Enemy of Our Enemy
By PETER BERGEN
Published: March 28, 2006
BUSH administration defenders, right-wing bloggers and neoconservative publications are crowing about Iraqi documents newly released by the Pentagon that, they say, prove that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in league.
Even though the 9/11 commission found no "collaborative relationship" between the ultrafundamentalist Osama bin Laden and the secular Saddam Hussein, the administration's reiterations of a supposed connection — Vice President Dick Cheney has argued that the evidence for such an alliance was "overwhelming" — have convinced two out of three Americans that they had "strong" links.
Some administration supporters have drawn an analogy to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, in which Stalin and Hitler put aside ideology in favor of pragmatic goals (carving up the Baltic states, Poland and Finland). But history is not a good guide here: not only was the ideological divide between Al Qaeda and Baathist Iraq far greater than that between the two 20th-century dictators, but unlike Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the two sides had nothing practical to gain by working together.
What do the new documents establish? According to ABC News's translation of one of the most credible documents, in early 1995 Mr. bin Laden — then living in Sudan — met with an Iraqi government representative and discussed "carrying out joint operations against foreign forces" in Saudi Arabia. The document also noted that the "development of the relationship and cooperation between the two parties" was "to be left according to what's open [in the future] based on dialogue and agreement on other ways of cooperation."
The results of this meeting were ... nothing. Two subsequent attacks against American forces in Saudi Arabia — a car bombing that year and the Khobar Towers attack in 1996 — were carried out, respectively, by locals who said they were influenced by Mr. bin Laden and by the Saudi branch of Hezbollah, a Shiite group aided by Iranian government officials.
As for the other new documents, there is one dated Sept. 15, 2001, that outlines contacts between Mr. bin Laden and Iraq, but it is based on an Afghan informant discussing a conversation with another Afghan. It is third-hand hearsay.
And, strangely, another document, dated Aug. 17, 2002, from Iraq's intelligence service explains there is "information from a reliable source" that two Al Qaeda figures were in Iraq and that agents should "search the tourist sites (hotels, residential apartments and rented houses)" for them. If Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda had a relationship, why was it necessary for Iraqi intelligence to be scouring the country looking for members of the terrorist organization?
Another striking feature about the supposed Qaeda-Iraq connection is that since the fall of the Taliban, not one of the thousands of documents found in Afghanistan substantiate such an alliance, even though Al Qaeda was a highly bureaucratic organization that required potential recruits to fill out application forms.
All this goes to the central problem faced by proponents of the Qaeda-Iraq connection. It's long been known that Iraqi officials were playing footsie with Al Qaeda in the mid-1990's, but these desultory contacts never yielded any cooperation. And why should they have? Al Qaeda was able to carry out the embassy attacks in Africa in 1998, the bombing of the destroyer Cole in 2000 and 9/11 with no help from Iraq. The Iraqi intelligence services, for their part, could handle by themselves low-level jobs like bumping off Iraqi dissidents abroad. And after the botched attempt to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993, Saddam Hussein never attempted terrorism against an American target again.
We know, too, that Mr. bin Laden had long distrusted Saddam Hussein; months before the Kuwait invasion in 1990 he angrily warned colleagues that Iraq had designs on Persian Gulf states. He even offered his own fighters to the Saudis in that war, making it clear that he yearned for the "infidel" dictator to be overthrown.
If there was a method to Saddam Hussein's madness, it was that he wanted to remain in power. Al Qaeda, however, wanted theocratic regime change across the Middle East. In the end, their goals and worldviews were diametrically opposed, and no number of sketchy intelligence documents is going to bring them closer.
Peter Bergen, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda's Leader."