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Harboring al Qaeda By: Thomas Joscelyn
The Weekly Standard | Friday, June 13, 2008

THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE has once again released a report claiming that the Bush administration hyped prewar intelligence. The so-called Phase Two report is supposed to investigate the Bush administration's handling of prewar intelligence. In reality, the report is little more than yet another attempt by partisan Democrats to make political hay out of flawed prewar intelligence. (The only Republicans to endorse the report were two of the Senate's most liberal GOP members.) The committee focused exclusively on prewar statements by Bush administration officials, ignoring similar statements by leading Democrats. Therefore, the report is intended to portray the Bush administration in the worst possible light. But even with this bias, the committee came to a noteworthy conclusion: The Bush administration was right to claim that Saddam's regime was harboring al Qaeda members.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's report includes this conclusion at the end of a terse section on the Bush administration's claims about Saddam's prewar terror ties:

Statements that Iraq provided safe haven for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other al Qaeda-related terrorist members were substantiated by the intelligence assessments.

Intelligence assessments noted Zarqawi's presence in Iraq and his ability to travel and operate within the country. The intelligence community generally believed that Iraqi intelligence must have known about, and therefore at least tolerated, Zarqawi's presence in the country.

Regarding postwar information collected by the U.S. intelligence community, the report reads:

Postwar information supports prewar assessments and statements that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad and that al Qaeda was present in northern Iraq.

These conclusions should not be surprising. In his book At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet provided a number of details concerning the safe haven al Qaeda members received in Saddam's Iraq. For example, Tenet wrote that two of Ayman al-Zawahiri's top operatives, Thirwat Shihata and Yussef Dardiri, received safe haven in Baghdad. Tenet says that there was "concern that these two might be planning operations outside Iraq."

The first report on the uses of prewar intelligence published by the Senate Intelligence Committee in July 2004 also found that Zarqawi freely roamed around Iraq and Saddam's goons must have been aware of his presence. The authors of the Butler Report, the British government's investigation into prewar intelligence, found roughly the same. Even other al Qaeda members have, on occasion, been open about the relationship between Zarqawi, other al Qaeda operatives, and Saddam's regime in prewar Iraq.

Despite all of these findings, however, the myth that Zarqawi and other al Qaeda operatives lived in Saddam's neo-Stalinist state without receiving at least the dictator's tacit support has lived on. But now, even in a partisan report designed to attack the Bush administration's credibility, the Senate Intelligence Committee has admitted that Bush and his officials were right to argue that Saddam was harboring al Qaeda fugitives. Both prewar and postwar intelligence assessments confirm their view.

But no one should take the Senate Intelligence Committee's word one way or another on these issues. In fact, the only reason that we know the committee got the story of Saddam's safe haven for al Qaeda members right is because so many other sources have already confirmed it. And while the Senate Intelligence Committee got this issue right, it got many others wrong. The report is not even internally consistent and the committee simply ignored numerous pieces of information that got in the way of some of its conclusions.

One glaring illustration is the following baseless finding:

Iraq and al Qaeda did not have a cooperative relationship. Saddam Hussein was distrustful of al Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al Qaeda to provide material or operational support.

Here, the committee simply regurgitated an old storyline invented by some analysts within the CIA and other intelligence bureaucracies. The truth is that this was a prewar assumption that went untested and is contradicted by a variety of pieces of evidence discovered both in the prewar as well as postwar period. Some of this evidence is cited in the committee's own report!

For example, if Saddam was willing to harbor al Qaeda terrorists, as the committee itself admits was substantiated by "postwar information," then how can the committee claim that Saddam spurned all offers of cooperation and was entirely "distrustful" of al Qaeda members? Isn't giving safe haven to wanted terrorists--who, according to George Tenet, may have been plotting attacks around the world--evidence of a "cooperative relationship"? And if Saddam was willing to give al Qaeda members safe haven, how can the committee be sure that he wasn't willing to do more for them?

Indeed, the committee ignored the best evidence of Saddam's true attitude towards al Qaeda and other "Islamic extremists"--Iraqi intelligence documents discovered in postwar Iraq. For instance, the Institute for Defense Analyses published a study of captured Iraqi regime documents in November 2007. The IDA report's authors found that when it came to "attacking Western interests":

Captured documents reveal that the regime was willing to co-opt or support organizations it knew to be part of al Qaeda - as long as that organization's near-term goals supported Saddam's long-term vision.


Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al Qaeda (such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led at one time by bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri) or that generally shared al Qaeda's stated goals and objectives.

Documents cited in the IDA report show that Saddam had an agreement with Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman's Islamic group to cooperate in attacks against Hosni Mubarak's Egyptian regime in the early 1990s. Both of those terrorist groups have been core members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist joint venture. Other documents show that Saddam financed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who counterterrorism analyst Peter Bergen has called Osama bin Laden's "alter ego," and was willing to work with Hekmatyar's terrorists in attacking American forces in Somalia. Clearly, then, Saddam was willing at times to offer al Qaeda's terrorists more than just safe haven.

Another document from the mid-1990s, which was not cited in the IDA's analysis, relays Osama bin Laden's request for Iraqi assistance in performing "joint operations against the foreign forces in the land of Hijaz." That is, bin Laden wanted Iraq's assistance in attacking U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia. We do not know what, exactly, came of bin Laden's request. But the document indicates that Saddam's operatives "were left to develop the relationship and the cooperation between the two sides to see what other doors of cooperation and agreement open up." According to the regime's own documents, therefore, Saddam did not "[refuse] all requests from al Qaeda to provide material or operational support." Saddam was willing to leave the relationship open to see what avenues for cooperation between his intelligence operatives and al Qaeda's terrorists may open up.

There's more, of course, but the Senate Intelligence Committee managed to avoid any direct mention of such documents, which contradict some of its findings. The report is, therefore, hardly comprehensive. However, we can be certain of at least one thing: Saddam harbored al Qaeda terrorists.

Even the Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee now admit that.

Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Iran's Proxy War Against America (Claremont Institute).

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