How Close Were Iraq and Al-Qaeda?

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Just when you thought it would be safe to take advantage of those low fares, al-Qaeda's back to haunt air travelers with threats or (feints) of new hijackings. And this in the same week that the Bush Administration faces new questions over whether its war in Iraq diverted important resources from the battle against bin Laden.

But wait a minute. Wasn't this whole Iraq business simply another front in the war on al-Qaeda? That's become an increasingly common line of argument in the absence of weapons of mass destruction evidence 100 days after the fall of Saddam. To be fair to the Administration, one of their prime motivations for the urgency of invading Iraq was the claim that Saddam was in league with Osama bin Laden, and that he could at any moment share weapons with them that would dwarf the impact of 9/11.

And if the links between the two were a little vague, the Administration still had to act. "Intelligence about terrorism is murky", said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on Fox News last Sunday. He added, "I think the lesson of 9/11 is that, if you're not prepared to act on the basis of murky intelligence, then you're going to have to act after the fact. And after the fact now means after horrendous things have happened to this country."

The corollary, of course, would be that murky intelligence can just as easily prove to simply be wrong, as so much about Iraq has turned out to be — not only the specific weapons of mass destruction allegations that have failed to materialize, but also the assumptions about the war and the postwar.

The idea of an Iraq-al Qaeda link is certainly appealing to anyone making the case for going to war: Since 9/11, attacks by al Qaeda have ranked, and continue to rank foremost in the anxieties of America's collective psyche. And opinion surveys routinely find these days that a majority of Americans believe that the U.S. has found evidence of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link. More interesting, perhaps, is how the number of Americans suspecting an Iraq link to the events of 9/11 grew in the year following the attacks: Within days of the attacks, only 3 percent cited Iraq as a possible culprit. Yet, by January of this year, 44 percent were telling pollsters they believed Saddam was involved, and a similar number believed most or some of the hijackers were Iraqi nationals. (None were.)

The 9/11 congressional inquiry in the most comprehensive inquiry to date into the attacks makes no link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, except for a passing reference in the testimony of CIA director George Tenet to the possibility that hijacker Mohammed Atta may or may not have met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. Czech authorities had originally alerted the U.S. to such a possibility, but later withdrew the claim, which was always doubted by FBI officials who had information placing Atta in the U.S. on each of the days either side of the purported Prague encounter. Claims of an Atta meeting with an Iraqi agent were never considered sufficiently strong to include either in President Bush's State of the Union address or in Secretary of State Powell's UN testimony. And U.S. authorities are now in a position to definitively answer the question of just who the Iraqi agent met that day in Prague, since he's recently been detained in Iraq. But the claim of Iraqi involvement in the attack or with the organization responsible simply does not feature in the report.

So how is it that that Iraqi involvement has become part of the prevailing mythology of 9/11 for so many Americans? The answer may lie in part in a conscious campaign by early advocates of the Iraq invasion within the Bush Administration to link Saddam and al-Qaeda. Indeed, some 70 percent of Americans tell pollsters they believe the Administration implied an Iraq-al-Qaeda link. That campaign began within hours of the 9/11 attacks. Former NATO commander-in-chief General Wesley Clark told NBC last month that people in and around the White House had made a concerted push to link 9/11 to Iraq, and revealed that he'd been urged to make that link during his TV appearances. He asked for evidence to back such an assertion, but none was offered.

Clark's account squares with a CBS report last fall suggesting that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had urged his aides to begin making the case for striking Saddam as well as bin Laden within hours of the attacks. And media reports from the time suggested that by late September of 2001 Administration hawks were pressing for an attack on Iraq, while doves led by Secretary of State Powell were narrowing the focus to bin Laden and Afghanistan.

