June 28, 2004 | Op-ed

Saddam Hussein: Terror Master

Authored by Andrew Apostolou   

The well-researched initial findings of the 9/11 commission have been predictably misconstrued. The most common distortion is that the 9/11 commission established that there was no connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam's Iraq. The New York Times on June 17 wrote that “there was no link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. No serious intelligence analyst believed the connection existed.”

The New York Times is wrong. Rather, the 9/11 commission, along with the British and American governments, reported contacts between Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda, but no evidence of Iraqi responsibility for the 9/11 atrocity.

We know that there was a dialogue between al-Qaeda and Saddam's regime. What we do not know is the nature of the relationship, particularly before 9/11. Bin Laden  was initially hostile to Saddam. According to the 9/11 commission, he curbed his support for Saddam's opponents following pressure from the Sudanese government, which was then hosting him, a government that apparently facilitated a meeting between al-Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence.

We also know that Bin Laden took up Saddam's cause. In his February 23, 1998 fatwa declaring “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders”, bin Laden's primary grievance was supposed US and Western aggression against Iraq. Just days later, according to documents found by The Daily Telegraph in 2003, a meeting occurred between Iraqi intelligence and an al-Qaeda envoy in Baghdad.

Interrogations of captured Iraqi intelligence officers, and the exploitation of miles of Iraqi documents, may provide a better understanding of what was said in these meetings. To date, however, the Iraqis have not been forthcoming and little solid has emerged from the documents.

More interesting, however, were the post-9/11 connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda. It made no sense for Saddam to be involved in the 9/11 plot. UN sanctions were crumbling. He had successfully sent the UN inspectors packing. The new, weaker UN inspection regime was not operating. Saddam and his sons had subverted the UN Oil for Food program, turning it into a source of graft for their friends at home and abroad.

After 9/11, with bin Laden's men on the run, Iraq opened its doors to al Qaeda. It was no great leap for Saddam's agents to talk to al-Qaeda or for his hospitals in 2002 to treat Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an al-Qaeda linked terrorist. The ties forged after 9/11 were so good that to this day the remnants of Saddam's regime and al-Qaeda are jointly attacking US forces in Iraq.

The debate over who met whom in Prague has distracted attention from Saddam's record as a terror master. Indeed, when it came to terrorism, Saddam was a believer in diversity, that is the ideological diversity of his terrorist clients. His Arab nationalist regime supported Syrian Islamists, Kurdish nationalists from Turkey, the anti-Semitic Abu Nidal group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq of Iran (who blend Maoism and Islamism) and gave $25,000 to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. As Judith Yaphe, an experienced former CIA analyst, said to the 9/11 Commission “Iraq under Saddam was a major state sponsor of international terrorism.”

Saddam's support for terrorism was a violation of his international obligations. One demand of the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire, enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 687 was that Iraq “will not commit or support any act of international terrorism or allow any organization directed towards commission of such acts to operate within its territory and to condemn unequivocally and renounce all acts, methods and practices of terrorism.” This, Iraq failed to do.

On the basis of the available evidence, it is as wrong to claim that there was no connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda as it is to claim that Iraqi was involved in 9/11. Instead of focusing exclusively on Saddam's al-Qaeda ties, we should remember the greater terrorist threat that Saddam's Iraq posed.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has interviewed prisoners from Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliated group