Just two years prior to President Bush taking office, the connection between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda was a hot topic in the worldwide press.
The accounts started just after Operation Desert Fox was launched by the Clinton administration on December 16, 1998. Within days of the strike Saddam dispatched one of his top intelligence operatives, Faruq Hijazi, to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden and his top aides. A couple of days after the meeting with Hijazi, Bin Laden issued a public statement, which read (in part), �The British and the American people loudly declared their support for their leaders decision to attack Iraq. It is the duty of Muslims to confront, fight, and kill them.� Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda�s number two, issued similar threats earlier in the month.
The meeting, as well as bin Laden and Zawahiri�s threats, set off alarm bells around the world. Milan�s Corriere Della Sera first reported in late December that Saddam and bin Laden had �sealed a pact.� That account was quickly followed up by reports around the world. Media outlets � left and right of center - in the U.S., London, Moscow, and throughout the Arab world all reported the meeting.
But, that�s not all they reported. The meeting was viewed as just one more data point connecting Saddam and al Qaeda. Many of the press accounts discussed a long pattern of contacts, training, and other areas of potential cooperation. For example, an account in Newsweek openly worried about the possibility of an Iraqi �false flag� operation carried out by bin Laden�s operatives. ABC News aired a segment on the nightly news worried about the possibility of bin Laden getting access to Saddam�s WMD technology. One account coming out of Moscow reported, �Hundreds of �Afghan Arabs� are undergoing sabotage training in Southern Iraq and are preparing for armed actions on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. They have declared as their goal a fight against the interests of the United States in the region.�
There are plenty of additional examples to choose from, but I think you get the point. While the press has had a hard time finding evidence of a relationship since 2002, this wasn�t the case in late 1998 and early 1999.
The Clinton administration was most certainly aware of all these reports. Less than two months after the meeting between Hijazi and bin Laden, Richard Clarke worried that Osama may �boogie to Baghdad� if the U.S. struck targets in Afghanistan. In fact, there were numerous reports that Saddam had offered bin Laden safe haven. Why would Saddam offer bin Laden safe haven if they were mortal enemies? Saddam was willing to offer bin Laden safe haven, but he wouldn�t work with al Qaeda on other endeavors?
Interestingly, we know that Clarke�s worries about bin Laden�s �boogie to Baghdad� were most certainly heightened by what the intelligence community was saying about Iraqi scientists equipping al Qaeda with VX nerve gas. While the CIA did not have good HUMINT inside Iraq or al Qaeda, the agency did find evidence of a relationship in Sudan and this evidence conflicts with the prevailing assumption that ideology precluded cooperation.
After al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, the Clinton administration destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan as part of America�s official retaliation. The destruction of the al-Shifa factory was instantly controversial. But the Clinton administration, and especially Richard Clarke, argued that al-Shifa was a front company for al Qaeda�s WMD procurement efforts. They also argued that the intelligence connecting Iraqi scientists to al Qaeda�s WMD efforts at al-Shifa was solid.
Many of the details surrounding al-Shifa remain murky. But, the CIA argued that there were several facilities similar to al-Shifa in Sudan and that Iraqi scientists were working at all of them. It appears that this was one of the rare occasions when the CIA actually put together multiple threads of intelligence from a variety of sources.
Here, the debate over Saddam�s ties to al Qaeda intersects with the controversy surrounding what happened to his WMD programs. Perhaps the Iraqi intelligence documents can shed light on this controversy as well. tp://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=22055