- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

Al Qaeda terrorists fleeing Afghanistan are using Iraq as an escape route, and an unspecified number remain in Saddam Hussein's country while looking for new bases of operation.
Administration officials, citing intelligence reports, said there is insufficient evidence to confirm that the Iraqi dictator has created a safe zone for al Qaeda remnants. Neighboring Iran's hard-line Islamic regime has welcomed al Qaeda fighters to cross the border from Afghanistan and either remain in the country or move on.
Some analysts believe Saddam has to know, and that the presence of al Qaeda fighters in Iraq is one more argument for President Bush to order an invasion to topple the Iraqi leader. Mr. Bush has threatened Saddam with military action on the principal argument that his weapons of mass destruction will one day fall into the hands of terrorists.
"You cannot convince me Saddam does not know they are in Iraq," a senior administration official said. "It adds up to tacit complicity for Iraq and Iran to serve as safe havens for al Qaeda."
Two senior administration officials said recent intelligence reports show al Qaeda members who are Saudi citizens have crossed Iraq to return to their native country.
Since U.S.-led coalition forces routed Taliban leaders from Afghanistan in December, hundreds of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror army crossed the country's porous borders into Pakistan and Iran. The United States is not sure how many remain at large, although perhaps 10,000 passed through Afghanistan's terror-training camps.
There has been some anecdotal reporting of al Qaeda fighters in Iraq. The New Yorker magazine in March quoted captured members of a Muslim extremist guerrilla group as saying the Kurdish zone of Iraq was home to al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan. The group, Ansar al-Islam, controls parts of northern Iraq, which is protected from Saddam's forces by an allied-enforced no-fly zone.
There is no evidence that Saddam has played host to al Qaeda bases or training camps, officials said. But the Bush administration believes there are links between Iraq's government-dominated businesses and al Qaeda operatives. Iraq also deals with international terror groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which have ties to the al Qaeda network.
U.S. intelligence has not directly linked Baghdad to al Qaeda's September 11 attacks on the United States.
With the al Qaeda network largely evicted from Afghanistan and its training camps destroyed, U.S. intelligence agencies are tracking terrorists as they search for new bases. Intelligence reports say al Qaeda members have stayed in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, North Africa and South Asia. Some are trying to make it to the United States to carry out attacks, the reports say.
Israeli intelligence has told the Bush administration that it has strong evidence that al Qaeda members went through Iran and Iraq to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and teamed up with the radical Hezbollah.
In April, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters, "There is no question but that al Qaeda have moved into Iran and out of Iran to the south and dispersed to some other countries."
New worldwide security measures limit ways al Qaeda members can travel. Commercial airliners are off-limits, and ship transit is risky, given coalition searches of freighters leaving Pakistan. That leaves overland routes as the most likely way al Qaeda members are making their way to the Middle East and North Africa. When al Qaeda members have traveled by ship, they are believed to have hidden in huge cargo containers.
Saudi men arrested last week in Morocco on charges of planning to blow up U.S. and British ships had been in Afghanistan's Tora Bora area before anti-Taliban forces captured the mountainous region, administration officials said.
Somalia, once thought to be a potential hotbed of renewed al Qaeda activity, has remained inactive, the officials said.
"Al Qaeda is trying to figure out lessons from Afghanistan, and one lesson is not to set up new, big training camps that are too easily observed by satellite photographs and other things," one senior official said.
The official said analysts are troubled by a post-Afghanistan al Qaeda network that is able to disperse to different parts of the world and, as Morocco showed, start planning new attacks immediately.
"Obviously, it means al Qaeda is surviving," the official said.
Mr. Rumsfeld has mentioned Iraq as a state sponsor of terrorists.
"The problem I see, and it's a very serious one, is that there has been a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," he told Congress last month. "The terrorist networks have close linkages with terrorist states, the states that are on the worldwide known-terrorist list Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea."


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