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Saddam, the ATM of Al Qaeda By: Christopher S. Carson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 15, 2004


The Report of the 9/11 Commission has been digested, and the news media outlets have seized upon it as confirmation of their view that al-Qaeda is a purely stateless entity that never had "operational links" with rogue states like Iraq. Somehow, goes the thrust of the Report, Osama bin Laden was for years able to finance, train, and supply an international terrorist corporation that had ongoing jihad operations in fifty countries - by himself, on no more than a $30 million personal fortune. Thirty million dollars is the budget of a small school district in Wisconsin, where I live.

But the 9/11 Commission didn't even bother to trace the money trails of terrorist finance that led to the catastrophe three years ago, calling the question "one of little practical significance."

As a criminal litigation attorney, I can say that who pays the bill is centrally important in every criminal conspiracy. American law makes no distinction between the crook who held up the bank, his friend who drove him to the bank, the lookout man, and the genius who paid for the ski masks.  They are all "parties to the crime" in legal parlance.

So the central question of our time becomes: Did Saddam Hussein help pay for 9/11, making him legally and morally as guilty as the hijackers themselves? As a lawyer, I think a good case can be made for this in a court of law, a convincing circumstantial case at the bare minimum. Unfortunately, the 9/11 Commission ignored it.

The Commission's report implicitly concedes that money is by its nature fungible. What you save from one funded terror project can now be spent for another terror project - a project that you might not have been able to afford otherwise.

It isn't as if bin Laden didn't need the money. As journalist Richard Miniter pointed out in his book Losing Bin Laden, "the most compelling reason for bin Laden to work with Iraq was money." Al Qaeda officials have repeatedly whined, while under interrogation, that cash was always a problem. Saddam, on the other hand, had over $11 billion to play with, from skimming billions off the lucrative UN "Oil-for-Food" scam operation.

1998 was the critical year. Chronology itself can sometimes, in today's trendy words, "connect the dots."

According to intelligence relayed in the famous Douglas Feith memo to Congress revealed by the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (now the Number 2 in the al-Qaeda hierarchy) paid a visit to Baghdad and immediately met with Iraqi Vice President Ramadan on February 3, 1998.  According to the Feith memo, "the [stated] goal of the visit was to arrange for the coordination between Iraq and bin Laden and establish camps in Falluja, Nasiriya, and Iraqi Kurdistan under the leadership of Abdul Aziz."

This visit went well - very well. Saddam's intelligence service in essence cut a check directly to Zawahiri, for $300,000. American officials learned of this payout by "a senior member" of Iraqi intelligence. An administration official later told Stephen Hayes that the payout is so credible as to be undisputed: "It's a lock," the official said. U.S. News and World Report broke the story, and to date no one has ever come forward to question the reality of this payment. But what did the good terrorist doctor do with Saddam's cash?

After he received Saddam's payout, Zawahiri immediately folded up his tent and irrevocably merged his organization with bin Laden's. "The merger was de facto complete by February 1998," the 9/11 Report states. Zawahiri most likely used it to fund the merger costs: to regularize the training and indoctrination of jihad recruits and to jump-start the new project initiatives of al-Qaeda. It is impossible to believe that Saddam, state gangster extraordinaire, would simply sign over a check to a known terrorist and be unaware of what his money was going for. In effect, this payment helped fund the new, merged al-Qaeda - and its new plots.

What was the big plot brewing in 1998? September 11, 2001. Bin Laden and Zawahiri knew they needed to kick their newly funded terrorist network off with a big public flourish. And so, less than three weeks after his new deputy's visit to Baghdad, on February 23, 1998, bin Laden issued his infamous public fatwa. The particular language had been in negotiation for some time, as part of the merger deal. 

In the language of the 9/11 Report:

The fatwa called for the murder of any American, anywhere on earth, as the "individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."

Dr. Zawahiri had always enjoyed the reception Saddam gave him. He had already met Saddam personally six years earlier, in 1992, to plot terror. But in 1998, within a month of Saddam's payout and Zawahiri's merger with bin Laden, Saddam suddenly started ramping up his collaboration with al-Qaeda. "In March 1998," the 9/11 Report states,

"After Bin Ladin's [Commission spelling] public fatwa against the United States, two al Qaeda members reportedly went to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence. In July, an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with Bin Ladin. Sources reported that one or perhaps both of these meetings were apparently arranged through Bin Ladin's Egyptian deputy, Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the Iraqis."

What were these meetings about? Were they just "getting to know you" sessions over hookahs and Turkish coffee between murderers? I submit that they were too numerous just for that: instead, they were about attacking America. No other enemy had Saddam's attention at this time.

