Aug 21, 2003

Al Qaeda in Iraq: Special to Site

Ultimately what sold the war in Iraq to the American people was the widely held belief that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime had entered into an unholy alliance. A poll released by the Pew Research Center just before the Iraq war showed that two out of three Americans believed Saddam "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 deputy secretary of defense, 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 9/11, 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, recently 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 in past months. 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 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". A senior US intelligence official told me: "If Osama [bin Laden] believed in Christmas, he'd want us in Iraq, that's what he'd want under his Christmas tree." Another US official said:
"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. According to Dr. Saad al-Faqih, a leading Saudi dissident based in London who has long been a reliable source of information about al Qaeda, in the past two months three thousand Saudis have gone to fight in Iraq. Dr. Faqih 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 Afghanistan. In addition to the Saudi jihadists, Dr. Faqih told me there are also a number of Kuwaitis, but he says it is the Saudis who make up about 85% of the total number of foreign fighters in the country.

On August 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 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 against Jordanian targets because of Jordan's support for the policies of the United States.

Al Qaeda should also be considered a lead suspect in Tuesday's bombing of the United Nations headquarter in Baghdad. Bin Laden has long railed against the United Nations and has himself released two audiotapes this year calling for a jihad in Iraq. Indeed, on an audiotape released on Monday 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 probably calculated to scare off any countries that might have been contemplating sending supplementary troops to Iraq.

Bin Laden has long modeled al Qaeda's tactics on that of Hezbollah in Lebanon during the early '80s. Hezbollah's suicide bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 that killed two hundred and forty US soldiers, led quickly to the withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon. And bin Laden has reveled in the fact that it only took the deaths of eighteen US servicemen in Somalia in 1993 to precipitate 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 operation that kills a large number of American soldiers. At that point perhaps the American public will ask: "Didn't we invade Iraq to prevent this kind of attack?"