With an American-led invasion of Iraq now imminent, and maybe even underway by the time this article goes to print, we continue to hear the claim that there is no proof of a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. The critical reality, however, is that credible links have existed for quite some time. Short of an admission by the Iraqi government, there is at least a near-conclusive circumstantial case.
My goal here is to present some salient facts and push readers (particularly critics) to examine the matter. There is too much material out there to cover in a brief article.
It should be stressed from the outset that even if there were no links between Saddam and September 11, the Iraqi dictator’s removal is fully justified.
Nonetheless, evidence exists. It surfaced in the immediate days after September 11, as a number of news organizations reported that World Trace Center suicide bomber Mohammed Atta had traveled the globe meeting with Iraqi officials in the months prior to that dreadful day. This included a meeting in Prague in April 1991 with one of Saddam’s top intelligence officials – Colonel Muhammed Khalil Ibrahim al-Ani. On November 9, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman announced that Czech authorities believed that Atta and al-Ani met to discuss a terrorist operation, possibly the September 11 attack.
This was nothing compared to the bomb dropped a few days later by two high-level Iraqi defectors interviewed by the New York Times, the BBC, and PBS’s documentary series “Frontline.” One of the defectors was Sabah Khodada, a captain in the Iraqi army from 1982 to 1992. In the mid-1990s, he worked at a clandestine Iraqi terrorist training camp called Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. He described a super-sensitive center separated from the rest of the camp, under the direct control of Saddam himself. At that center, non-Iraqi terrorists were trained. These suicide fighters were of Saudi and Egyptian origin, mostly Saudi. They trained on an actual 707 commercial airplane. They learned how to hijack the aircraft without using guns – by brandishing simple knives and even utensils. They were trained on how to instill terror among passengers.
Khodada, who was also interviewed by the FBI, noted, “I think the American government should have pictures of this camp from the air.” He drew a map of the camp and its location. Space Imaging, which operates a civilian surveillance satellite, procured photographs from April 25, 2000. The imagery revealed pictures of not merely the camp but also the 707. The defector’s story checked out. The publication Aviation Week & Space Technology reported these facts in its January 7, 2002 issue.
Excerpts from Khodada’s gripping interview ran in newspapers around the world, including November 11 and 12 features in, respectively, Britain’s Guardian (“The Iraqi Connection”) and in the New York Times (“Defectors Cite Iraqi Training for Terrorism”). A transcript of his interview with “Frontline” is available at www.pbs.org . Recently, a syndicated radio talk show collected this material – which some of us have been screaming about for a year-and-a-half – and posted it on its website, equipped with all the proper links. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, it is finally getting mass circulation.
This is a small sample of the data that exists. I’ve merely noted the start of the story. Since then, far more has come out, including believable claims, first from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that Al-Qaeda operatives are being harbored in Iraq.
Some of the best work on Saddam’s Al-Qaeda connection has been done by Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Yorker, who has done exhaustive research, particularly his February 10, 2003 piece, “The Unknown.” From the New York Times op-ed page, William Safire has done impressive investigation. The New York Sun has done commendable work, as have reporter Bill Gertz in his book Breakdown and former NSC staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror.
Another significant piece of evidence is the about-face by our own intelligence and defense officials and Bush administration members. Initially, Powell, Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet all denied any Saddam-Osama nexus. They did so on-the-record. Eventually, they all changed their view. Their conversion came as evidence snowballed. They learned what they didn’t know before. This was also true for Bush himself.
Since then, these individuals — as well as other top administration members like National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz – have offered public statements asserting a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Powell presented evidence at the United Nations in February. That same week, Tenet made similar claims in congressional testimony. Bush leveled the allegation on national television on Monday night (March 17), not to mention in Cincinnati last year and on other occasions.
The final consensus decision to invade Iraq came after the facts piled up.
These links should not come as a surprise. Saddam has a pathological hatred for the United States, which he shares with Osama. Unlike Osama, he is not a rabid Islamic fundamentalist. Saddam’s secularism convinced many in the CIA, State Department, and policy community generally to think that Iraq and Al-Qaeda would not collaborate.
That thinking was foolish. Like the radical Islamic forces who sided with the United States in fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Saddam’s secular minions and Osama’s jihad warriors were united in their abhorrence of a common enemy – America. Both Saddam and Osama embrace suicide bombers. Just last year Saddam openly offered $25,000 to Palestinian families whose sons blow themselves up in the service of murdering Jews. It was simply a matter of time and opportunity before Iraq and Al-Qaeda joined ranks against Uncle Sam.
In retrospect, the first link between Saddam and September 11 came on September 12, when he stood out as the only world leader not to express condolences to the United States. Even the most roguish of the rogues did so, from Castro to Kaddafi.
Perhaps the ultimate verification yet awaits us. The impending U.S.-led invasion may liberate more than just long-suffering Iraqis. Don’t be surprised if we soon liberate the full story of Saddam’s connection to Al-Qaeda and September 11.