In 1998, Saddam and bin Laden began, yes, collaborating their PR efforts with energy. On May 1, 1998, Iraq threatened "dire consequences" if the UN didn't pull out the UNSCOM teams, especially Scott Ritter, then the most aggressive inspector (until Saddam, in an amazing coup de main, successfully bribed him with $400,000 sometime later, as the Weekly Standard revealed).

One week later, bin Laden also threatened America with permanent jihad. "Throughout the summer," wrote Richard Miniter, "Iraq's and bin Laden's threatening statements moved in lockstep." This PR collaboration was testified about by Iraq expert Dr. Laurie Mylroie at the New York civil trial brought by 9/11 families and specifically referenced by Judge Harold Baer as being persuasive in his decision holding Iraq responsible for 9/11.

In the hot spring of 1998, the CIA sent a local asset over to the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. The man took a soil sample just outside the facility. At the safe house, his CIA handlers tested it for EMPTA, a precursor chemical only used for the deadly nerve gas VX. EMPTA has no commercial, innocent uses. The sample tested positive. It was not tested again, but four other lines of evidence connected the plant to al-Qaeda/Iraqi joint nerve gas production: 1) Jane's Intelligence Review had recently published minutes of an October 1996 meeting of Sudanese officials that referred to Osama bin Laden agreeing to finance a chemical weapons factory just outside Khartoum; 2) the al-Shifa plant manager, according to then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen, had recently "traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of the VX program" there; 3) the plant's registered owner, Salah Idiris, was later found to have a close relationship with Sheik Khalid bin Mahfouz, bin Laden's main fund-raiser/financier; and 4) the plant had recently been paid $199,000 by Saddam, ostensibly as part of the UN's infamous "Oil-for-Food" program. But oddly, there was no record of any "medicine" being delivered to Iraq in the eight months from the inking of the contract and the destruction of the plant by the United States. There was just the money from Saddam, and the nerve gas.

By the late summer of 1998, bin Laden succeeded in blowing up two American embassies in East Africa, killing 257 people. Twenty days after the embassy bombings, Uday Hussein published a rabid editorial anointing bin Laden as "an Arab and Islamic hero." President Clinton retaliated by hitting a bin Laden training camp in Afghanistan and by razing the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant with cruise missiles.

Ten days later, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan jetted to the Sudan to meet with Hassan al-Turabi and other top officials - and to express Saddam's sympathy for being hit by America.  Most of all, Vice President Ramadan wanted to extend to bin Laden's Sudanese contacts an offer of asylum in Iraq for bin Laden himself. Bin Laden, in what must have been his last satellite phone call, turned him down and stayed in Afghanistan.

In mid-December 1998, after Saddam again announced a full refusal to cooperate with the UNSCOM inspectors, President Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox to "degrade" (for a few days) Saddam's capacity for producing WMD in quantity. So in 1998, "Iraq was under intensifying U.S. pressure," the Report states. That's putting it mildly. Inspecting the wreckage of his newly JDAMed (Joint Direct Attack Munition, a "smart" weapon) Military Intelligence Headquarters, Saddam must have wanted his usual revenge, but he needed a way to keep his fingerprints off it and thus avoid more U.S. airstrikes.

One way to exact the proper revenge was to keep the money flowing to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Former Iraqi intelligence officer Abdul Rahman al-Shamari, now in a Kurdish jail, told Jonathan Schanzer of the Weekly Standard that he personally was an aid conduit to Ansar al-Islam on Saddam's orders. Ansar al-Islam is, of course, an al-Qaeda affiliate that was badly bombed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. We gave them money every month or two, Shamari recounted, noting that "on one occasion we gave them 10 million Swiss dinars [about $700,000]." Shamari's immediate boss was high-ranking Saddam loyalist and Mukhabarat officer Abu Wael. Saddam used Ansar al-Islam to make trouble in the pro-Western Kurdish north of Iraq, Shamari explained. Mullah Krekar, the spiritual head of Ansar al-Islam, while protected by the government of Norway, actually admitted to ABC News that Abu Wael "is an Arabic member of our shura, our leadership council also."

The small Philippine al-Qaeda affiliate Abu Sayyaf is known for kidnapping, bombing, ransoming and beheading Americans. It also received cash from Saddam, according to its leader, Hamsinaji Sali, to the tune of 1 million pesos each year since 2000. Further, the second secretary at the Iraqi Embassy in Manila, Hisham Hussein, was "outed" before the Iraq War as simultaneously being a Mukhabarat officer and the boss of an "established network" of al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, primarily Abu Sayyaf. What conceivable interest could Saddam Hussein have in Islamic terrorists half a world away from Iraq? There is only one answer: Abu Sayyaf was killing Americans.

