Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Thomas Joscelyn, an expert on the international terrorist network. Much of his research has focused on the role that nations such as Saddam's Iraq and the mullah's Iran have played in providing support, training and funding for terrorist entities such as al Qaeda, al Qaeda's affiliates, Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. He has written extensively about these connections for the Weekly Standard and in several other publications. Currently, he is organizing a research project to review and translate the millions of documents captured from the fallen Iraqi regime and the Taliban.
FP: Thomas Jocelyn, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Jocelyn: Thank you Jamie.
FP: Recently the government has decided to release millions of documents captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why are these documents being released now and why are they important?
Joscelyn: For the past several years, American forces have been collecting documents and other pieces of media from the fallen regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the Iraqi documents were authored by Saddam’s intelligence apparatus, the Mukhabarat (Iraqi Intelligence Service), while many of the documents captured in Afghanistan were authored by al Qaeda operatives or the Taliban. Despite the potentially significant intelligence value of these documents, the U.S. government has been rather lackadaisical in getting the documents translated and analyzed. To date, less than 5% of the documents have been reviewed. So, out of a total of 2 million documents, only about 100,000 documents (give or take) have been reviewed.
This woeful state of affairs came to the attention of Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard last year. Since then he has published numerous articles on what is known about the documents and called for their release. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, bloggers and others have joined in calling for the release of the documents as well. Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who is the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Senator Rick Santorum have carried the ball from there. Each has been pushing for the release of the documents. Finally, in February, President Bush told his staff to release the documents.
Since then, a small collection of documents has been released via the web. Why release these documents to the public now? Well, if the government isn’t going to take the time to look through them, then why not give researchers, the media, bloggers and the public a chance to review them?
The documents are important for a variety of reasons. They give us an unparalleled window into the Iraqi regime’s activities prior to the war. Saddam’s regime was extremely secretive and the truth is that we know little about what the regime was really doing. I think the documents can potentially shed light on Saddam’s Human Rights atrocities, connections to terrorism, what happened to Iraq’s WMD programs, Iraq’s gaming of the UN Oil-for-Food program as well as other issues.
FP: Do we have any idea what is in the Iraqi Intelligence documents regarding Saddam's ties to al Qaeda and global terrorism?
Joscelyn: Yes, we do. But first, a caveat. Since so few of the documents have been reviewed, it is difficult to say what the complete picture of Saddam’s activities will look like. We also know that a large number of documents and other pieces of media were destroyed as U.S. forces entered the country. Furthermore, the majority of the documents have not been authenticated. Great care should be exercised in analyzing these documents and we should always be wary of forgeries.
However, the Iraqi intelligence documents that have been authenticated by the U.S. intelligence community offer a startling view of Saddam’s ties to global terrorism, including al Qaeda.
One IIS document, in particular, has received significant attention. The document was apparently authored in early 1997 and summarizes a number of contacts between Iraqi Intelligence and Saudi oppositionist groups, including al Qaeda, during the mid 1990’s. The document says that in early 1995 bin Laden requested Iraqi assistance in two ways. First, bin Laden wanted Iraqi television to carry al Qaeda’s anti-Saudi propaganda. Saddam agreed. Second, bin Laden requested 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 second 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.” Thus, it appears that both sides saw value in working with each other. It is also worth noting that in the months following bin Laden’s request, al Qaeda was tied to a series of bombings in Saudi Arabia.
The same document also indicates that Iraq was in contact with Dr. Muhammad al-Massari, the head of the Committee for Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR). The CDLR is a known al Qaeda propaganda organ based in London. The document indicates that the IIS was seeking to “establish a nucleus of Saudi opposition in Iraq” and to “use our relationship with [al-Massari] to serve our intelligence goals.” The document also notes that Iraq was attempting to arrange a visit for the al Qaeda ideologue to Baghdad. Again, we can’t be certain what came of these contacts.
