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Revisiting the Saddam Hussein/Al-Qaeda Relationship

What did the CIA know, not know, and agree upon when analyzing the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda connection?

Mark Eichenlaub


August 14, 2009 - 12:16 am

M.E.: Former interrogator and Iraq Ministry Of Interior liaison Matthew Degn said in his dealings with current Iraqi officials, Ba’ath detainees, and other terrorist detainees that while he saw a lot of conflicting evidence on the topic of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, many detainees claimed Saddam Hussein’s regime and al- Qaeda cooperated financially and through Iraq’s provision of safehaven for training camps. Is this possible? Did this information make it to the CIA during your time there? (High ranking Iraqi officials, including Ayad Allawi and Barhim Salih, have made similar claims)

P.P.: I am aware of no such evidence relating to financial ties or training camps.

M.E.: Was there internal debate at the CIA about the nature of the Iraq/al-Qaeda relationship or non-relationship or did the CIA’s analysts come to pretty conclusions?

P.P.: There always is discussion and debate among analysts. The conclusions that have become publicly known as CIA’s conclusions were fully coordinated among all the relevant analysts.

M.E.: The postwar cooperation between some of the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s formerly ruling Ba’ath party and al-Qaeda can be documented (hundreds of ex-Ba’ath who were found working with al-Qaeda listed here) as going all the way back to just after the invasion. Is it possible that these relationships were all forged post invasion or did Zarqawi have some contacts in the Iraqi government and how high were they? What about other al-Qaeda associates? What contacts, if any, did they have?

P.P.: See earlier comment about Zarqawi. I am aware of no credible evidence of prewar contacts between the regime and al-Qaeda types inside Iraq.

M.E.: Former CIA analyst Bruce Tefft agreed with your assertion that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had no “operational relationship” (definition below) with al-Qaeda as an organization but individuals from al-Qaeda (including Zawahiri, as mentioned in that Institute for Defense Analysis report) made arrangements with contacts in the Iraqi government. What do you make of this analysis?

P.P.: I don’t remember enough of the details of any reporting from the 1990s to comment specifically. I would not be surprised by such contacts but would question what any “arrangements” resulting from them would have amounted to.

M.E.: Were the regional Sunni militant groups (in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Bahrain, Philipines, Turkey, etc.), that have been listed in recovered Iraq documents, as groups Saddam assisted clearly not “al-Qaeda” in your view? Or was the reported support for these groups in question? Or was the reported support for these groups never discussed?

P.P.: I don’t know what “others are pointing to,” but the only ties of any solidity or significance between the regime and terrorist groups were the well-established ones with the MEK and the some of the secular Palestinian groups. If one were interested in what really was significant about what Saddam’s regime was doing or not doing, and not just in playing on the post-9/11 resonance with the American public of the name al-Qaeda, then the distinction between core al-Qaeda and like-minded Salafi nasties in other groups is not the most important distinction anyway. This was the respect in which a lot of the discussion about Zarqawi in Iraq was misguided. There is no doubt that he was a major league bad guy, even if he was not taking orders from al-Qaeda central. If Saddam’s regime had been somehow supporting him this would have been significant, with or without a link to al-Qaeda central. But it wasn’t supporting him.

M.E.: You mentioned that there was some debate before final analysis was agreed upon but in your recollection, is it true that counterterrorism analysts (according to former CIA Director George Tenet’s account) viewed the meetings between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda as more worthy of concern than the Near East/South Asia desk?

P.P.: I think it would be misleading to make anything of this. Analysts in different components discuss and debate interpretative and analytical issues all the time, on lots of topics.

Pillar said he believed that around the time of the September 11, 2001, attacks al-Qaeda’s ranks numbered in the low hundreds and was mainly a centralized, top-down organization. The Council on Foreign Relations online datbase also states that al-Qaeda was once hierarchical but splintered into autonomous cells. CFR‘s online database also says that there is and was large disagreement over al-Qaeda’s size, stating that the 9-11 commission estimated its legion of fighters to be between 10,000 and 20,000 from 1996 to 2001 — noting that the 2001 State Department report on terrorism indicates that al-Qaeda became an umbrella group for regional Sunni fighter groups after 2000. This discrepancy in numbers and relationships is certain to have played a role in the dispute on the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda questions.

Pillar did say that there were confirmed contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda in Sudan, but the CIA’s analysis led them to believe that those contacts and meetings had not led to any relation of consequence — while noting it was not beyond those two parties to “make pacts with the devil” if needed.

Bruce Tefft spent 21 years in the CIA, including time analyzing and as an operations officer for the Middle East at the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center. Tefft was cited for his knowledge on Middle East terrorism for a CNS News piece on Iraq documents and continues to assist government and non-government entities in analyzing terrorist groups.

M.E.: Have you heard any updates on the CNS story, by Scott Wheeler, you contributed to a number of years ago relating to documents from Saddam Hussein’s regime discussing links to terrorism?

