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?
August 14, 2009 - 12:16 am
Assertions relating to the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda controversy have filled countless news articles and books and cannot be completely recapped and answered in a few articles. But despite all of the ink and bandwidth spent on the topic, there are additional questions yet to be fully explored in the eyes of many.
When one attempts to dig on questions, such as what meetings actually took place between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda members — where they took place and when, and what was discussed — the CIA emerges as one of, if not the major, intelligence players involved in public discussion of the topic.
Two former CIA members with relevant experience go on record below with their analysis of the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda question and the CIA’s role.
Before reengaging this topic it is important to be aware that different interpretations of events, affiliations, and terminology greatly affect the analysis, and are the reason opinions can appear to be so far apart. Some issues:
– Are reports relating to Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda being put through a filter of comparisons with what Bush administration officials and others said?
– Are reports being compared with what analysts deemed to be enough to warrant a costly, deadly war?
– Who determines if someone is a member of al-Qaeda and what is the criteria for membership?
– What constitutes “support” from a state?
– What constitutes a “relationship” between a terrorist group and a state?
– What constitutes an “operational relationship” between a terrorist group and a state? Is something less than an “operational relationship” still worthy of concern? A war?
– Are relations between the former Iraqi regime and terrorist groups compared with other state and non-state actor relationships, such as Iran and Hezbollah or al-Qaeda and other states?
– Did the CIA have access to all the reports on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and terrorism, or were reports scattered throughout many Department of Defense branches, intelligence agencies, and non-government entities?
Because of how conflicting the evidence is and how difficult it is to explain those conflicts, it is understandable why much of the press condenses the topic down to “no links” stories or simply provides anecdotal examples of something more without providing the proper context. It is also understandable why many media accounts only skim the surface of this topic because there are real intelligence sources that refuse to discuss it — or simply say there was “no operational relationship” but might not have been pressed on what exactly that term means.
With approximately 50 years of combined CIA analyst experience, former CIA officers Paul Pillar and Bruce Tefft provide a window into what the public, press, and elected officials have heard on this topic from the CIA and why multiple interpretations persist.
Paul Pillar: I think what has come out publicly is pretty much the extent of what was known. Nobody had a fly on the wall.
M.E.: Do you think it is possible that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could have been converted, like Pervez Musharaf in Pakistan, to become an ally against al-Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups? Why or why not?
P.P.: Saddam’s regime had its own reasons for being opposed to such groups. Even adversaries — and the United States and Iraq under Saddam still would be regarded mainly as adversaries — can have common enemies, and parallel interests in opposing those enemies. That doesn’t mean a U.S.-Iraqi relationship would develop into anything that could be considered an “alliance.” Iraq was not as dependent on the U.S. as Pakistan has been in several respects.
M.E.: Recently released FBI files show that Saddam Hussein reportedly admitted only one or two meetings between his regime and al-Qaeda and that it was al-Qaeda who reached out to him and he rebuffed them (as opposed to reports of al-Qaeda rebuffing Iraq and there being more than just a “few” meetings). Is it your understanding that it was al-Qaeda pursuing the relationship and Iraq denied them or is there more to the story?
P.P.: That’s pretty much my sense. I don’t think there’s anything more to the story.
M.E.: What do you make of allegations of al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad affiliates being in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s rule? Were they only allowed to be there because of the impending U.S. invasion as you were quoted as stating for the New Yorker? Is it possible that Ayman al Zawahiri had cultivated ties with the Iraqis? Who were the other groups that the intelligence community was aware of Iraq supporting before the invasion and what other regional terror plots against Western interests?
P.P.: It is well established that the only Islamist groups with a presence on Iraqi territory before the invasion were in the part of Iraq not under Saddam’s control, in the largely Kurdish north. Zarqawi spent some time in central Iraq, but there is no indication he ever had any contact with the regime. There are indications that they did not even know where he was located.
Saddam’s regime supported some largely moribund Palestinian terrorist groups: The Palestinian Liberation Front, the Arab Liberation Front, and the Abu Nidal group.
