Dec 18, 2002

The Al Qaeda Connection: Riyadh, Not Baghdad on The

Posted December 18, 2002 to the The Al Qaeda Connection Try Riyadh, Not Baghdad by Peter Bergen While the Bush Administration looks to the weapons inspection process in Iraq to turn up a material breach worthy of war, hawks in and out of government have been making a separate case for invasion, claiming that a US military strike against the country is necessary under the amorphous rubric of the "war on terrorism" and because of Saddam Hussein's alleged connections to Al Qaeda. In fact, it is Saudi Arabia rather than Iraq that has supplied much of the ideological and financial impetus for Al Qaeda, and it is Saudi Arabia that continues to play an obstructionist role in the investigation of the 9/11 attacks, not Iraq. Every year the State Department's counterterrorism office releases an authoritative survey of global terrorism. According to its 2000 report, "[Iraq] has not attempted an anti-western attack since its failed attempt to assassinate former President Bush in 1993 in Kuwait." Even after the 9/11 attacks, the most serious charge in State's 2001 terrorism report was that "Iraq was the only Arab-Muslim country that did not condemn the September 11 attacks against the United States." The report went on to note: "The [Iraqi] regime continued to provide training and political encouragement to numerous terrorist groups, although its main focus was on dissident Iraqi activity overseas." So, in sum, Iraqi-sponsored terrorism is directed at Iraqis, not Americans, and that has been true for the past decade. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda itself began undertaking anti-American operations in late 1992. Why, then, has the Bush Administration consistently tried to make a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda? The answer lies in the Administration's quasi-theological conviction that such a connection must, or should, exist. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's recent book Bush at War makes this point abundantly clear. Directly after the 9/11 attacks, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the chief architect of the Administration's get-tough policy on Iraq, told the cabinet, "There was a 10 to 50 per cent chance Saddam was involved [in 9/11]." Six days after the attacks President Bush told his Cabinet, "I believe that Iraq was involved, but I'm not going to strike them now." However, more than a year later, the most comprehensive criminal investigation in history has yet to find a scintilla of proof that Iraq was involved in 9/11. The only evidence that suggesta such a connection was chief hjacker Mohamed Atta's supposed pre-9/11 meeting in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. Both Czech and US officia ls have now authoritatively discounted such a meeting. Despite the lack of connection between Saddam's regime and 9/11, Administration officials continue to insist there are links between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that there is "bullet-proof" evidence of links between the terrorist group and the Iraqi regime. However, the Al Qaeda members who are based in Iraq are in Kurdish Iraq, a region outside of Saddam's control patrolled by the US Air Force, which is in turn controlled by...Donald Rumsfeld. When President Bush made his keynote speech on Iraq in October, the most compelling evidence he gave of Al Qaeda's links to Saddam was the story of "one very senior Al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year." It has been widely reported that the name of this "very senior Al Qaeda leader" is Abu Musab Zarqawi, who, curiously, is so important that he does not appear on the FBI's list of the twenty-two most wanted terrorists. Indeed, key US investigators tell me that Zarqawi is not a significant player in Al Qaed a. (In fairness, European officials believe that Zarqawi has played an important role in Al Qaeda operations in Europe.) Nonetheless, far more important Al Qaeda leaders than Zarqawi have visited Pakistan, Yemen and Indonesia within the past year, but the US is not planning wars against those countries. Moreover, Al Qaeda members live in sixty countries around the globe, so by the law of averages a few of them will show up in Iraq. Indeed, intelligence estimates suggest there are some 100 Al Qaeda members at large in the United States, although that is not an argument to start bombing Washington. If the Iraq-Al Qaeda connection is somewhere between tenuous and nonexistent, the connections between Saudi Arabia and the terrorist group are real. This is not to suggest that the Saudi government, which is also a target of Al Qaeda, has actively supported the group. However, Saudi citizens have provided financial, logistical and ideological support to Al Qaeda, and the Saudi government has been either unwilling or unable to stop them. Let's leave aside the recent tempest in a teacup about a money gift from the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States that might have ended up in the pockets of one of the 9/11 hijackers, as there is not a shred of evidence that this actually happened. This story obscures a much more important point: The Saudis have been far from cooperative in the investigation of 9/11, despite public protestations to the contrary. This should not be surprising; when twenty-four US servicemen were killed in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, American investigators we re largely shunned by the Saudis. Astonishingly, despite the fact that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, the Saudi government continues to maintain this attitude today. American investigators use words like "useless," "obstructionist" and "despicable" to describe the Saudi attitude toward their 9/11 inquiries. Furthermore, Saudi charities have served, often unwittingly, as both the financing arm and cover for Al Qaeda's past operations. To name but one example; in the early 1990s one of Osama bin Laden's brothers-in-law worked for the International Islamic Relief Organization in the Philippines, where he helped set up Abu Sayyaf, a Filipino terrorist group allied with Al Qaeda. To its credit, the Saudi government recently announced a wide range of measures to combat the possibility of Saudi charitable contributions going to terrorist groups, the first serious acknowledgment that this actually might be a problem. However, a quite different note was sounded two weeks ago by Prince Nayef, the Saudi Interior Minister, who told a Kuwaiti magazine, "Who committed the events of September 11?... I think they [the Zionists] are behind these events." Yup, more than a year after 9/11, one of the most powerful men in the Saudi government believes that the Jews masterminded the attacks on Washington and New York. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt; it also runs strong through Saudi Arabia.