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The Myth of the Al-Qaeda Tie

Only America can create an Osama-Saddam alliance.

We should all be dead. At least, we all should be dead if the administration is correct about Saddam Hussein. In its view, there is nothing today that prevents Iraq from striking the U.S., the globe’s dominant power. Therefore, we must attack without delay.

As predicted by critics of war with Iraq, the latest Osama bin Laden tape uses the prospect of dead Iraqis to recruit for al-Qaeda. America’s “crusade war concerns the Muslim nation mainly, regardless of whether the socialist party and Saddam remain or go,” said bin Laden. Yet a gaggle of desperate administration officials claim that bin Laden’s call for terrorist attacks to defend the Iraqi people was evidence of his connection to Saddam—whom bin Laden denounced as one of several Arab “infidels” and “pagan regimes.”

Only slightly more defensible was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN Security Council. Yet he managed to prove only what we all already knew: Saddam Hussein has worked to develop weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Powell did not demonstrate that Baghdad would use any such weapons when doing so would threaten its own survival. He tried to prove a link between Baghdad and al-Qaeda, offering evidence that the eminently pragmatic secular dictator had made common cause with the suicidal religious fanatic. Alas, Secretary Powell failed to convince. Even the Economist, the British magazine eager to commit U.S. soldiers to battle, pronounced it “the weakest part of the case for war.”

Iraq has practiced terrorism against Iraqi defectors, and it has supported such terrorist groups as Hamas. Doing so is evil but does not target America. In fact, the world is full of terrorists. The most avid practitioners of suicide bombings were the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka before they recently agreed to a ceasefire. Support for such organizations—the Tamils have had extensive links to India—is awful but not a casus belli for America.

Which leaves al-Qaeda. The administration seems to have given up on the charge that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi official before the attack. Now it points to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom it links to al-Qaeda and who received medical treatment in Baghdad. There is also the Ansar al-Islam group, which is said to include al-Qaeda soldiers and has established a poisons training camp. Yet it is not clear how much credence to give to information gleaned from foreign detainees, who may have been tortured, or American captives, who could hope either to win favor with their interrogators or to provoke a new conflict with Islam, which would benefit their cause.

Al-Zarqawi’s ties to al-Qaeda are thin—it is not a rigid organization with a well-defined membership. German intelligence, which has extensively investigated al-Zarqawi’s al-Tawhid organization, says that the group is more like an affiliate, and one focused on the Palestinians and Jordan, not the U.S. An American intelligence analyst goes even further, arguing that al-Zarqawi “is outside bin Laden’s circle. He is not sworn al-Qaeda.” The alleged link to Baghdad is especially threadbare: in fact, he has worked more closely with Iran. He has also visited Lebanon and Syria and has been aided by a member of the royal family of Qatar. One German intelligence officer told the New York Times, “[A]s of yet we have seen no indication of a direct link between Zarqawi and Baghdad.”

Saddam may allow terrorists “freedom of movement and financial transfers, but [he is] not in any way directing things,” says Magnus Ranstorp of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Even CIA Director George Tenet acknowledges that al-Zarqawi is not “under the control” of Iraq.

Nor is there solid evidence of support by either Saddam or Osama bin Laden of Ansar al-Islam. In fact, the group asserts its desire to overthrow Saddam to impose an Islamic theocracy and is operating in territory no longer under Baghdad’s control because of America’s “no-fly zone” policy.

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports that the group is actually tied to Iran and located in Iraq because it “is perceived by them as a convenient place to work.” Robert Malley, Middle East Director of the International Crisis Group, agrees: “Ansar would appear to be more dependent on certain groups in Iran.” And since the organization is fighting Saddam’s enemy, Kurdish separatists, he has little reason to attempt to assert control.

In this he is not alone. Tenet acknowledges concern over “disturbing signs that al-Qaeda has established a presence” in Iran and “continues to find refuge in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

As for the alleged poisons lab, though Ha’aretz, like Secretary Powell, gives the allegation credence, even many Kurds say that they have not heard of it. Moreover, there is no evidence that Ansar al-Islam has ever conducted terrorism other than assassinations of Kurdish leaders.