And, of course, there was always Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi is to this day writing letters to Osama bin Laden begging for cash to fund his bombings of Iraqi and coalition targets inside Iraq. One of these was intercepted en route via courier and published by Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer on the Web site of the Coalition Provisional Authority. But Zarqawi didn't show up in Iraq out of a seething but justified sense of outrage over the U.S. occupation. Before the Iraq War, Zarqawi had his own camps in northern Iraq, where he made poisons. He was a ricin specialist, according to Colin Powell in his February 2003 address to the U.N. Security Council. There is no antidote to ricin poison and the result is always death to those exposed. 

One of these camps, searched by the Marines earlier this year, turned up a 7-pound block of pure, ready-to-use cyanide. Saddam had his own paid man working right under Zarqawi. When Zarqawi became ill in May of 2002, Saddam put him up in Baghdad's best hospital - used only by the loyalist elite - for two months. Zarqawi never saw the tab. From his bedside, with Saddam's approval, Zarqawi held court over perhaps 24 jihadis in his own group, which coordinated al-Qaeda travelers in and out of the country to places like Saudi Arabia. In case the world missed the point, Zarqawi and his group this week reportedly declared their solemn allegiance to Osama bin Laden and merged with al-Qaeda.

So, back in 1998, how could Saddam wreak a truly satisfying revenge against America? Things needed to come to a head. He sent the deputy head of the Iraqi Mukhabarat, Farouk Hijazi, on a secret mission through the high Hindu Kush mountains in wintry December 1998 to Kandahar to meet with bin Laden, according to the liberal British newspaper The Guardian. Was Hijazi carrying money with him? Unfortunately, the 9/11 Commission wasn't interested in asking. But one remarkable thing immediately happened: according to the 9/11 Report, bin Laden, now confident in the backing of Saddam's Iraq, and "apparently at [military chief] Muhammed Atef 's urging, finally decided to give al-Qaeda planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed the green light for the 9/11 operation," the Report states.

It seems reasonable to imagine that something tangible changed bin Laden's mind. Shouldn't the 9/11 Commission at least be interested in exploring whether or not it was the cold, hard cash from Saddam, brought personally by his intelligence operative, Farouk Hijazi? This money trail, if it exists, will lie in the file boxes of the Mukhabarat's archives.

Saddam used his Mukhabarat operative in Prague, Ahmed al-Ani, to keep tabs on the 9/11 project through its ringleader, Mohamed Atta. Saddam also employed Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, a lieutenant colonel in the Fedayeen Saddam, to babysit some of the 9/11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur at the major planning session in early January 2000. Puddles of ink have been spent on these two connections, particularly by Stephen Hayes in his book The Connection. The 9/11 Commission airily dismisses the Prague connection in a few sentences, and doesn't bother to mention the Shakir trip to Malaysia.

As September 11, 2001, loomed, Saddam could hardly conceal his anticipation. Two months before 9/11, the state-controlled Iraqi newspaper Al-Nasiriya carried a column headlined "America, An Obsession Called Osama Bin Ladin." In the piece, Ba'ath Party writer Naeem Abd Muhalhal predicted that bin Laden would attack the U.S. "with the seriousness of the Bedouin of the desert about the way he will try to bomb the Pentagon after he destroys the White House." Saddam's writer also insisted that bin Laden "will strike America on the arm that is already hurting [i.e., the economy] and that the U.S. "will curse the memory of Frank Sinatra every time he hears his songs" - an apparent reference to the Sinatra classic "New York, New York." Judge Baer relied in part on this too-clever-by-half article as he issued his decision holding Iraq liable for September 11.

A mere two weeks before the strike, Saddam put his entire military on high alert, expecting the United States to bomb him in response. Only a single news source, Con Coughlin of the British Daily Telegraph, reported this fact, which has never since been disputed. The American bombs would actually come more than a year and a half later, but in the meantime, Saddam and his sons waxed rhapsodic over the carnage of September 11. "America is reaping the thorns planted by its rulers in the world," Saddam gloated to Agence France-Presse. Uday Hussein exultantly proclaimed, "These were courageous operations carried out by young Arabs and Muslims!" according to quotes picked up by the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat.

I rest my case. If Saddam has a defense to it, no one has yet presented it.


Christopher S. Carson, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, is an attorney in private practice in Milwaukee. He holds a masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University.


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