Case closed: America's liberation of Iraq removed an intolerable sponsor of Islamic terror.
The case for removing Saddam Hussein from power just got due to an unlikely source: Wikileaks. Newly-released files about detainees held in Guantanamo Bay identify two individuals who served as liaisons between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
A leaked file says that Jawad Jabber Sadkhan, an Iraqi intelligence officer who moved to Afghanistan in 1998, “admittedly forged official documents and reportedly provided liaison between the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq.” The government of Afghanistan at that time was the Taliban, which employed him as a vicious interrogator for its intelligence service. His driver said he was also close to Osama Bin Laden, who paid him before and after the 9/11 attacks. Another detainee revealed that Sadkhan would travel to Iraq through Iran to retrieve supplies for the Taliban. Sadkhan was not universally popular, as his superior, Abdul-Hadi al-Iraqi, warned Saif al-Adel in November 1998 that he was part of a group of Iraqis “involved in un-Islamic activities.” This accusation did not end the relationship.
According to another detainee named Abbas Habid Rumi al-Naely, Sadkhan was a member of one of Saddam Hussein’s top units tasked with assassinating political opponents. The U.S. government also identified al-Naely as a liaison between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al-Qaeda. He joined the Taliban in 1994 while living in Baghdad. One U.S. government memo shows he was accused of preparing attacks on the U.S. and British embassies in Pakistan in August 1998 with an Iraqi intelligence officer on the orders of Osama Bin Laden. Later memos did not include the charge.
The disclosures show that the Iraqi regime and Al-Qaeda were willing to maintain a relationship despite their political and theological differences. Critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom are right that no “operational” link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda was discovered, but they are wrong to dismiss the seriousness of the links that were. The Iraqi Perspectives Project, which reviewed over 600,000 captured Iraqi government documents, found that “Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al-Qaeda … or that generally shared al-Qaeda’s stated goals and objectives.” His regime was “willing to co-opt or support organizations it knew to be a part of al-Qaeda as long as the organization’s near-term goals supported Saddam’s long-term vision.”
The Duelfer Report’s conclusion that Iraq did not possess stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction when the invasion began overshadowed its other disturbing contents. It confirmed that Iraqi intelligence trained terrorists from around the Arab world at Salman Pak, a “counter-terrorism” training camp that housed a Boeing airliner to simulate hijackings. Iraqi defectors who were at the site noticed the similarities of the exercises to the 9/11 attacks. According to reporter Stephen Hayes, about 2,000 terrorists were trained every year since 1999 at three camps.
The report also unveiled spectacular acts of terrorism plotted by Saddam’s regime. One detainee revealed that the regime planned to use an unmanned aerial vehicle packed with C4 to assassinate Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Western Wall. Such vehicles were indeed being secretly produced and test flown. A regional war could have resulted if this plot went through.
Another member of Iraqi intelligence said that Iraqi intelligence “had a plan to produce and weaponize nitrogen mustard in rifle grenades and a plan to bottle sarin and sulfur mustard in perfume sprayer and medicine bottles which they would ship to the United States and Europe.” Notably, in 1998, the U.K. went on high alert after receiving credible intelligence that Iraq was planning to smuggle biological weapons into the country in the manner described by the detainee. He said it ultimately did not happen because of difficulties in acquiring the types of ingredients necessary to carry out the plan.
Other Iraqi documents expose the Saddam regime’s relationship with terrorism. It was holding meetings with members of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad as far back as 1990, when the two parties “agreed on a plan to move against the Egyptian government.” Another intelligence file from 1992 listed Osama Bin Laden as one of the “collaborators” that was “in good relationship with our section in Syria.” Others show that Iraq was seeking to recruit jihadists who fought in Afghanistan to attack the U.S. military in Somalia, raising questions about a possible Iraqi role in the ambush at Mogadishu.
It is also now known that in 1995, Osama Bin Laden asked Iraq to broadcast the sermons of a radical cleric. He also requested joint operations in Saudi Arabia against the U.S. military. High-level meetings were held throughout the 1990s, and a payment of $300,000 was made to Ayman al-Zawahiri in 1998. An Iraqi government document from 2001 discussed operations to overthrow the Saudi Royal Family using “martyrs.” It is quite possible Iraq had Al-Qaeda in mind for this objective, as a 2002 intelligence document discusses a forthcoming meeting with al-Zawahiri for a “revenge operation” against the Saudis.
Further investigation is needed into the case of Ahmed Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, an Iraqi who attended a pivotal meeting in January 2000 in Malaysia. Present at the gathering were top Al-Qaeda operatives, including two of the 9/11 hijackers, to plan the U.S.S. Cole bombing and the attacks of September 11, 2001. Azzawi worked as a “facilitator” for special guests at the airport, but it was the Iraqi embassy that determined his schedule and set him up with the job. His boss at the embassy was a member of Iraqi intelligence. Azzawi met one of the 9/11 hijackers at the airport, and they went to the Al-Qaeda meeting together.
The meetings ended on January 8. Azzawi returned to work for two days thereafter, and then disappeared. This strongly indicates that the purpose of his placement at the airport was to participate in this meeting. He was arrested six days after 9/11 in Qatar, where he was found with the contact information for top Al-Qaeda members including the brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He also had the contact information for the brother of Abdul Rahman Yasin, the bomb-maker for the 1993 World Trade Center attack, who was harbored in Iraq. Significantly, Azzawi was called in 1993 from the safehouse where that attack was planned. After his release from Qatar, Azzawi was detained in Jordan on the way to Iraq. He was interviewed by the CIA, which determined that he had been trained in how to resist interrogation. He was released in Jordan under pressure from the Iraqi government.
One point that is often missed in the debate over Saddam Hussein’s terror connections is the fact that his regime was the only one to not condemn the 9/11 attacks and the only one to publicly celebrate them. It would have been grossly negligent and irresponsible for the U.S. to not focus on removing a state sponsor of terrorism that honored the 9/11 attacks, trained terrorists to commit further attacks, had a track record that gave every indication of future aggression.
The legacy of the invasion of Iraq will be debated for quite some time, but this new information makes clear that it is a mistake to depict the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime as benign and tolerable.