Vol. 3, No. 29 July 26, 2004
The Bush administration never said that it went to war against Iraq in order to retaliate for the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. It did warn that Iraq could transfer its prohibited weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, especially to al-Qaeda.
Is there a real risk in the transfer of weapons of mass destruction from rogue states in the Middle East to terror groups? The resolution of this question will affect how the U.S. and its allies address other problematic states like Iran in the future. For example, Israeli military intelligence is warning that Iranian WMD are liable to be given to Hizballah. The credibility of warnings of this sort will be affected by the outcome of the U.S. debate.
What emerges from the intelligence presented in the 9/11 report is that Iraq had an ongoing and cooperative relationship with al-Qaeda that intensified after 2001. There were grounds for concern that if Iraq continued along the same path, expertise in weapons of mass destruction might have been provided to al-Qaeda. Indeed, British intelligence raised the possibility in March 2003 that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “sleeper cells” in Baghdad, on the eve of the Iraq War, might use biological and chemical agents in a future insurgency against U.S. troops.
David Kay, who headed the Iraq Survey Group looking for weapons of mass destruction, said in early 2004: “We know there were terrorist groups in state [Iraq] still seeking WMD capability. Iraq, although I found no weapons, had tremendous capabilities in this area. A marketplace phenomenon was about to occur, if it did not occur; sellers meeting buyers. And I think that would have been dangerous if the war had not intervened.”
The 9/11 Commission also examined the Saudi tie to terrorism, noting that it “does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant government sponsorship diverted funds to al-Qaeda.”
Is it necessary to produce a check signed by a senior Saudi official to an al-Qaeda operative in order to prove Saudi financial backing of the organization? Doesn’t the movement of funds to al-Qaeda from charities financed and monitored by the Saudi government raise serious questions about Riyadh’s past role in the growth of the new terrorism? Realistic expectations are necessary about the degree of proof that intelligence agencies can provide, if the war on terrorism is to succeed.
The most striking feature of the reporting on the work of the 9/11 Commission – as well as the earlier intelligence reports by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Butler Committee in the UK – is how every side in the debate over the war on terrorism feels vindicated.
Quoting from the 9/11 Commission, Philip Shenon of the New York Times wrote on July 25, 2004, regarding al-Qaeda/Iraqi links: “To date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship.”1 This essentially repeated an earlier story by Shenon previewing the Commission’s work on June 17, in which the New York Times featured a headline: “Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie.”2 Bush administration critic Richard A. Clarke repeated the “no collaborative relationship” line in a New York Times op-ed on July 25 as well.3
In complete contrast to this conclusion, Stephen F. Hayes, in the August 2, 2004, issue of the Weekly Standard, cites Thomas Kean, the Republican co-chairman of the Commission, who declared: “There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda.”4 Hayes also cites the Democratic co-chairman, Lee Hamilton, who sought to qualify the sweeping conclusions in the New York Times and other newspapers about there being no al-Qaeda/Iraq link: “We don’t have any evidence of a cooperative or collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein’s government and al-Qaeda with regard to the attacks on the United States.” Hamilton also states: “The vice president is saying, I think, that there were connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government. We don’t disagree with that.”5 Clearly, he does not rule out a collaborative relationship between the two beyond the question of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.
This has been the heart of the post-Iraq War debate. The Bush administration never said that it went to war against Iraq in order to retaliate for the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. It did warn that Iraq could transfer its prohibited weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups, especially to al-Qaeda. Critics of the Iraq War assert that no such link between the secular Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein and the Islamist al-Qaeda was possible. There is also a controversy that has been ongoing during the last two years over the extent to which Saudi Arabia funds terror groups like al-Qaeda.
These debates go beyond American domestic politics. They actually go to the heart of the future of the war on terror. Can secular regimes and rogue states in the Middle East back terror groups with a completely different ideological agenda? Is there a real risk in the transfer of weapons of mass destruction from these regimes to terror groups? For example, Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, the head of the research department of IDF Military Intelligence, warned the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on July 19, 2004, that Iran is liable to give Hizballah non-conventional weapons.6 Thus, the resolution of this debate will affect how the U.S. and its allies address other problematic states, like Iran, in the future. To address the divergent conclusions about the content of the 9/11 report, it is necessary to go beyond the headlines and look at the details of what was presented.