Just recently, however, al-Massari confirmed that Saddam had joined forces with al Qaeda prior to the war. Al-Massari says that Saddam established contact with the “Arab Afghans” who fled Afghanistan to northern Iraq in 2001 and that he funded their relocation to Iraq under the condition that they would not seek to undermine his regime. Upon their arrival, these al Qaeda terrorists were put in contact with Iraqi army personnel, who armed and funded them.
Obviously, this paints a very different picture of prewar Iraq than many would like to see.
Interestingly enough, the existence of this document was first reported by The New York Times in the summer of 2004, several weeks after the 9-11 Commission proclaimed that there was no operational relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda. For some reason, the Times decided to sit on the document while splashing the 9-11 Commission’s conclusion on the front page.
But that conclusion is now more tenuous than ever. Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator who served as a 9/11 commissioner, told Eli Lake of The New York Sun that the document is a “very significant set of facts.” While cautioning that it does not tie Saddam to the September 11 attack, Kerrey said that the document “does tie him into a circle that meant to damage the United States.”
That circle includes al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf, which was funded by bin Laden’s brother-in-law. One document, which has not yet been released to the public, indicates that Iraqi Intelligence also funded Abu Sayyaf. Steve Hayes first reported the existence of this document last month. The document includes a series of IIS memos from 2001 in which Saddam’s henchmen discuss funding the group, but consider withdrawing support after a string of high-profile kidnappings of westerners brought unwanted attention. But whatever concerns Iraqi Intelligence had appear to be short-lived. In 2003, one Abu Sayyaf leader openly admitted to the press that the Iraqis had been funding his group.
Still another document provides interesting insight into the workings of Saddam’s ultra-loyal Fedayeen martyrs. Uday Hussein, leader of the Fedayeen, authorized a wave of terror attacks in London, Iran, and “self-ruled” areas of Iraq (meaning Kurdish-controlled territory) in May 1999. The Fedayeen were ordered “to start planning from now on to perform special operations (assassinations/bombings).” One such operation was called “Blessed July.”
The document recounts explicit instructions for recruiting Fedayeen capable of carrying out these attacks. Martyrs are even reminded to use "death capsules" if "captured at the European fields"--an apparent order to commit suicide if caught. What ever came of the “Blessed July” operation or similar operations, if anything? We don’t know.
We do know, however, that the Fedayeen Saddam were trained alongside terrorists from throughout the Middle East. There are a number of unreleased documents that demonstrate that Saddam was training terrorists by the thousand. For example, a team of analysts working for the Joint Forces Command reviewed hundreds of Iraqi Intelligence documents and reported their findings in a report called the “Iraqi Perspectives Project, A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership.” Here is what they found in the documents:
Beginning in 1994, the Fedayeen Saddam opened its own paramilitary training camps for volunteers, graduating more than 7,200 "good men racing full with courage and enthusiasm" in the first year. Beginning in 1998, these camps began hosting "Arab volunteers from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, 'the Gulf,' and Syria." It is not clear from available evidence where all of these non-Iraqi volunteers who were "sacrificing for the cause" went to ply their newfound skills. Before the summer of 2002, most volunteers went home upon the completion of training. But these training camps were humming with frenzied activity in the months immediately prior to the war. As late as January 2003, the volunteers participated in a special training event called the "Heroes Attack." This training event was designed in part to prepare regional Fedayeen Saddam commands to "obstruct the enemy from achieving his goal and to support keeping peace and stability in the province."
Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor describe similar documents in their new book Cobra II. They say that in March 2003 Saddam called back many of the terrorists his forces had trained. Some of the documents, they write, “show that the Iraqi Ministry of Defense coordinated border crossings with Syria and provided billeting, pay, and allowances and armaments for the influx of Syrians, Palestinians, and other fighters.” Paul Bremer writes in his book, My Year in Iraq, that he too saw Iraqi Intelligence documents that showed Saddam was planning on coordinating an insurgency with various jihadists.
