“It is undisputed, and has been confirmed repeatedly in Iraqi government documents captured after the invasion, that Saddam had deep, longstanding, far-reaching relationships with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and its affiliates. It is undisputed that Saddam’s Iraq was a state based on terror, overseeing a coordinated program to support global jihadist terrorist organizations. Ansar al Islam, an al Qaeda-linked organization, operated training camps in northern Iraq before the invasion. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the future leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, funneled weapons and fighters into these camps, before the invasion, from his location in Baghdad. We also know, again confirmed in documents captured after the war, that Saddam provided funding, training, and other support to numerous terrorist organizations and individuals over decades, including to Ayman al Zawahiri, the man who leads al Qaeda today.”
–Former vice president Dick Cheney and former deputy assistant secretary of state Liz Cheney, writing in the July 21 edition of The Weekly Standard.
We became interested in this passage after our former colleague Warren Bass, now at The Wall Street Journal, tweeted that the 9/11 Commission report disputed that there was a “deep, longstanding, far-reaching” relationship between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
Bass, who had been on the commission staff, quoted from the 9/11 report: “The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common themes in both sides’ hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
Liz Cheney then responded to Bass, noting that “we have learned much more since then about the relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda based on Iraqi intelligence documents captured after the report came out.” She specifically cited a five-volume collection published by Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a think tank for national security agencies.
So does the new information support the Cheneys’ contention?
First, let’s note that the Cheneys never directly say that Iraq had any sort of operational control or connection to al Qaeda. Instead, they rely on a vague word—“relationship”—and a series of sweeping modifiers—“deep, longstanding, far-reaching.” Then they follow with four supporting sentences—one regarding Iraq’s support of global terrorist organizations, and three concerning organizations or individuals connected to al Qaeda. They twice say the information is “undisputed.”
In former CIA director George Tenet’s memoir, “In the Center of the Storm,” there is a chapter titled “No Authority, Direction or Control,” in which he details the CIA’s battles with Cheney’s office over the intelligence concerning connections between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Before the invasion of Iraq, the CIA also tangled with a Pentagon operation that provided its own (disputed by the CIA) assessment of the available intelligence.
At one point, Tenet warns President George W. Bush that Cheney was planning a speech on the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda that “goes way beyond what the intelligence shows.” (The speech was never given.)
The agency even has to fend off White House interference to publish a paper by top analysts showing three areas of concern regarding Iraq and al-Qaeda—safe haven, contacts and training–but in which “they could not translate this data into a relationship where the two entities had ever moved beyond seeking ways to take advantage of each other.”
After Iraq fell, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi documents fell into American hands. (Thousands of al-Qaeda documents also were obtained after the fall of the Taliban and the killing of Osama bin Laden but as far as we know, those documents have never demonstrated an Iraqi connection to al-Qaeda.) IDA, in its five-volume report, “Saddam and Terrorism,” highlighted some of the most important ones obtained in Iraq.
The report certainly makes for chilling reading, providing great detail on how Saddam nurtured relationships with terrorist groups, especially Palestinian ones, and how some of the overriding goals of Saddam and al-Qaeda overlapped at times. While one might quibble with the Cheneys’ use of the phrase “jihadist,” generally their second sentence is supported by these documents: “It is undisputed that Saddam’s Iraq was a state based on terror, overseeing a coordinated program to support global jihadist terrorist organizations.”
But the al Qaeda connection is much murkier, especially the claim that the relationship was “deep” and “longstanding” and “far-reaching.”
Indeed, the IDA analysis essentially confirms the CIA assessment that had so concerned Cheney’s office before the invasion. As the report’s abstract put it: “Because Saddam’s security organizations and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network operated with similar aims (at least in the short term), considerable overlap was inevitable when monitoring, contacting, financing, and training the same outside groups. This created both the appearance of and, in some ways, a ‘de facto’ link between the organizations. At times, these organizations would work together in pursuit of shared goals but still maintain their autonomy and independence because of innate caution and mutual distrust.”
In the executive summary, which an IDA spokesman said best reflected the report’s views, the report said they found “no ‘smoking gun’ (ie, direct connection) between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda….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.”
Meanwhile, the report also emphasizes the fact that competing long-term visions—al-Qaeda’s dream of an Islamic caliphate and Saddam’s hope of being a secular ruler of a united Arab nation—“made significant long-term compromise between them highly unlikely.” The report suggests the “indirect cooperation” was “somewhat analogous” to the Cali and Medellin drug cartels, in that the two organizations competed for a share of the illegal drug market but would cooperate in facilitating illicit trade. The report does not use the word “relationship” to describe the links between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
Now, let’s briefly look at the specific supporting statements offered by the Cheneys.
“Ansar al Islam, an al Qaeda-linked organization, operated training camps in northern Iraq before the invasion.”
Yes, Ansar al-Islam was in a corner of the Kurdish northern part of Iraq—but Saddam’s government had no control over the area before the war and was not a sponsor of the group, which viewed Saddam’s regime as an enemy. Saddam, however, may have tolerated Ansar’s presence in Iraqi territory because it fought against his Kurdish opponents.
The Cheneys point to a section in the 9/11 report that says “there are indications” of Iraqi tolerance of and potential assistance to Ansar al-Islam, but when the report was published The Washington Post noted that “recent U.S. military intelligence from Iraq, not cited in the commission’s report, has suggested that Ansar’s membership is distinct from al Qaeda’s.” That intelligence was later cited in a Senate Intelligence Committee report.
In other words, the Cheneys are relying on a section of the 9/11 report that has become out of date.
“Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the future leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, funneled weapons and fighters into these camps, before the invasion, from his location in Baghdad.”
This is a reference again to Ansar al-Islam; Zarqawi arrived in Baghad in May 2002 under an assumed name, supposedly to receive medical treatment, according to Tenet’s book. He emerged as a major figure after the war but there is no evidence of any regime dealings with Zarqawi; it is quite possible the Iraq government may not have even known he was on Iraqi soil. (Tenet says there was “apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government,” but as we noted, Ansar al-Islam was making life tough for the regime’s Kurdish enemies.) There is nothing in the post-war documents about him.
“We also know, again confirmed in documents captured after the war, that Saddam provided funding, training, and other support to numerous terrorist organizations and individuals over decades, including to Ayman al Zawahiri, the man who leads al Qaeda today.”
Here the Cheneys slip in a mention to Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda. The IDA report makes one reference to him: “Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al Qaeda (such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led at one time by bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri) or that generally shared al Qaeda’s stated goal and objectives.”
But there are only two documents that are published in the report that relate to Egyptian Islamic Jihad: Iraqi intelligence service memos, both from 1993, which make clear that Iraqi interest in doing business with the EIJ was focused on the objective of overthrowing the Mubarak regime in Egypt. “We [previously] agreed on a plan to carry out commando operations against the Egyptian regime,” one memo said. There is no evidence that such operation ever took place, however; indeed, the other document says Iraq asked the movement “to refrain from moving against Egypt” at the time.
The Cheneys also point to another section of the 9/11 report, regarding the 1988-1992 period: “The most important Egyptian in Bin Laden’s circle was a surgeon, Ayman al Zawahiri, who led a strong faction of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Many of his followers became important members in the new organization, and his own close ties with Bin Laden led many to think of him as the deputy head of al Qaeda. He would in fact become Bin Laden’s deputy some years later, when they merged their organizations [in 1998].”
So the Cheneys’ connection between al Qaeda and Iraq here rests on the assumption that before 1993, Zawahiri was actively involved in al-Qaeda’s overriding goals, and thus Iraq’s support of his organization should be regarded as de facto support of al-Qaeda. But that conclusion is disputed.
Fawaz Gerges, in the acclaimed 2005 book, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, notes that Zawahiri is barely mentioned in the 9/11 report, mainly in the footnotes; he criticizes the commission for relying too much on statements of a few “captured operatives” and for underplaying the major role Zawahiri would play as the chief ideologist of transnational jihad.
But Gerges concluded that Zawahiri’s ideology did not emerge until the late 1990s—after Iraq’s apparent aid to his Egypt-focused group:
“A closer look at his [Zawahiri's] rhetoric and action from the 1970s through the late 1990s shows clearly that the overthrow of the Egyptian government was the first strategic priority. More than any of his cohorts, Zawahiri was emphatic about the need to keep the fight focused on the near enemy and to avoid being distracted by external adventures, including helping the Palestinians. Like most jihadis, Zawahiri was bred on anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism, although the latter were not on his radar screen until the late 1990s. His words and deeds speak louder than his postmortem rationalization.”
In other words, the connection highlighted by the Cheneys is a bit facile–and also likely outdated.
Advocates of a connection also point to a statement made in court in 2000 by Ali Mohamed, an al-Qaeda operative: “In the early 1980s I became involved with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization. In the early 1990s, I was introduced to al Qaeda — al Qaeda is the organization headed by Osama bin Laden — through my involvement with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.”
But that does not automatically mean that Iraqi support for EIJ translated into support for al-Qaeda. Mohamed, in fact, describes how al Qaeda received support from Hezbollah and Iran; he does not mention Iraq.
Finally, Liz Cheney pointed to this statement from Thomas Kean, co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, at a news conference in 2004: “There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.”
The full context of his statement shows that he specifically referred to discussion about a possible sanctuary for al-Qaeda in Iraq (which did not happen) and suspicions of “chemical collaboration.” He added: “There were conversations that went on over a number of years, sometimes successful, sometimes unsuccessfully.” The other co-chairman, Lee Hamilton, echoed: “Conversations, yes, but nothing concrete.” Such “conversations” do not necessarily translate into “deep” or “far-reaching.”
In a statement, Liz Cheney responded: “If Glenn Kessler fails to report the multitude of evidence demonstrating the deep, longstanding and far-reaching ties between Saddam’s Iraq and al Qaeda, one can only conclude he is either biased or was absent the day they taught journalism in school.” (Update: Peter Huessy of the American Foreign Policy Council offered this critique of this column, published by the Gatestone Institute.)
The Pinocchio Test
Intelligence findings can be murky—and there is certainly linguistic ambiguity of words such as “links,” “ties,” or “relationship.” Do those words mean only conversations? Or do they mean something deeper, such as cooperation on similar broad, long-term goals?
After all, even adversaries can have a “relationship.”
In arguing that there is “undisputed” evidence of a “deep, longstanding and far-reaching” relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda, the Cheneys set a very high bar for themselves, though, as we noted, they carefully do not say there was operational collaboration. But upon close inspection, the documents they cite do not support that claim, nor do most of the supporting sentences that follow their bold assertion.
Yes, Saddam supported terrorist organizations when it served his interests. Yes, at times the short-term goals of Saddam and al-Qaeda overlapped. Yes, they even had a “relationship,” however one wants to define the term. But “deep, longstanding and far-reaching” are misleading terms to apply to that phrase.
We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios, but ultimately settled on Three. The Cheneys’ assertive and sweeping claims of certainty are not supported by the murky and often out-of-date evidence that they cite.
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