M.E.: What do you make of allegations of Iraq training al-Qaeda in CBW or permitting them to experiment with CBW in Iraq?
P.P.: That all stems from embellishments of statements from the detainee al-Libi, who later admitted that his statements about this were a fabrication.
M.E.: Did you get a chance to read the Institute for Defense Analysis report, based on Iraq document exploitation and detainee interviews, which reported that Saddam Hussein’s regime used a number of regional Islamic groups throughout the 90s, as you told PBS Frontline, to undermine Western allied governments? The study found links to al-Qaeda affiliates but no “smoking gun” linking Iraq’s government to al-Qaeda in major attacks.
P.P.: I have not read that report. (Note: Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff cited Pillar for comment in his story on the report.)
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.”
M.E.: You’ve mentioned that some al-Qaeda members may have received training in Iraq, (including some of the 9-11 hijackers), can you elaborate?
B.T.: There is no way to tell really which al-Qaeda members might have trained in Iraq … but that, again, would have been on an individual, case by case basis … perhaps at the instigation of Zawahiri or Zarqawi (who was directly in charge of an al-Qaeda Afghan training camp. The comment below is erroneous … bin Ladin would not have dispatched anyone to ask for training … Training details are below his pay grade and it would be against his nature and principles … however, Zawahiri might have done so.)
From the February 2003 issue of the New Yorker:
American intelligence believes that Al Qaeda and Saddam reached a non-aggression agreement in 1993, and that the relationship deepened further in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when an Al Qaeda operative — a native-born Iraqi who goes by the name Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi — was dispatched by bin Laden (which Tefft thinks is false) to ask the Iraqis for help in poison-gas training. Al-Iraqi’s mission was successful, and an unknown number of trainers from an Iraqi secret-police organization called Unit 999 were dispatched to camps in Afghanistan to instruct al-Qaeda terrorists. (Training in hijacking techniques was also provided to foreign Islamist radicals inside Iraq, according to two Iraqi defectors quoted in a report in the Times in November of 2001.)
Another al-Qaeda operative, the Iraqi-born Mamdouh Salim, who goes by the name Abu Hajer al-Iraqi, also served as a liaison in the mid-nineteen-nineties to Iraqi intelligence. Salim, according to a recent book, The Age of Sacred Terror, by the former N.S.C. officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, was bin Laden’s chief procurer of weapons of mass destruction, and was involved in the early nineties in chemical-weapons development in Sudan. Salim was arrested in Germany in 1998 and was extradited to the United States. He is awaiting trial in New York on charges related to the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings; he was convicted last April of stabbing a Manhattan prison guard in the eye with a sharpened comb.
Intelligence officials told me that the agency also takes seriously reports that an Iraqi known as Abu Wa’el, whose real name is Saadoun Mahmoud Abdulatif al-Ani, is the liaison of Saddam’s intelligence service to a radical Muslim group called Ansar al-Islam, which controls a small enclave in northern Iraq; the group is believed by American and Kurdish intelligence officials to be affiliated with al-Qaeda. I learned of another possible connection early last year, while I was interviewing al-Qaeda operatives in a Kurdish prison in Sulaimaniya. There, a man whom Kurdish intelligence officials identified as a captured Iraqi agent told me that in 1992 he served as a bodyguard to Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, when Zawahiri secretly visited Baghdad.
M.E.: How big, in terms of number of members, would you say al-Qaeda (and separately including all the al-Qaeda affiliates such as Abu Sayyaf, GIA, Ansar al Islam, etc.) was in years leading up to the invasion of Iraq?
B.T.: All of the Islamic terrorist groups have direct or indirect connections to al-Qaeda. Through doctrine, training, finances, etc. Al-Qaeda proper was and is probably between 5,000 to 15,000 max. Over 100,000 Islamic terrorists were trained in the camps in Afghanistan in the ten years before we invaded. There were only about 3,000 AQ fighters present when we actually arrived … rest had dispersed back to their home countries to pass on the training, etc.
M.E.: Was the previously mentioned al Zawahiri/EIJ relationship with Iraq something the CIA knew before the invasion of Iraq, or was it only learned in hindsight after documents and detainees were exploited?
