The fall of Baghdad has produced new evidence to buttress the Bush administration’s prewar contention that Saddam Hussein’s regime and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda had a long history of contacts.
The most conclusive evidence comes in a highly detailed list of intelligence reports revealed last month in the Weekly Standard. Senior Iraqis were said to have traveled to Sudan in the mid-1990s to teach bin Laden’s operatives how to make sophisticated truck bombs.
Terrorists subsequently used such bombs to hit targets in Saudi Arabia and at two U.S. embassies in Africa.
The new intelligence reports are at odds with a June report by the United Nations’ terrorism committee, which said it had found no links between Iraq and al Qaeda.
President Bush justified, in part, toppling Saddam on the grounds he aided terror groups. Mr. Bush argued that a nexus between terrorists and a country such as Iraq that has produced and used weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could one day result in a catastrophic attack on America.
“We do have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared in September 2002 when he and Gen. Tommy Franks were making war plans.
A month later, CIA Director George J. Tenet sent a letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence saying new evidence of the al Qaeda-Saddam relationship was “evolving.”
He wrote: “We have solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade. … We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities.”
Soon after the war, the picture began to become clearer. The U.S. collected considerable evidence that Abu Musaab Zarqawi, a top al Qaeda planner who fled Afghanistan as the Taliban regime was ousted, moved in and out of Iraq and met with officials in Baghdad.
Saddam never moved against a huge al Qaeda presence on his own territory — the headquarters of Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq. This radical Kurdish group has ties to al Qaeda officials in Afghanistan. The U.S. smashed the camp in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Abu Abbas, the Palestinian terrorist wanted by the United States and Italy, lived a comfortable life in Baghdad under Saddam’s regime. Members of his gang took over the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and shot Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish American, and pushed him and his wheelchair overboard. U.S. commandos captured Abu Abbas shortly after Baghdad fell.
But the most detailed picture of the Baghdad-al Qaeda nexus comes in a letter, held as top secret, that was leaked to the Weekly Standard. The letter was signed by Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, and sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee in response to its questions.
Mr. Feith had testified before the Senate committee in closed session last July. The committee’s chairman and vice chairman, Sens. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, and John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, asked Mr. Feith to supply the intelligence reports on which his testimony was based.
Mr. Feith responded in September with the letter listing 50 intelligence reports from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.
The reports are from detained Iraqis and communications intercepts. According to the intelligence report, as revealed by the Weekly Standard, the letter states:
Between 1992 and 1995, Sudanese strongman Hassan al-Turabi set up a number of meetings between former Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) Deputy Director Faruq Hijazi and Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s closest adviser. Other IIS-al Qaeda meetings occurred in Pakistan. Sometimes, al Qaeda members would visit Baghdad.
Brig. Salim al-Ahmed, an IIS bomb maker, traveled to bin Laden’s farm in Sudan and gave instructions on how to build sophisticated explosives. He was observed at the farm in the fall of 1995 and again in July 1996, the year bin Laden left Sudan and established a new base in Afghanistan.
Mani abd-al-Rashid, IIS director, went to the farm to meet bin Laden during the same time period.
“The Iraqi intelligence chief and two other IIS officers met at bin Laden’s farm and discussed bin Laden’s request for IIS technical assistance in: a) making letter and parcel bombs; b) making bombs which could be placed on aircraft and detonated by changes in barometric pressure; and c) making false passport.”
Bin Laden asked that al-Ahmed, who is skilled in making car bombs, stay at the farm after al-Rashid departed.
Al-Zawahri traveled to Baghdad in February 1998 and met with one of Iraq’s vice presidents.
“The goal of the visit was to arrange for coordination between Iraq and bin Laden and establish camps in an-Nasiriyah and Iraqi Kurdistan under the leadership of Abdul Aziz,” the intelligence report states.
In late 1998, Iraq sent an intelligence official to Afghanistan to seek close ties with bin Laden and the ruling Taliban.
“The source reported that the Iraqi regime was trying to broaden its cooperation with al Qaeda.” A senior Iraqi intelligence official met with the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Thereafter, bin Laden hosted a series of meetings with Iraqi officials in Pakistan.
After the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, two al Qaeda operatives traveled to Iraq for training in chemical and biological weapons.
Much of the information in Mr. Feith’s letter was compiled by a special team he assembled in 2002. Their job was to study a decade of raw and confirmed intelligence on any ties between al Qaeda and Iraq, and put it in one report.
The team was disbanded in the fall of 2002 after the report was filed. Mr. Rumsfeld was briefed, as were other administration officials, including Mr. Tenet.
It was at this point that Mr. Tenet, Mr. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice began making stronger, more authoritative statements on the al Qaeda-Baghdad connection. Some of their statements are reflected in the recent Feith letter to the Senate committee.
“This is a story that is unfolding, and it is getting clear, and we’re learning more,” Miss Rice was quoted as saying. “We know that several of the detainees, in particular some high-ranking detainees, have said that Iraq provided some training to al Qaeda in chemical-weapons development.”