One reason so many hawks seemed ready to make the case for retaliating against Saddam as well as bin Laden may have been the influence of Laurie Mylroie, a conservative scholar who had convinced herself — and a number of influential conservatives, although not the U.S. intelligence community — that Iraq had been behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and was very likely behind 9/11, too. But as eccentric as her argument was to the U.S. intelligence community, it was hailed by Wolfowitz, who wrote in a blurb to her book that it "argues powerfully that the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was actually an agent of Iraqi intelligence." And invade-Iraq cheerleader Richard Perle, formerly head of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board, wrote in his own blurb: "Laurie Myroie has amassed convincing evidence of Saddam Hussein's involvement in the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center. If she is right — and there are simple ways to test her hypothesis — we would be justified in concluding that Saddam was probably involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks as well."

Mylroie is nothing if not single-minded. Over the years she has connected some pretty far-off dots to Iraq, none more so than the Oklahoma City bombing. Last summer she said on MSNBC, "al-Qaeda is a front for Iraqi intelligence, and that's why it is so difficult to get it, and that's why it can do the things that it did, like 9/11." Mylroie refuses to accept that international terrorism is possible without state sponsorship — the very idea, she says, is an invention of wussy Clintonites afraid to make war on state sponsors. But as Perle says, her hypotheses can be tested: Presumably, if al-Qaeda was a front for Iraqi intelligence, and such groups need a state behind them to commit transnational terror, then the fact that Saddam's regime no longer exists would presumably leave us safe from al-Qaeda. Need I say more?

But the Pentagon's civilian hawks did, indeed, try and prove Mylroie's thesis. Former CIA director James Woolsey, a fervent advocate of pursuing Mylroie's thesis was sent abroad by Wolfowitz to collect evidence to support her claims, and returned empty-handed.

That may have kept such claims out of the Bush Administration's speeches justifying a war, but it never stopped Mylroie. Just this month, she appeared before the 9/11 commission continuing to insist the only reason her theories had not been verified was a reluctance in Washington to accept the truth. Just as well that the commission had the good sense to call on the likes of Iraq expert Judith Yaphe and al-Qaeda expert Rohan Guranatra to present a more sober view.

More important than the fate of Mylroie's scholarship now that Saddam is gone but al-Qaeda continues to haunt us is the question of why the Administration placed such a strong emphasis on the purported Iraq-al-Qaeda link when it appears to have been at odds with the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq recently released by the administration to back up its case on the "yellowcake" uranium allegations says the intelligence services did not believe it was likely that Saddam would share his weapons of mass destruction with al-Qaeda, except perhaps once his regime was doomed. Critics suggest this is because the administration was inclined to shut out information that undercut its rationale for war. Former Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland, who serves on the congressional 9/11 commission, for example, charges that the Administration pressed for delaying the publication of the commission's work because its conclusions undercut a key aspect of the case for war.

Besides the possibility of the Prague encounter, the claim of an Iraq-bin Laden link rest on three pillars:

  • The fact that "bin Laden associate" Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who runs the Islamist terror network suspected of killing a U.S. diplomat in Jordan, had taken shelter in Baghdad after being wounded in Afghanistan;
  • The fact that the Kurdish Islamist group attacking mainstream pro-U.S. Kurdish groups in northeastern Iraq had received cash and training from al-Qaeda; and
  • Iraqi records show that an Iraqi emissary had held a meeting or meetings with bin Laden representatives in Afghanistan sometime after 1998.

    But as Wolfowitz warned, the evidence is murky: Zarqawi had been in Baghdad, but his relationship with bin Laden is in dispute — European interrogations of some of his subordinates suggest he was running a rival group. Ansar al-Islam certainly had links to al-Qaeda, but there is little to suggest that the group, which operated in the northeast of the country where the allied no-fly zone prevented Saddam from exercising control, had any links with Baghdad. And the reports of the meetings between Iraq and al-Qaeda also suggest that bin Laden had declined to pursue a relationship with the secular dictator. Reports of the interrogations of the most senior captive al-Qaeda men also suggest that they deny any link between the organization and Iraq.

    Meanwhile, it turns out that neighboring Iran may be holding a number of senior al-Qaeda men prisoner, some of whom the U.S. has accused Iran of sheltering. And if the reports prove true, they underscore precisely why bin Laden's group has done its best to operate without state sponsorship — because states, by nature, are liable to diplomatic, economic and military pressure.