B.T.: No … I’ve heard nothing more at all about this story … which is suspicious in and of itself. The documents were genuine and in the hands of the USG [United State Government] … Unless they’re being held as evidence for a Gitmo trial or hearings, there is no reason I can think of to not release them or comment on them.

M.E.: Did you ever get a feel from ex-colleagues at the agency regarding what they thought of this story?

B.T.: I’ve only discussed the documents with one other ex-colleague and he confirmed my evaluation but also had no further info.

M.E.: Is information on this topic still being held back? Who has it? What’s being done with it now?

B.T.: Apparently so … the man who brought it to me told me it was in the hands of the Pentagon … but I don’t know specifically which office … this might tie into #1 above re: Gitmo hearings and evidence issues.

M.E.: What is your current overall assessment of the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda controversy?

B.T.: There’s no controversy. Saddam was in contact with al-Qaeda. Saddam was detested by bin Laden who refused an “official” relationship but, as he always did, permitted local cells to act autonomously; plus, his #2 Zawahiri had preexisting relationships (as head of an Egyptian Islamic Jihad faction) which was confirmed by those documents that I evaluated.

M.E.: Can you elaborate further on the links between Ayman al Zawahiri and Saddam Hussein’s regime? Where, when did they meet? What kind of support was exchanged?

B.T.: All the Iraqi intelligence documents that I reviewed indicated was that Zawahiri had a prior relationship with Saddam’s regime and that Saddam was trying to establish an official contact with bin Laden. There was no indication of other support or meeting details.

M.E.: What is meant by analysts who talk about there being no “operational relationship” between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda? Do you agree with this assessment? What term would you give the relationship?

B.T.: There was no operational relationship between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda. An operational relationship means that operations are initialized, planned, financed, supported and executed together. There has never been any indication that this took place between al-Qaeda and Saddam’s regime … There were preexisting personal relationships between certain terrorists (al Zawahiri and Zarqawi, for example) who happened to also be al-Qaeda members, and Saddam’s regime.

M.E.: What do you make of the suggestion that Saddam Hussein could have been converted to a U.S. ally in the war against terrorists?

B.T.: Only a very ignorant or stupid person would make such a statement. Saddam could never have been a U.S. ally in the war against terrorists. That would be like recruiting Hitler to be a U.S. ally against Nazis … or Stalin to be an ally again world communists. Saddam was a terrorist himself, and hosted and supported a wide range of terrorists ranging from Abu Nidal to the PLO and other Palestinian terrorist organizations.

M.E.: Did bin Laden know that some al-Qaeda cells (as well as Sunni militant groups loosely aligned with al-Qaeda) were receiving assistance from states such as Saddam’s? If so, how did he handle it?

B.T.: If we knew that some al-Qaeda elements were receiving assistance from Saddam’s Iraq, bin Laden certainly did. Bin Laden is an organizational genius … he knows and understand perfectly well what is going on with al-Qaeda and all of its affiliates … he permits a great deal of autonomy as long as the main objective is kept in mind: Conquest of the world by Islam.

M.E.: What do you know of reports of there being multiple al-Qaeda cells and multiple al-Qaeda camps in areas of Iraq that Baghdad controlled prior to invasion?

B.T.: There are no credible reports of al-Qaeda camps or cells operating in Iraq before the invasion. Al-Qaeda individuals passed through and may have even received training (notably Zarqawi and Zawahiri and some of the 9/11 hijackers) but no autonomous al-Qaeda camps or cells were actually doing anything in Iraq. The al-Qaeda group Ansar al-Islam operated in the Kurdish areas of Iraq prior to the invasion precisely because they were not under Saddam’s control. Saddam permitted no terrorists to operate in Iraq who were not under his direct control. This obviously would exclude al-Qaeda, even if bin Laden were inclined to work with an apostate, which he was not.

M.E.: On the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda question overall would you classify the meetings as a “link” instead of an operational relationship, or do you have another term you would use to apply to what was going on between the two? Were the terms “connection,” “link,” and “operational relationship” used inside the CIA when discussing state and non-state actor relationships or was there another specific term that was used? When you say there was no “operational relationship” is that because there is not evidence to support that phrase or because there is evidence to the contrary?

B.T.: Regarding the Saddam regime and al-Qaeda I would say that there was no linkage or relationship between the regime and the organization. What there was were preexisting and/or parallel relationships with people (such as Zawahiri and Zarqawi) who coincidentally also became members of al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda connection is therefore so indirect (since bin Laden firmly and flatly rejected the idea of either refuge in Iraq or a relationship with Saddam) as to be objectively non-existent. We have to be very careful in applying Western notions of operational relationships, etc. to Muslims/and al-Qaeda. There are no equivalent western models to al-Qaeda, for example … Yes … connection, links, operational relationships, and liaisons were all terms of art in the intel world … I never heard of any of those terms being used with Iraq/al-Qaeda … in fact … They were never linked … but if they had been (I didn’t hear everything of course) it would definitely have been “indirect connections.”

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