“We shouldn’t have destabilized — Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Right? He was a bad guy. Really bad guy. But you know what, he did well. He killed terrorists. He did that so good.”
— Donald Trump, speech in North Carolina, July 5, 2016
“Saddam Hussein, who’s a bad guy and all of that, but he made a living off killing terrorists.”
— Trump, interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Feb. 14, 2016
“Whether you like Saddam Hussein or not, he used to kill terrorists. Now if you go to Iraq, it’s like the Harvard for terrorists.”
Trump has been using a version of this claim for a while (as shown above and as chronicled by Buzzfeed’s Brandon Wall here), but the real backlash came after Hillary Clinton’s campaign responded to Trump’s July 5, 2016 speech.
We went on yet another exercise of trying to figure out what Trump meant, with nothing but cricket noise from his campaign when we asked for an explanation, only to find information contradicting his claim.
Hussein’s regime was a long-standing supporter of international terrorism and was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In 2007, the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a think tank for national security agencies, published a five-volume report, “Saddam and Terrorism.” The report, compiled after hundreds of thousands of Iraqi documents became available after Iraq fell, highlighted relationships between Hussein’s regime and regional and global terrorism. The report details how Hussein nurtured relationships with terrorist groups, especially Palestinian ones. (We explored this issue in a 2014 fact-check.)
Among its major findings was that there was no direct connection between Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaeda — calling attention to the premise of one of George W. Bush administration’s justifications for invading Iraq. But the report found that at times, their short-term goals overlapped.
Ansar al-Islam, linked to al-Qaeda, established in 2001 in a corner of the Kurdish northern part of Iraq. Hussein’s government had no control over the area before the war and was not a sponsor of the group, which viewed Hussein’s regime as an enemy. But he may have tolerated Ansar’s presence in Iraqi territory because it fought against his Kurdish opponents, as we wrote previously.
Hussein dreamed of “being the secular ruler of a United Arab nation,” according to the IDA report, and in the 1990s, his regime fought internal religious extremist movements he viewed as a threat: “The Saddam regime was very concerned about the internal threat posed by various Islamist movements. Crackdowns, arrests, and monitoring of Islamic radical movements were common in Iraq.”
Yet the report also says that despite the outwardly secular regime, it found “common cause with terrorist groups who drew their inspiration from radical Islam. One could argue that keeping some of these extremist groups active outside of Iraq was a pragmatic defensive measure against them.”
Perhaps Hussein himself considered dissidents and co-conspirators against his regime as terrorists, said Stephen Biddle, George Washington University professor and international security expert. But prior to the invasion, Hussein had a pattern of supporting international terrorist groups that were active against his opponents, Biddle said.
“The implication in [Trump’s] statements is that Saddam routinely rounded up and killed large numbers of international terrorists intending to do mayhem in western countries, and there’s no evidence of that kind,” Biddle said.
The Associated Press noted that Hussein’s use of poisonous gas on Kurdish villages in response to rebellion in the late 1980 “underscored Saddam’s willingness to use any means to put down perceived opponents of any stripe, not just those he might have considered terrorists.”
Hussein effectively suppressed dissent but at the cost of brutal deaths of civilians, widely condemned as a violation of human rights. Notably, in the early 1990s, tens of thousands of people died during Hussein’s crackdown following the uprising by the Kurds and Shiites.
The AP wrote that in the uprisings, “groups carried out attacks that could fall under a broad definition of terrorism, and Saddam had many of the opponents killed. Some were linked to groups supported by the U.S., others to groups that Washington considered terrorist organizations.” But the international security experts we consulted noted these were popular uprisings, not actions by “terrorists.”
The Pinocchio Test
Hussein was no opponent of terrorists, certainly in the eyes of the West. Perhaps Trump is referring to Hussein’s fight against internal religious extremist movements that he viewed as a threat to his regime — a part of his overall suppression of dissent. But Trump’s description — that Hussein “killed terrorists,” and did it “so well” or was “so good” at it — is just not credible, especially given the overwhelming evidence of Hussein’s long-standing record of supporting (financially and operationally) international terrorist groups. We award Four Pinocchios.
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