All of this should make anyone who wants to argue that Saddam had nothing to do with terrorism or al Qaeda pause. Instead, many current and former members of the U.S. intelligence community still contend that Saddam was disconnected from the global terrorist network.
FP: Why have so many in the U.S. intelligence community been unwilling to honestly investigate Saddam's ties to terrorism?
Joscelyn: This is an interesting question. Saddam had a long history of supporting terrorist groups of various stripes: Iranian and Syrian opposition groups, Palestinian groups, etc. During the first Gulf War, in fact, more than one thousand terrorists converged on Baghdad in a show of support for Saddam. (In this regard, there are many parallels between Saddam’s behavior in 1990 and 2003.) Saddam even attempted to use some of these terrorists in operations, all of which failed miserably, against the West.
After the first Gulf War, however, the U.S. intelligence community appears to have simply assumed that Iraq was no longer a serious player in international terrorism. Even though Saddam made it clear that he would support terrorists against the West when confronted, the U.S. intelligence community was not particularly worried about this possibility. Thus, according to the Senate Intelligence Report (July 2004), we learn that there “was no robust HUMINT [Human Intelligence] collection capability targeting Iraq’s links to terrorism until the Fall of 2002.” Up until then, “HUMINT collection was heavily dependant on a few foreign government services and there were no [redacted] sources inside Iraq reporting on strictly terrorism issues.”
Think about that. From the first Gulf War until 2002 the U.S. intelligence community was asleep at the wheel when it came to Iraq’s ties to terrorism. So, when evidence surfaces showing that the CIA and others may have missed some important developments during that time, it is quite natural for the bureaucrats who oversaw this mess to pretend as if that evidence doesn’t exist. Or, to pretend as if the evidence doesn’t mean anything. Or, to pretend as if they knew what Saddam and bin Laden were thinking and that they could never work together against a common foe.
For example, we are often told that ideology precluded significant cooperation between Saddam and al Qaeda. That is, al Qaeda resented Saddam’s secularism and Saddam feared the rise of al Qaeda’s brand of Islamism. Therefore, we are told, even though the two shared the same basic list of enemies (America, Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc.), ideological differences made sustained tactical cooperation impossible. But, this is an assumption. The U.S. intelligence community did not have significant HUMINT assets inside either the Iraqi regime or al Qaeda. So, how could they actually know what the two sides were thinking?
Now, think back to the first document we discussed above. What does that document tell us about what Saddam and bin Laden were thinking? It tells us that neither bin Laden nor Saddam was letting ideology preclude the possibility of working together, under certain circumstances. This doesn’t mean that we know exactly what came of all these reports, but at the very least we should be wary of the intelligence community’s simple-minded assumptions. There are countless other pieces of evidence like this, but many in the U.S. intelligence would, unfortunately, prefer to assume this evidence away.
Despite the U.S. intelligence community’s poor intelligence collection efforts, the CIA and others did collect evidence of a relationship. But this evidence came primarily from open sources and foreign governments.
FP: In fact, news that Saddam was working with al Qaeda is not really new, right? There was a time when the worldwide media reported on the relationship?
Joscelyn: This is true. Just two years prior to President Bush taking office, the connection between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda was a hot topic in the worldwide press.
The accounts started just after Operation Desert Fox was launched by the Clinton administration on December 16, 1998. Within days of the strike Saddam dispatched one of his top intelligence operatives, Faruq Hijazi, to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden and his top aides. A couple of days after the meeting with Hijazi, Bin Laden issued a public statement, which read (in part), “The British and the American people loudly declared their support for their leaders decision to attack Iraq. It is the duty of Muslims to confront, fight, and kill them.” Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two, issued similar threats earlier in the month.
The meeting, as well as bin Laden and Zawahiri’s threats, set off alarm bells around the world. Milan’s Corriere Della Sera first reported in late December that Saddam and bin Laden had “sealed a pact.” That account was quickly followed up by reports around the world. Media outlets – left and right of center - in the U.S., London, Moscow, and throughout the Arab world all reported the meeting.