Iraq/al-Qaeda: From Contacts to Cooperation
The roots of al-Qaeda/Iraqi collaboration, according to the 9/11 Commission, date back to the early 1990s when the Sudanese political leader Hassan al-Turabi sought to create a confederation of anti-American groups that included Sunni Islamists like bin Laden, Arab nationalists, and even Shiites from Hizballah. Egyptian Nasserists, the PLO, and Hamas were also involved. The critical question when looking at the al-Qaeda/Iraq link was whether al-Turabi managed to only cause the two parties to probe one another through limited contacts or if something more institutionalized was created.
According to the 9/11 Commission: “Bin Laden was also willing to explore possibilities for cooperation with Iraq, even though Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, had never had an Islamist agenda.” This clearly went beyond “contacts” alone, for the 9/11 Commission states that “Turabi reportedly brokered an agreement that Bin Laden would stop supporting activities against Saddam.” This effective non-aggression pact was not a full-blown alliance, but it was more than just a secret discussion between adversaries.
The 9/11 Commission further states that bin Laden “apparently honored this pledge, at least for a time.” What constrained their mutual understanding was al-Qaeda’s backing of Kurdish Islamists who, in any case, were beyond the sphere of influence of Baghdad. However, even this limitation would be removed. The Kurdish Islamists reformed into a new organization in 2001 and created Ansar al-Islam. The 9/11 Commission explains that Saddam Hussein’s regime may have helped Ansar al-Islam against “the common Kurdish enemy” – the pro-American Kurdish groups in northern Iraq that had been under U.S.-UK coalition air cover since 1991.
Regardless of the Ansar al-Islam issue, there were repeated Iraqi/al-Qaeda contacts that persisted in the 1990s, according to the 9/11 Commission. In late 1994 or early 1995, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer met bin Laden in Khartoum. In March 1998, two al-Qaeda members went to Iraq for meetings with Iraqi intelligence. Four months later, an Iraqi delegation went to Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban and then with bin Laden. Within a year, Iraqi officials would offer bin Laden a safe haven in Iraq, according to the 9/11 Commission. This warming of the connection can be attributed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose Egyptian Islamic Jihad merged with al-Qaeda in 1998. U.S. intelligence disclosed by author Stephen Hayes reported that al-Zawahiri himself visited Baghdad and met with Iraq’s vice president on February 3, 1998.7
A real change in the relationship can be discerned after 2001, if the British and Senate intelligence reports are also examined. After the overthrow of the Taliban, a number of al-Qaeda refugees sought a safe haven in the Kurdish areas controlled by Ansar al-Islam, which, as noted above, was receiving help from Baghdad, even if it was geographically situated in a zone beyond the control of the Iraqi regime. The British Butler report details how British intelligence made it clear that “al-Qaeda-linked facilities in the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam area were involved in the production of chemical and biological agents.” Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke about this terrorist WMD facility before the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. While expressing doubts about other details in his speech, the Senate intelligence report backed up Powell on the details of what he said on terrorism.
