On That Dastardly Saddam-al Qaeda Connection

Eli Lake, one of the best national security reporters in America, got in touch the other day with Goldblog in his bunker to offer his support for the dangerous idea that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda once had a potentially meaningful relationship. He offered to guest-blog on this point for me, and I cautioned him against it, because evidence-based reporting is not particularly interesting to the hard-leftists for whom disbelief in such a connection is a sacrament. But he insisted. So here's Eli:

Last week's blog storm over Jeff's New Yorker story from Halabja reminds me of a conversation I had with him in 2002, after his piece came out:

Eli: You know, our people wish you had not done that.
Jeff: What do you mean?  The story from Iraq?
Eli: It's Iran, Jeff. Iran. You're off by one letter. Now that you've flexed your awesome media powers in The New Yorker, this Iraq war is inevitable. There is nothing anyone can do, we're going in.
Jeff: Hey, what can I say?
Eli: Well, you could try launching the right war on behalf of Israel the next time you pack up and go half way around the world and write a 15,000-word piece.

I joke. But I thought I would clear up a misconception about Jeff's 2002 piece. There is a consensus view in Left Blogistan that Jeff fed the false pre-Iraq war media narrative by reporting that both Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda supported Ansar al Islam, a Jihadist Kurdish outfit that has tried to kill the current Kurdish prime minister, Barham Salih. This view is  bolstered by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report from 2004 that found no evidence, based on interviews with former Iraqi officials, that Saddam supported the group. Plus there is a declassified DIA report from before the war that comes to the same conclusion.

This is all well and good, but it's also wrong. In 2008, the Institute for Defense Analyses released a more thorough report on Iraq's involvement in terrorism between the two gulf wars that was based on more than 600,000 captured Iraqi documents.

The report says, "In December 1998, the IIS developed a new resource in the form of a small, radical Kurdish-based Islamist movement. In a series of memoranda, the IIS, the Iraqi Intelligence Service, reported being impressed with the new terrorist organization's 'readiness to target foreign organizations . . . . Iranian border posts, and Kurdish parties."
For reasons that were never clear to me, the IDA never named the organization in the report. But in 1998 the only radical Islamic groups in Kurdistan were the two parties that eventually merged to form Ansar al Islam in 2001. The report goes on to say that the "IIS decided it was better to establish individual contacts within the organization and to provide them them 'financial and moral support.'"
This episode exemplifies the broader approach to Islamic radicals that Saddam Hussein's intelligence service took between the two Gulf Wars. The report uncovers many different points of connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, including evidence that the IIS funded Ayman Zawahiri in the early 1990s when he was the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The IIS also sought out suicide bombers to attack the Saudi royal family, and Iraq also sought to send assistance to jihadists fighting U.S. peacekeepers in Somalia in the early 1990s as well. This says nothing of Saddam's support for Hamas and other Palestinians suicide bombers in the second intifada.
The IDA report debunks the wilder conspiracies that Iraq was behind the 9-11 attacks.  But the report also undercuts the claim that Saddam Hussein, being a secular Ba'athist, was incapable of cooperating with radical Islamists who viewed the Iraqi dictator as an apostate ruler, Instead the report said that Iraq's relationship to radical Islamic terrorist groups was more like the relationship between rival Colombian cocaine cartels, in that it was possible for wary cooperation on mutual short term goals, and then violent competition later. "Recognizing Iraq as a second, or parallel, 'terror cartel' that was simultaneously threatened by and somewhat aligned with its rival helps to explain the evidence emerging from the detritus of Saddam's regime," the report said.
In addition to the IDA report, which I think is more definitive because it is an analysis of documents captured during the war and not simply derived from interviews with captured senior leaders, there are other good reasons to think Iraq and al Qaeda had more of a relationship than widely believed by the net left.
To start, this was the view of Carl Ford, the head of the State Department's Intelligence and Research bureau before the war. The left has singled out Mr. Ford for praise because his bureau dissented on the claim that Iraq had an active nuclear program before the war. Also, Mr. Ford was the star witness against John Bolton in 2005 during his contentious nomination hearing to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Thanks to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, we now know that Mr. Ford in his memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell before his 2003 speech to the United Nations believed Saddam Hussein was strengthening his relationship with al Qaeda before the war. "Our evidence suggests that Baghdad is strengthening a relationship with al-Qaeda that dates back to the mid-1990s, when senior Iraqi intelligence officers established contact with the network in several countries," he wrote.
That memo continued, "We have some evidence that Iraqi Intelligence has been in contact with elements in the northeastern area. And the al-Qaeda operatives there are in regular contact with other operatives located in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has also received information from other sources alerting it to the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in Baghdad."
Carl Ford in an interview with PBS Frontline has stood by his contention that al Qaeda operatives were flooding into Iraq before the war.
Finally, I have on three occasions--once in public and twice in private--asked the Prime Minister of Kurdistan, Barham Salih, whether he stood by this particular intelligence from 2002. He has on all these occasions said he did.
Intelligence reporting is a murky business. It relies a lot on anonymous sources. It is rarely definitive. So I suppose I could be persuaded that my current view on this is wrong. For anyone interested, in 2002 I reported about the split between the Pentagon civilian leadership and the CIA on this very question about Saddam's ties to al Qaeda here: http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/need-know.  I also recommend that skeptics read the IDA report for themselves. You can read it here: http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/iraqi/index.html