B.T.: They knew. CIA has always known more about EIJ and Zawahiri on the one hand; and Iraq/Saddam on the other than about al-Qaeda … there was too much going on for them to not know. (Tefft referrs readers to this Stephen Hayes piece for more background on this topic.)
Tefft and Pillar agree that the CIA knew a fair amount about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaeda but did have limitations. They both agreed that it was basically an agency-wide position that there was mutual dislike and distrust between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda and both agreed that Saddam Hussein was not likely to ever be an ally of the United States vs. al-Qaeda.
Both also agree on the possibility of an Ayman al Zawahiri meeting or meetings with Iraqi officials in the 1990s with Tefft thinking it more likely and Pillar saying it was possible though he was unclear on the details of the 1990s.
Tefft and Pillar disagreed on a number of issues, including whether or not individual members of al-Qaeda represented al-Qaeda the group or their own interests prior to 9/11, wtih Pillar stating that al-Qaeda acted in a top-down fashion and Tefft saying that regional cells could, and did, operate autonomously.
Tefft and Pillar somewhat disagreed on who prevented cooperation between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaeda with Tefft saying al-Qaeda and bin Laden rebuffed Iraq and Pillar believing that Hussein denied al-Qaeda’s requests for help.
Tefft and Pillar came down differently on the likelihood of Abu Musab al Zarqawi having some kind of relationship with Saddam Hussein’s regime with Tefft believing documents showed that there were relations and Pillar saying there were not.
Tefft and Pillar disagreed on whether a secret relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda could have existed pre-invasion. Tefft believes that bin Laden’s hatred of Saddam Hussein was too deep to ever allow al-Qaeda to fully align with Iraq and Pillar argues that it wasn’t unthinkable for the two parties to make secret deals with those they considered the “devil.”
The two analysts also disagreed over the changing size of al-Qaeda with Pillar talking about hundreds of fighters and Tefft talking about thousands or tens of thousands of fighters.
It must be reiterated that the term “operational relationship,” according to Tefft, means that “operations are initialized, planned, financed, supported and executed together.” Almost certainly the incredibly high standard of “operational relationship” has been used when describing the Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda question to countless journalists and elected officials who never bothered to ask how extensive cooperation must be to meet such a standard, and likely never bothered to ask if something short of “operational” cooperation took place and what limits there were to the CIA’s knowledge (which was limited due to the wide disbursement of documents and detainee testimony, according to Tefft).
What is to be made, to those outside the intelligence community, of the many other reported meetings that Tefft, Pillar, and perhaps the rest of the CIA don’t provide much comment on? Such as Matthew Degn’s report about detainees discussing a Saddam Hussein/al-Qaeda cooperation, or the 1992 meeting, the 1993 discussions, the 1994 meetings, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, all the way up to 2003? Were those meetings all aberrations to the “non-relationship” between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda? It continues to be worth asking what to make of all the conflicting evidence if there was really nothing to be concerned about (which is and was certainly not the position of former CIA director George Tenet).
John Lumpkin, who tracks terrorist groups and their connections for Globalsecurity.org, has looked into this topic in the past and also seen large volumes of conflicting evidence. Lumpkin cited the findings of the 9-11 commission, and said by email that “Iraqi intelligence service and al-Qaida had contacts, [but] they never saw evidence that these contacts ‘developed into a collaborative operational relationship.’”
Lumpkin said that while al-Qaeda loathed repressive regimes, like the former Iraqi regime, it was “likely they explored using each other to advance their own ends” and agreed with Tefft’s assertion that individual members of al-Qaeda may have also had relationships with the former Iraqi regime outside of a formal alliance between the group and the former Iraqi regime.
Lumpkin’s description falls short of the “operational relationship” definition, but is the evidence that falls between “no links” and an “operational relationship” not worthy of concern, discussion, and mention? As documents and detainee testimony continues to be released to the public, hopefully the question of Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda will be explained through the analysis of as many people as possible, including Tefft and Pillar, and the doors for understanding beyond the “no links” article will be left open.