The Saddam – Al Qaeda Connection

Claudia Rosett writes in the Wall Street Journal today about the connections between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, despite those in the media who continue to deny any such connection.

In some quarters, that would of course provoke the usual outrage. Since the U.S.-led coalition went outside the corrupt United Nations to topple the Baathist regime in Baghdad more than two years ago, it has become an article of faith that there was no such connection. Typical of the tenor in both the media and western politics is an article that ran last month in The Economist, describing Iraq as Mr. Bush’s “most visible disaster” and opining that “even Mr. Bush’s supporters admit that he exaggerated Saddam’s ties to Al Qaeda.”

If anything, Mr. Bush in recent times has not stressed Saddam’s ties to al Qaeda nearly enough. More than ever, as we now discuss the bombings in London, or, to name a few others, Madrid, Casablanca, Bali, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, or the many bombings in Israel–as well as the attacks on the World Trade Center in both 1993 and 2001–it is important to understand that terrorist connections can be real, and lethal, and portend yet more murder, even when they are shadowy, shifting and complex. And it is vital to send the message to regimes in such places as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran that in matters of terrorist ties, the Free World is not interested in epistemological debates over what constitutes a connection. We are not engaged in a court case, or a classroom debate. We are fighting a war.

But in the debates over Iraq, that part of the communication has become far too muddied. Documents found in Iraq are doubted; confessions by detainees are received as universally suspect; reports of meetings between officials of the former Iraqi regime and al Qaeda operatives are discounted as having been nothing more than empty formalities, with such characters shuttling between places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, perhaps to share tea and cookies. Any conclusions or even inferences about contacts between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda are subjected these days to the kind of metaphysical test in which existence itself becomes a highly dubious philosophical problem, mired in the difficulty of ever really being certain about anything at all.

Certainty is then imposed in the form of assurances that there was no connection. This notion that there was no Saddam-al Qaeda connection is invoked as an argument against the decision to go to war in Iraq, and enjoined as part of the case that we were safer with Saddam in power, and that, even now, the U.S. and its allies should simply cut and run.

Rosett says that, in fact, there were many connections, as Stephen Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn, writing in the current Weekly Standard, spell it out under the headline, “The Mother of All Connections.”

Messrs. Hayes and Joscelyn raise, with good reason, the question of why Saddam gave haven to Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the men who in 1993 helped make the bomb that ripped through the parking garage of the World Trade Center. They detail a contact between Iraqi intelligence and several of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Malaysia, the year before al Qaeda destroyed the twin towers. They recount the intersection of Iraqi and al Qaeda business interests in Sudan, via, among other things, an Oil for Food contract negotiated by Saddam’s regime with the al-Shifa facility that President Clinton targeted for a missile attack following the African embassy bombings because of its apparent connection to al Qaeda. And there is plenty more.

The difficulty lies in piecing together the picture, which is indeed murky (that being part of the aim in covert dealings between tyrants and terrorist groups)–but rich enough in depth and documented detail so that the basic shape is clear. By the time Messrs. Hayes and Joscelyn are done tabulating the cross-connections, meetings, Iraqi Intelligence memos unearthed after the fall of Saddam, and information obtained from detained terrorist suspects, you have to believe there was significant collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda. Or you have to inhabit a universe in which there will never be a demonstrable connection between any of the terrorist attacks the world has suffered over the past dozen years, or any tyrant and any aspiring terrorist. In that fantasyland, all such phenomena are independent events.

Mr. Bush, in calling attention to the Iraq-al Qaeda connection in the first place, did the right thing. For the U.S. president to confirm that clearly and directly at this stage, with some of the abundant supporting evidence now available, might seem highly controversial. But reviving that controversy would help settle it more squarely in line with the truth.

In an interview on his radio show with Claudia Rosett yesterday (via Radio Blogger), Hugh Hewitt says that he wonders if the people who continue to deny the connection are purposely keeping themselves ignorant or do they have arguments that we are simply not responding to.

CR: I think what happens here, Hugh, is there’s a tremendous sort of domestic political agenda that interferes. You know, it’s kind of the same one that right now has turned the whole Valerie Plame issue into a blood hunt for Karl Rove, which is really not what the whole thing should be about. But here, there are clearly connections. You know, that’s been clear for some time, and Stephen Hayes and Thomas Jocelyn, lay out a very good case for yet more. And there’s new information coming out all the time. But it’s difficult to piece together sort of one clear thing that says okay, the standard of proof, to which this is basically being held, because of a domestic agenda, in which some people just hate George Bush, and hate the idea that we did anything with Iraq, and don’t want it to have happened, and are looking for any argument that would say no, it was all wrong. It is the kind of standard of proof that says unless you have a photograph of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden shaking hands, with inscribed, Love and thanks for the help, Osama, authenticated by Kofi Annan, Bob Geldoff and Kim Jung Il, they just won’t believe it. And what you have are many, many connections where there is documentation, but it’s not clear precisely what the full extent of it was, what the quid pro quo always was. It’s clear that there was something.

HH: Now, I would like to ask you, I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that the American media has bought into this, and I’ve come back to the phrase that President Bush used in his first campaign, about the education establishment, and the soft bigotry of low expectations. I think there might be some soft bigotry here, in the assumption that Saddam could not run a highly sophisticated covert operation, even though the Oil for Food for Dictators for Arms and Terrorists, was a highly sophisticated operation that Paul Volker and the assembled U.S. attorneys and Norm Coleman and you, it’s taken a long time to dent this thing. He was good at this stuff.

CR: Precisely. In fact, he was somebody who gamed everything to his advantage. He would take…he observed no conventional rules or laws. He turned anything he could to his use, anyway that he could. And when you see that Iraqi intelligence agents are repeatedly meeting in Afghanistan and in Baghdad and in Malaysia and Sudan, with known operatives of Al Qaeda, following, during, after various horrendous events, it’s hard to believe that this was all just sort of casual conversation. That wasn’t the way that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq worked. And he had a huge intelligence network. You know, that was what he did. He wasn’t in the business of running a happy democratic country in the Middle East. He was in the business of running a highly controlled terrorist state, that was under sanctions, that was looking for all sorts of ways to get out, to still acquire weapons. It’s what he needed to stay in power. And he finally overshot. He put himself in a spot where we got rid of him.

HH: Right.