The Butler report also explains that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom it described as “a senior al-Qaeda figure,” was free to travel throughout Iraq in 2002. By March 2003, the British noted that “al-Qaeda-associated terrorists continued to arrive in Baghdad.” According to intelligence in the Butler report, al-Zarqawi was establishing “sleeper cells in Baghdad” that were to be activated for a post-invasion insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq. British intelligence raised the possibility that, besides employing car bombs, these cells would use chemical or biological materials. Al-Qaeda, it reported, “has shown interest in gaining chemical and biological (CB) expertise from Iraq.” But the British did not know one way or the other if this expertise was actually provided. CIA Director George Tenet went one step further than the British. In September 2002 he told a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iraq had provided al-Qaeda with WMD training, noting that despite his suspicions about Islamic groups, Saddam Hussein was not averse “to enhancing bin Laden’s operational capabilities.”8
With hindsight, some questions stand out. Could al-Zarqawi move around Iraq without the knowledge and support of Iraqi security authorities? And could al-Zarqawi erect sleeper cells for a postwar insurgency in the heart of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, without coordinating his operation with Saddam Hussein’s regime? The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asserts that “the Iraqi regime ‘certainly’ had knowledge that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…was operating in Baghdad and northern Iraq.”9
What emerges from these intelligence details is that Iraq had an ongoing and cooperative relationship with al-Qaeda that intensified after 2001. The Butler Committee even added: “some reports also suggest that Iraq may have trained some al-Qaeda terrorists since 1998.” True, there is no persuasive evidence available to link Iraq to the 9/11 attacks. But there were grounds for concern that if Iraq continued along the same path, expertise in weapons of mass destruction might have been provided to al-Qaeda.
David Kay, who headed the Iraq Survey Group looking for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, announced in October 2003 that he had not yet found prohibited weaponry. However, in early 2004 he appeared on FOX Television and concluded: “We know there were terrorist groups in state [Iraq] still seeking WMD capability. Iraq, although I found no weapons, had tremendous capabilities in this area. A marketplace phenomenon was about to occur, if it did not occur; sellers meeting buyers. And I think that would have been dangerous if the war had not intervened.”10
The Senate report added another important element to this observation: “The Central Intelligence Agency’s judgment that Saddam Hussein, if sufficiently desperate, might employ terrorists with a global reach – al-Qaeda – to conduct terrorist attacks in the event of war, was reasonable. No information has emerged thus far to suggest that Saddam did try to employ al-Qaeda in conducting terrorist attacks.”
Saudi Backing of al-Qaeda
Another issue being examined as a result of the 9/11 Commission is the Saudi tie to terrorism. In mid-June, Qorvis Communications put out a press release on behalf of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia that led with the sentence: “The 9-11 Commission confirmed today that it has found no evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia funded al-Qaeda.”
Writing in the New York Times two days later, Douglas Jehl also reported that “the staff of the Sept. 11 commission has put forward what amounts to a major revision of a widely held perception in Washington that top Saudi officials gave money to al-Qaeda.”11 A New York Times editorial said on June 28: “The independent commission on 9/11 recently concluded that al-Qaeda got no financial support from Saudi Arabia’s government.”12 The “no evidence of Saudi funding of al-Qaeda” was subsequently carried by other leading U.S. newspapers.
This rendition is close, but not identical, to what appears in the 9/11 Commission report. It states: “Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al-Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution [emphasis added] or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” The report then adds a huge caveat: “This conclusion does not exclude the likelihood that charities with significant government sponsorship diverted funds to al-Qaeda.”
Elsewhere in the report, it explains that Saudi international relief agencies, like the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), are regulated by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs of the Saudi Arabian government. The ministry uses Saudi government funds to spread Wahhabi beliefs around the world through such agencies. The 9/11 Commission explains that these “Wahhabi-funded organizations” have been used to further the goal of “violent jihad against non-Muslims.” It mentions charity organizations like al-Haramain that employed al-Qaeda sympathizers. It also discloses that another charity, al-Wafa, “wittingly participated in funneling money to al-Qaeda.” The report confirms that “al-Qaeda found fertile fund-raising ground in Saudi Arabia.” It was noteworthy that the 9/11 Commission reported that Iran tried to strengthen relations with al-Qaeda after October 2000, “but was rebuffed because bin Laden did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia.”
It is wrong to conclude that the 9/11 Commission let Saudi Arabia off the hook. One of the classic arguments of Saudi apologists is that Osama bin Laden picked Saudis to be the largest component of the terrorist cell in the 9/11 attacks in order to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the Saudi government. The 9/11 Commission report contains details of a U.S. interrogation of Khallad Sheikh Muhammad (KSM), the mastermind of the attack. KSM explained “that Saudis comprised the largest portion of the pools of recruits in the al-Qaeda training camps.” According to his estimates, 70 percent of the trainees in any given camp were Saudi nationals. Saudis were easier to get past U.S. immigration, as well.
