Sep 25, 2003

al Qaeda and Iraq update, Special to Site

Al Qaeda and Iraq
Ultimately what sold the American people on the Iraq war was the widely held belief that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?s regime had entered into an unholy alliance and were jointly responsible for the attacks two years ago in Washington and New York. A poll released by the Pew Research Center just before the invasion of Iraq showed that two out of three Americans believed Saddam had "helped the terrorists in the September 11 attacks." Senior members of the Bush administration also shared that view. According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward?s book Bush at War, immediately after the attacks on Washington and New York, Paul Wolfowitz, the number two official at the Pentagon, told the cabinet: ?There was a 10 to 50 per cent chance Saddam was involved.? A few days later President Bush told his top aides: ?I believe that Iraq was involved, but I?m not going to strike them now.? However, the most comprehensive criminal investigation in history has yet to find any proof that Iraq was involved in the September

11 attacks, and the historical connections that the administration cited to prove a link between Saddam and al Qaeda were, at best, circumstantial. Now, in a development the irony of which is self-evident, in recent months al Qaeda has indeed established itself inside Iraq. Several US officials I have spoken to who investigate or analyze al Qaeda say that Iraq has become an important battleground for al Qaeda. The officials use words such as ?magnet? and ?super magnet" to describe the attraction Iraq has for al Qaeda members and other ?jihadists?. One counterterrorism official describes the militants as predominantly Saudis crossing over Iraq?s border with Syria. Another senior US counter terrorism official told me Iraq is ?is very attractive to al Qaeda, as Bosnia was during the mid ?90s and Chechnya has been in recent years.? He added that Iraq provides ?unlimited targeting, it?s right in their backyard and is a very attractive cause for them?. Another

US official explained: ?Non Iraqi Arabs are getting to Iraq. Six months ago I would not have said this. It?s easy to hide for al Qaeda in a country that is in the middle of the Middle East.? It is not only US officials who are pointing to Iraq?s newly found importance for al Qaeda. Dr. Saad al-Fagih, a leading Saudi dissident based in London who has long been a reliable source of information about al Qaeda, told me that in past months up to three thousand Saudis have gone to fight in Iraq. Dr. Fagih says one source describes Iraq as ?almost like Peshawar during the 1980s?, a reference to the city in Pakistan that attracted Muslims from around the world eager to volunteer to fight the Soviets then occupying neighboring Afghanistan. And therein lies another irony. In 2001 the United States conducted an extraordinarily successful campaign in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and deny al Qaeda--the base in Arabic-- its Afghan base of operations. Now in Iraq the presence of 140,000 American troops is att

racting jihadists from around the Middle East just as the Soviets occupiers formerly did in Afghanistan and it is likely that Iraq will become the center operations for al Qaeda for the foreseeable future. In a videotape aired by al Jazeera on the eve of the second anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Osama bin Laden and his top deputy Ayman al Zawahiri are shown strolling around some alpine countryside, almost certainly on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Dubbed over the footage are statements from bin Laden and al Zawahiri exhorting al Qaeda to continue to wage jihad. At one point al Zawahiri emphasizes the centrality of the war in Iraq to al Qaeda?s plans saying: "Those fighters in Iraq, we greet them and salute them and support them and ask God to bless their efforts and their bravery in fighting the crusaders, and we tell them God is with you and the nation is supporting you, depend and rely on God and attack and devour the Americans and bury them in the graveyard of Iraq.?

And it seems that the jihadists have already struck. On August the 7th the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad was bombed killing nineteen. Al Qaeda must be considered a lead suspect in that attack. August the 7th is a significant anniversary for al Qaeda as it was on that day in 1990 that President George Bush Sr. announced the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia for what would become Operation Desert Storm. It was the presence of those American troops in Saudi Arabia that galvanized bin Laden to direct al Qaeda?s terrorist campaign against the United States. Indeed, on August 7 1998, exactly eight years after Bush?s announcement that American troops were to be sent to Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda suicide bombers blew up two US embassies in Africa killing some two hundred people. The fact that the Jordanian embassy was also attacked on August 7 is a strong indicator that al Qaeda may be behind that attack. Moreover, on an audiotape released in February, bin Laden specifically called for attacks ag

ainst Jordanian targets because of Jordan?s support for the policies of the United States. Al Qaeda should also be considered a lead suspect in the subsequent bombing of the United Nations headquarter in Baghdad. Bin Laden has long railed against the United Nations and on an audiotape released a day before that attack al Qaeda?s new spokesman, Abdel Rahman al-Najdi, promised to send more al Qaeda members to Iraq and derided recent US efforts to enlist additional countries to take part in the mission in Iraq. The attack on the United Nations building is calculated to scare off any countries that might have been contemplating sending additional troops to Iraq.
Bin Laden has long modeled al Qaeda?s tactics on that of Hezbollah in Lebanon during the early ?80s. Hezbollah?s 1983 suicide bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut that killed two hundred and forty US soldiers, led to the withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon. And bin Laden has reveled in the fact that the deaths of eighteen US servicemen in Somalia in 1993 also precipitated a quick withdrawal of American troops from that country. It is this model that al Qaeda hopes to follow in Iraq, fighting a war of attrition against US soldiers that will eventually lead to a humiliating withdrawal of American forces. It is only a matter of time before al Qaeda is able to pull off a significant terrorist attack that kills a large number of American soldiers. At that point perhaps the American public will ask: ?Didn?t we invade Iraq to prevent exactly what is happening now??