But, that’s not all they reported. The meeting was viewed as just one more data point connecting Saddam and al Qaeda. Many of the press accounts discussed a long pattern of contacts, training, and other areas of potential cooperation. For example, an account in Newsweek openly worried about the possibility of an Iraqi “false flag” operation carried out by bin Laden’s operatives. ABC News aired a segment on the nightly news worried about the possibility of bin Laden getting access to Saddam’s WMD technology. One account coming out of Moscow reported, “Hundreds of ‘Afghan Arabs’ are undergoing sabotage training in Southern Iraq and are preparing for armed actions on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. They have declared as their goal a fight against the interests of the United States in the region.”
There are plenty of additional examples to choose from, but I think you get the point. While the press has had a hard time finding evidence of a relationship since 2002, this wasn’t the case in late 1998 and early 1999.
The Clinton administration was most certainly aware of all these reports. Less than two months after the meeting between Hijazi and bin Laden, Richard Clarke worried that Osama may “boogie to Baghdad” if the U.S. struck targets in Afghanistan. In fact, there were numerous reports that Saddam had offered bin Laden safe haven. Why would Saddam offer bin Laden safe haven if they were mortal enemies? Saddam was willing to offer bin Laden safe haven, but he wouldn’t work with al Qaeda on other endeavors?
Interestingly, we know that Clarke’s worries about bin Laden’s “boogie to Baghdad” were most certainly heightened by what the intelligence community was saying about Iraqi scientists equipping al Qaeda with VX nerve gas. While the CIA did not have good HUMINT inside Iraq or al Qaeda, the agency did find evidence of a relationship in Sudan and this evidence conflicts with the prevailing assumption that ideology precluded cooperation.
After al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, the Clinton administration destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan as part of America’s official retaliation. The destruction of the al-Shifa factory was instantly controversial. But the Clinton administration, and especially Richard Clarke, argued that al-Shifa was a front company for al Qaeda’s WMD procurement efforts. They also argued that the intelligence connecting Iraqi scientists to al Qaeda’s WMD efforts at al-Shifa was solid.
Many of the details surrounding al-Shifa remain murky. But, the CIA argued that there were several facilities similar to al-Shifa in Sudan and that Iraqi scientists were working at all of them. It appears that this was one of the rare occasions when the CIA actually put together multiple threads of intelligence from a variety of sources.
Here, the debate over Saddam’s ties to al Qaeda intersects with the controversy surrounding what happened to his WMD programs. Perhaps the Iraqi intelligence documents can shed light on this controversy as well.
FP: Is there anything in the documents about Saddam's WMD programs?
Joscelyn: It is going to take some time to determine what the documents actually say about Saddam’s WMD programs. Even in the small number of documents released so far there are countless references to weapons of mass destruction. But, at first glance, that information is often confusing and contradictory. Putting this information together into a coherent picture will take much more work.
But, I think there are a number of ways in which the documents may be able to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of what happened to Saddam’s WMD programs. For example, we discussed the CIA’s intelligence connecting Iraqi chemical weapons experts to al Qaeda in Sudan. In fact, in every year from 1998 through 2002 the CIA reported to Congress that Iraqi WMD programs had taken root in Sudan. Yet, when you read the Iraqi Survey Group’s official report investigating Saddam’s WMD programs, there is not a single mention of Sudan. Not one.
Apparently, even though the CIA consistently said that Iraqi WMD scientists were working in Sudan, the CIA’s own Iraqi Survey Group never thought to investigate the claim. The documents may or may not fill in this gap.
There have also been a number of reports recently suggesting that Iraq may have moved stockpiles of weapons outside of the country. I don’t know if these reports are true or not, but it would be interesting to find out if there is any information in the documents that corroborates or refutes these accounts.
FP: Thomas Jocelyn thank you for joining us today.
Jocelyn: Thank you Jamie.