September 11, 2001, taught us that it is too costly to allow a leader with a history of aggression and stated intent to harm the U.S. to maintain links to terrorist groups and acquire weapons capabilities to act upon that sentiment. Newly declassified documents about the testimony of Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister, reminds us why Saddam had to be removed from power.
Contradicting Saddam Hussein’s testimony where he claimed he actually wanted an alliance with the U.S. against Iran, Tariq Aziz describes Saddam as an “anti-American” who was “delighted” when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The documents do not mention Saddam’s private reaction to 9/11, but we know that his public reaction was to be possibly the only leader to refuse to condemn the attacks, as well as the only leader to openly praise them. His sons and the state-controlled press did the same. This is a critical fact that is often forgotten: Saddam’s regime was the only one to publicly hail the 9/11 hijackers and not hide its desire to see such attacks happen again.
Aziz confirms that Saddam’s regime supported terrorists like Abu Abbas, the notorious mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, providing him with a farm for fundraising for Palestinian terrorists and for use as a training center. They even gave him the AK-47s he needed. We also know that Abu Ibrahim, called “the most dangerous bomb maker in the world bar none during my time as a CIA officer” by former CIA case officer Robert Baer, operated a network from his home in Baghdad. The Duelfer Report confirmed that Iraqi intelligence trained terrorists from around the Arab world, including at the Salman Pak facility known to house a Boeing airliner that defectors said was used to simulate hijackings. We don’t know if these terrorists were al-Qaeda members or not, but that doesn’t change the fact that Saddam not only praised 9/11 but trained jihadists in the tactics necessary to repeat it.
Aziz says that he only heard Saddam speak negatively about Osama Bin Laden as he “did not trust Islamists” and viewed them as “opportunists” and “hypocrites,” and therefore did not want to work with them. At the same time, though, Saddam viewed al-Qaeda as “effective” and respected their capabilities. And for a man as unprincipled as Saddam, that’s all that’s necessary to do business together. He did, after all, support Hamas, an Islamist group close to his Iranian enemies.
The Iraqi Perspectives Project, which reviewed over 600,000 Iraqi documents, did not find any evidence of operational collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaeda, but it did show that Saddam actively helped those seeking to carry out those attacks he was so “delighted” over. The study concluded that “the regime was willing to co-opt or support organization it knew to be a part of al-Qaeda as long as that organization’s near-term goals supported Saddam’s long-term ‘vision.’” The Project found that “Saddam supported groups that either associated directly with al-Qaeda … or that generally shared al-Qaeda’s stated goals and objectives.”
What this means is that the debate over whether Iraq supported al-Qaeda or not before the invasion is flawed because of a misunderstanding of what al-Qaeda actually is. A direct link between Saddam and Bin Laden or his inner circle cannot be proven. However, a link to the regional groups that shared Bin Laden’s ideology and operated as affiliates of al-Qaeda can be established. Those that say no link has been proven either are unaware of these findings or define “al-Qaeda” so narrowly that it downplays the breath of the organization’s reach.
Critics of the removal of Saddam Hussein will focus on the testimony of Ahmed Samir al-Ani, the consul at the Iraqi embassy in Prague once alleged to have met Mohammed Atta, the ringerleader of the 9/11 hijackers, whose testimony was declassified along with Tariq Aziz’s. The Czechs were initially confident in their reporting and stood by it under heavy pressure, but then some Czech officials expressed doubt and so it is unclear where they officially stand on the issue. The 9/11 Commission expressed doubt about the intelligence but could not rule it out either.
Intelligence expert and investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein notes that Atta’s visa application stated he was a “Hamburg student” and that al-Ani’s seized calendar listed a meeting with a “Hamburg student” in April 2001 — the same month the Czechs’ reporting alleged he met with Atta. In another interesting coincidence, two suspected Iraqi spies were arrested in Germany in February 2001. The Arab press reported that they were arrested after Iraqi intelligence “had drawn up a plan to strike at U.S. interests around the world through a network of alliances with extremist fundamentalist parties.” The German authorities were reportedly investigating groups connected to al-Qaeda when they discovered the two Iraqi spies.
Al-Ani denies that the meeting happened, saying it was “ludicrous” to believe Iraq would have anything to do with al-Qaeda or specifically Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Whatever the truth is regarding his alleged meeting with Atta, al-Ani’s testimony simply isn’t credible, as he makes the laughable assertion that he had never even heard of Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Iraq had previously been accused of supporting Bin Laden by the Clinton administration, something that Al-Ani, as an Iraqi government official, surely would have known about. Best-selling books had been written on Bin Laden and he had carried out high-profile attacks.
Thanks to Tariq Aziz’s testimony, we know that Saddam’s attitude towards terrorism against the U.S. was the same in private as it was in public. He may not have been willing to directly engineer a plot like 9/11, but he certainly was willing to help terrorists do it for themselves. And as I’ve previously written, it is now known that Saddam’s regime also had been working on plans to actualize three of the most horrifying scenarios that the West fears the most: the smuggling of chemical and biological weapons into the West, a dramatic attack against Israel that could spark a regional war, and the destabilization of the Saudi royal family, with one 2002 document indicating Saddam actually suggested working with Ayman al-Zawahiri towards this end.
The methods can be debated, but Saddam’s regime fit every criteria of a regime that had to go.