But clearly something was very wrong in the Saudi educational system that caused so many Saudis to become adherents to al-Qaeda’s anti-Western jihad. The 9/11 Commission asserts that many of the Saudis in the 9/11 attack were recruited by al-Qaeda inside of Saudi Arabia itself! Saudi sheikhs sent candidates to Afghanistan for training. One Saudi mosque is described in the report as a “terrorist factory.”
The debate over 9/11 intelligence ultimately involves a question of the degree of proof that observers expect in order to determine whether certain relationships exist. Do analysts expect a written “memorandum of understanding” between Iraq and al-Qaeda in order to establish that a cooperative relationship existed? Aren’t the provision of a safe haven to al-Qaeda and reports of Iraqi training of its operatives a sufficient source of concern?
Similarly, is it necessary to produce a check signed by a senior Saudi official to an al-Qaeda operative in order to prove Saudi financial backing of the organization? Doesn’t the movement of funds to al-Qaeda from charities financed and monitored by the Saudi government raise serious questions about Riyadh’s past role in the growth of the new terrorism?
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on the 9/11 Commission, Charles Hill, a former aide to Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, has aptly noted that “the demand for near-perfect certainty is a deeply entrenched delusion.”13 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a tightly-controlled totalitarian society with a strong domestic counter-intelligence arm. North Korea is probably very similar. Unless realistic expectations are established about the degree of proof that intelligence has to provide to the citizens of democracies, the war on terrorism will be difficult to pursue. Warning signs of future attacks may be ignored by agencies feeling insecure about the specificity of the evidence they have in hand, which is necessary to produce a change in policy or even a military response.
* * *
1. Philip Shenon, “Correcting the Record on Sept. 11, in Great Detail,” New York Times, 25 July 2004; http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/national/25PANE.html?hp.
2. Philip Shenon and Christopher Marquis, “Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie; Describes a Wider Plot for 9/11,” New York Times, 17 June 2004; http://www.heraldtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article? Date=20040617&Category=ZNYT02&ArtNo=406170800&SectionCat=&Template=printart.
3. Richard A. Clarke, “Honorable Commission, Toothless Report,” New York Times, 25 July 2004; http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/opinion/25clar.html.
4. Stephen F. Hayes, “Findings on Iraq and al-Qaeda in the Final Report of the 9/11 Commission,” Weekly Standard, 2 August 2004; http://weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/004/357lnryy.asp.
5. William Kristol, “Did al-Qaeda and Iraq have a ‘Collaborative Relationship’?” Weekly Standard, 26 July 2004; http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/004/327igxby.asp.
6. Gideon Alon, “MI Official: Iran May Give WMDs to Hizballah,” Ha’aretz, July 20, 2004; http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/453479.html.
7. Stephen F. Hayes, The Connection: How al-Qaeda’s Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).
8. Stephen F. Hayes, “The Missing Link: What the Senate Report Really Says About Iraq and al-Qaeda,” Weekly Standard, 26 July 2004; http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/004/339finwc.asp.
9. Daniel McKivergan, “9/11 Commission Confirms Iraq/al-Qaeda Ties,” Weekly Standard, 22 July 2004; http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/004/354tdeij.asp.
10. “Interview with David Kay,” FOX News Sunday, Feb. 1, 2004; http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,110091,00.html.
11. Douglas Jehl, “No Saudi Payment to Qaeda is Found,” New York Times, 18 June 2004; http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article6343.htm.
12. “Saudis in Terror’s Shadow,” Editorial, New York Times, 28 June 2004; http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/28/opinion/28MON1.html.
13. Charles Hill, “Commissionism,” Wall Street Journal, 23 July 2004.
* * *
Dore Gold is the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is the author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Regnery, 2003), and Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos (New York: Crown Forum, 2004).