Obviously, Saddam’s lack of involvement does not qualify him for a good citizenship award. But, as Daniel Benjamin, a former staff member of the National Security Council observes, Saddam “has remained true to the unwritten rules of state sponsorship of terror: never get involved with a group that cannot be controlled and never give a weapon of mass destruction to terrorists who might use it against you.”

It is one thing to make an arrest based on vaporous connections and dubious allegations. It is quite another to plunge into war, especially since the administration has brought enormous pressure to bear on intelligence agencies to prove a connection. Yet internal disagreements remain sharp, with the CIA and FBI particularly skeptical of the allegations. Of Secretary Powell’s claims, one intelligence official told the New York Times, “We just don’t think it’s there.”

So the Pentagon has asserted more control over Iraqi intelligence. “They are politicizing intelligence, no question about it,” worries Vincent M. Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism head at the CIA. “They are undertaking a campaign to get George Tenet fired because they can’t get him to say what they want on Iraq.”

The Blair government has not had any more luck than the Bush administration. Although he now speaks of connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda, in late January Prime Minister Tony Blair answered a simple “no” when asked if there was such a link. And while London’s famed dossier on Iraq has been discredited for plagiarizing dated magazine articles, the BBC reported on a recent British intelligence report that concludes, “any fledgling relationship foundered due to mistrust and incompatible ideology.”

Skepticism is appropriate. There have been a host of conspiratorial allegations seeking to tie Iraq to terrorism in the U.S. since Sept. 11. Moreover, the Mideast seems to bring out the worst in American propagandists. For instance, the first Gulf War saw false allegations of Iraqi baby-killing ginned up by the PR firm Hill & Knowlton and stories provided by Pentagon officials of Iraqi troops poised on the Saudi border. Alleged connections between Baghdad and al-Qaeda must be viewed as particularly suspect. “They are natural enemies,” observes Benjamin. CIA Director Tenet suggests that they have essentially made a non-aggression pact, but that just shows how far apart they were. It certainly does not mean that Saddam would risk his survival to turn the crown jewels of his weapons development programs over to Islamists committed to jihad.

When the president began his quest for war in earnest last October, he declared that Iraq could attack America or its allies “on any given day” with chemical or biological weapons. This would seem to be a fearsome prospect, as President Bush said in his State of the Union address that Baghdad had enough anthrax to kill “several million people,” enough botulinum toxin to kill another several million people, as well as a variety of chemical weapons that “could also kill untold thousands.”

But Saddam has not attacked.

So the administration has played another card. President Bush explained, “Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group.” But Saddam has not done so. At least, if he has, terrorists have not used their new tools. Or if they have, we have not noticed.

The obvious reason we are still alive is that Saddam wants to stay alive. He understands that to attack the world’s overwhelming power, either directly or indirectly, would trigger overwhelming retaliation that would annihilate his regime. However much he hates America, he does not want to die.

This is the same deterrence that forestalled a Soviet attack on America or Europe and restrained China from mounting assaults on Japan or Taiwan. Maybe deterrence is a second best policy. But it is better than war.

Alas, the administration is pursuing the one course that will eliminate deterrence. Attack Iraq, and Saddam has no incentive not to strike directly and hand off any remaining weapons to terrorists. Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, expects missile and terrorist attacks on the U.S. and Israel in the event of war. Similarly, notes Tenet, Saddam, facing defeat, “probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions.” Indeed, he might see helping Islamists use such weapons against the U.S. as “his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.” Perhaps providing medical treatment to al-Zarqawi was a means of keeping an option open should American bombs start raining down upon Bagdhad.

Saddam Hussein is an evil man; the world will be a better place once he dies or is removed from power. But he is not suicidal and will take no action that would guarantee his destruction. The best evidence that deterrence works is that we are alive today. Unfortunately, seeking to oust Saddam removes any leverage to prevent him from conducting the sort of attack that the administration claims to fear most, at a time when FBI Director Robert Mueller says that al-Qaeda “is clearly the most urgent threat to U.S. interests.” Contrary to the president’s rhetoric, attacking Iraq makes more, and more dangerous, terrorist attacks more likely. 


Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Reagan.



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