely.  The former assumption never made much sense.  While Kurdish Iraq was not within Saddam's "control," neither were various foreign countries within which Saddam managed to support terrorists.  The latter assumption was incorrect in the aftermath of the Sudanese-backed non-aggression pact between Saddam and al-Qaeda.  Ansar al-Islam had suffered military defeats at the hands of U.S.-allied Iraqi Kurds, Jalal Talabani (the current president of Iraq) and Massoud Barzani-both of whom Saddam wanted to assassinate.  As the 9/11 Commission states regarding Ansar al-Islam: "In 2001, with bin Laden's help they re-formed... There are indications that by then the Iraqi regime tolerated and may even have helped Ansar al-Islam against the common Kurdish enemy" (pp. 61).  Saddam and al-Qaeda were now supporting the same Islamist groups against a common enemy, the secular and democratic Iraqi Kurds.

The Harmony documents also reveal that Saddam was assisting, or seeking to assist, al-Qaeda proxies in countries we had not even foreseen, such as Bahrain and the Philippines.  In 2001, the Director for International Intelligence in Saddam's government ordered an operative in Bahrain to reach out to the Army of Muhammad, an al-Qaeda-linked group.  The operative replies that the Army of Muhammad is "under the wings of bin Laden... they received their directions from Yemen... their objectives are the same as bin Laden."  A later memorandum informs the Director of Iraqi Intelligence that the Army of Muhammad was seeking Saddam's assistance, and that the Bahraini terror cell "is an offshoot of bin Laden, but that their objectives are similar but with different names that can be a way of camouflaging the organization" (pp. 35).

The Philippines is perhaps the most interesting and underreported example of Saddam's alliance with al-Qaeda.  In 2002-just one year prior to his downfall and capture-Saddam was collaborating with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Filipino-wing of al-Qaeda founded by Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law.  Saddam was assisting ASG terrorists against U.S. Special Forces that had been sent to the Philippines to help indigenous Filipinos root out the ASG al-Qaedists from their jungle enclaves.

Sergeant First Class Mark Wayne Jackson was part of a covert 260-man U.S. Special Forces unit operating on Mindanao Island.  On October 2, 2002, SFC Jackson was frequenting a restaurant outside the gates of Camp Enrile Malagutay.  Moments later, an ASG operative disguised as a passerby motorcyclist detonated his vehicle.  The bomb, which contained nails for maximum damage, destroyed the front of the restaurant and nearby stores, killing SFC Jackson.

One week later, Mindanao police found an unexploded bomb on an elementary school playground.  The device was supposed to have been detonated by a cell phone, which was found at the scene of the crime.  The phone records aroused the interest of the police: the ASG operatives involved in both plots were in direct contact with Saddam's second secretary at the Iraqi embassy in Manila, a "diplomat" by the name of Hisham Hussein.  Saddam had been using his ambassador to funnel money and operational direction to the Filipino-wing of al-Qaeda since 2000.  The Iraqi ambassador was subsequently kicked out of the Philippines.  Andrea Domingo, the Filipino immigration commissioner at the time, stated that there was an "established network" between Saddam's intelligence assets and al-Qaeda in the Philippines.  This network operated under the auspices of the Iraqi embassy.

Some intelligence analysts believe this information is invalid solely because it runs contrary to their cognitive anchoring biases.  So much was wrong about Iraq-so many professional reputations tarnished-that a tendency prevailed to ignore or downplay new information.  But there is still yet a great deal of intelligence on Iraq waiting to be processed and deciphered.  The evidence proving Saddam's support for al-Qaeda groups in North Africa and Southeast Asia was found in just 15 percent of just six months' worth of data collected throughout post-Saddam Iraq.  Congruent studies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency's DOCEX Project, translated only 50,000 of some 2 million intelligence items found throughout the war zone.

 In 2006, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte acknowledged the intelligence community's inability to translate these files in a timely manner.  The solution was to release the files online for the public, hoping to create a "Wikipedia-effect" whereby Arabic speaking citizens could edit and translate the data over time.  The order-from-chaos principle was to apply; should someone mistranslate the data, someone else would eventually correct the error.  This was a witty and perspicacious utilization of open-source intelligence, but weeks into the project it was revealed that amongst these documents were detailed nuclear weapons blueprints.  As a result, DNI Negroponte subsequently ordered the documents be taken off the Internet.  Overlooked in all this is the fact that Iraq possessed detailed nuclear weapons blueprints.  But worse: an entire secret history of Saddam's thirty-year reign-of the Second Gulf War itself-is lost, perhaps forever.

This is unfortunate, as we may never know the full extent of the Ba'athist-jihadist alliance.  Of these mysteries, the relationship between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda chieftain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi-who would later go on to lead al-Qaeda in Iraq, spearheading the bulk of the insurgency-is most intriguing, and most murky.  The extent to which Zarqawi's head-lopping network of non-Iraqis incorporated into its ranks the overthrown Iraqi Ba'athists is also unknown.  In the deposition after his arrest, a high-ranking Iraqi military officer, Col. Moayad Ahmen Yassen, revealed that Saddam, as a fleeing fugitive, ordered his loyalists to fight alongside the insurrectionists.  This included Iraq's traditional enemies in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gorps.  As former CIA Director James Woolsey once said, our Middle Eastern adversaries are "analogues to three mafia families...  They do hate each other and they do kill each other from time to time, but they hate us a great deal more and they're perfectly willing and perfectly capable to assist one another."

Of all the many lessons learned in our difficult experience in Iraq, this is perhaps the most important moving forward.

Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is an essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.


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