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Why Jordan Hunted Zarqawi By: Christopher Hitchens
Slate | Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I omitted an important element from my farewell to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in last week's Slate. This is the role played by Jordanian intelligence in the tracking and elimination of one of the Hashemite kingdom's most hardened and experienced enemies. In debates within al-Qaida, Zarqawi was known for his advocacy of concentration on "the near enemy"—regimes, such as Jordan—over the more remote, such as the United States. This was often a distinction without much difference. He took part in a foiled plot to blow up the Radisson and other hotels in Amman in 1999, and he directed the murder of the USAID official Laurence Foley in the same city just before the intervention in Iraq. Most striking of all, he took time off last November to send operatives out of Iraq to blow up three hotels in Amman, killing fifty-odd random civilians, including the members of a Palestinian wedding party.

The Jordanian authorities thus had excellent reasons of their own to follow Zarqawi, and the kingdom's Mukhabarat—or General Intelligence Department, which generally earns high marks for efficiency—had been trailing him ever since he left Jordanian soil for Afghanistan, and then Afghan soil for Iraq. It is from this source that we know that Zarqawi was in Baghdad at least as early as June 2002, almost a year before the invasion. Indeed, as the Senate intelligence committee report has confirmed, it was in that month that the G.I.D. contacted the Saddam Hussein regime to "inform" the Iraqis that this very dangerous fellow was on their territory. Given the absolute police-state condition of Iraq at that time, it is in any case impossible to believe that such a person was in town, so to speak, incognito. And remember that in 2002, even states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were at least ostensibly expelling known al-Qaida members from their turf or else arresting them. Only Saddam's Iraq—which did not reply to the Jordanian messages—was tolerating and encouraging the presence of men who were on the run from Afghanistan.

It is customary to dismiss evidence of this kind with a brisk and pseudo-knowing sneer about the "secular" nature of Saddam's regime and thus its presumed incompatibility with theocratic fanatics. Quite how this CIA-sponsored "analysis" has survived this long is beyond me. At least from the time of its conclusion of hostilities with Iran, Baghdad became a center of jihadist propaganda and sponsorship. Saddam himself started to be painted and photographed wearing the robes of an imam. He began a gigantic mosque-building program. He financed the suicide-murderers who worked against the more secular PLO. He sent money to the Muslim separatists in the Philippines. His closest regional ally was the theocracy in Sudan, which had been the host of Osama Bin Laden. (You can see a similar process at work with the other "secular" Baathist regime in Syria: It has long had very warm ties to the mullahs in Iran and to Hezbollah, and in its current and one hopes terminal phase, is forbidding all non-regime propaganda except the Islamist type.)

As we are gradually becoming aware, an enormous tranche of captured Iraqi government papers are very slowly being analyzed and translated. Currently housed in Qatar, this documentation can be reviewed thus far on the Pentagon's Foreign Military Studies Office website. Elements in the Bush administration are still highly reluctant to declassify and disclose much of this material, probably because it demonstrates yet again that our "intelligence" services knew less than nothing of what was happening in Iraq. But early yields have proved illuminating and will probably lead to a revision of the current complacent consensus, both on Saddam's WMD plans and on his extensive contact with the region's Islamic fanatics.

A suggestive new document from this trove has now been uncovered and analyzed by Ray Robison, a former staffer on David Kay's Iraq Survey Group. It details a meeting in Baghdad between Fazlur Rahman, a major Pakistani cleric and Taliban sympathizer, and Taha Yassin Ramadan, Saddam's vice president and chief party enforcer. Fazlur Rahman seeks and receives sympathy, brings a message of goodwill from Mullah Omar, and requests Iraqi help in mediating between the Taliban, Northern Alliance, and the Russians in Afghanistan. Though some of the conversation is opaque and hard to decipher, it clearly shows that a friendly informal contact existed between the two regimes. (Unconfirmed reports allege that Vice President Ramadan also met with Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Baghdad in 1998.)

For some reason, I have not recently been hearing that the war in Iraq is "a distraction from the fight against al-Qaida." Perhaps this mantra became harder to chant after Zarqawi went to all the trouble to certify his gang as "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" and to receive Bin Laden's official franchise. Then again, if one wanted to argue that al-Qaida would not be in Iraq if we were not, one had to confront the fact that Zarqawi was actually there first. And that while he was there, he could in theory have had a chat with Abdul Rahman Yasin, the man who mixed the chemicals for the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and then (released by the FBI) went straight to Baghdad. Or perhaps kicked back with Abu Abbas, organizer of the ocean liner hijacking that resulted in the murder of American Jew Leon Klinghoffer, who when arrested by the Italians had to be released because when on hijack duty he carried an Iraqi diplomatic passport. Failing that, what about chewing the fat with Abu Nidal, assassin of several PLO diplomats and mastermind of the mass slaughter at the Rome and Vienna airports? Yes, it's true that there are more foreign gangsters in Iraq today, but they are no longer living in government hospitality homes, and they are being killed at the rate of dozens every week. And, yes, it hasn't yet been shown that any of them—except of course Zarqawi and his friends—were ideologically linked to the events of Sept. 11. But the intervention in Afghanistan was to make up for that atrocity. The intervention in Iraq was partly designed to forestall the next attack. Now I'm told that it has only made the jihadists more angry. Should I try to think of a policy that would have made them less so?

Postscript: A note of cheer to all those readers who either attended the Solidarity With Denmark rally, or sent encouragement, or rallied round to buy Danish goods. I have today received a note from one of the Copenhagen editors who published the original cartoons, informing me that in the last quarter, Danish exports to the United States have increased by 17 percent and that, overall, the Danish economy has more than compensated for the results of the unjustified Muslim boycott. Let us keep this example in mind.


Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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