False trails that lead to the al-Qaeda 'links'
Veteran CIA analyst Melvin Goodman, who heads the National Security Project and maintains contacts with former colleagues, summarises what many in the intelligence community on both sides of the Atlantic believe: 'I've talked to my sources at the CIA,' he said last week, 'and all of them are saying the evidence [of a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam] is simply not there.'
False trails that lead to the al-Qaeda 'links'
Ed Vulliamy in New York, Martin Bright in London and Nick Pelham in Amman
Sunday February 2, 2003
Since the aftermath of 11 September, it has been the Holy Grail of Bush administration hardliners: to link Iraq with al-Qaeda - and join up its war on terrorism with its policy of regime change in Baghdad.
Last week it was promised again, first by President George Bush in his State of the Union address and later by Tony Blair, who said he 'knew' of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. US Secretary of State Colin Powell says those links will be revealed this week. But with only weeks before the expected outbreak of war, sceptics are asking how real - and how new - the evidence of that link will be.
That Saddam Hussein has supported terrorism in the past, as claimed by Bush, is no revelation. It is well-documented and accepted at times even by Iraq. Iraq has played host to the Abu Nidal Organisation; it has publicly offered cash incentives to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and Saddam's intelligence agents were implicated in a plot to kill George Bush senior.
But the question that remains unresolved is whether there is any evidence that Saddam is in bed with al-Qaeda. The answer is likely to devolve to two lines of investigation - both of which, Bush administration officials will say, lead directly from Saddam to al-Qaeda.
The first connection, Powell is certain to allege, is a one-legged Jordanian wounded in the allied bombing of Afghanistan, who the Bush administration will argue is that missing link. He is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Stories about al-Zarqawi have been carefully fed to the media, suggesting his key role as the connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam. Most of them have been unsourced. And all have been dismissed by those who have followed the career of this veteran of the global jihad, who was fighting for Islam long before the world had heard of Osama bin Laden and whose al-Qaeda credentials have, in part, been created to fulfil the agendas of those who want him for other reasons.
So it is al-Zarqawi who is credited with being al-Qaeda's chemist-in-chief - an expert in weapons of mass destruction. It is al-Zarqawi, too, who is credited with being the mastermind behind a plot to use ricin to poison food at a British military base and other Allied military sites across Europe.
What is known about the career of this master terrorist? According to Jordanian intelligence, al-Zarqawi fled Afghanistan in late 2001, first to Iran, from where he was expelled, and then to Baghdad, where he received treatment for his wounds and had his leg amputated. It was while he was in Baghdad that the old campaigner's phone calls home were intercepted by the Jordanians and passed to colleagues in US.
Jordan's interest in al-Zarqawi is twofold. The country has named him as being behind the killing of US aid official Lawrence Foley, 60, in Jordan last October, on the basis of the confessions of two involved in the killing who say al-Zarqawi supplied them with weapons and money for attacks.
There is a second version of the al-Zarqawi story, supplied by German intelligence. Here his real name is Ahmed al-Kalaylah. They say he is al-Qaeda's combat commander, appointed to orchestrate attacks on Europe, and place him among the top 25 in the al-Qaeda hierarchy.
Each version could have elements of truth but both are are at odds with the facts known about his career in terrorism. According to jihadists who knew him in Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi's CV - though vicious - is less interesting than some make out.
They say that, despite fighting in the CIA-backed war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, he does not adhere to the ideology of al-Qaeda, a view shared by the CIA. Indeed, his name does not figure on its list of the 22 most wanted Islamic terrorists and he has never been mentioned in the list of senior al-Qaeda men in bin Laden's entourage in Afghanistan.
So why has al-Zarqawi suddenly been elevated to the position of a senior bin Laden lieutenant? The answer, say some, is that the Jordanians need a figure like al-Zarqawi to clamp down on their own Islamist extremists. One London-based Islamist said: 'If you want the key to the al-Zarqawi story, then look at the source of the information. The Jordanians have wanted their own bin Laden figure for some time and he fits the profile.'
'He's just an ordinary man,' said a former Arab mujahid who fought in the Afghan war against the Russians. 'He arrived in Afghanistan in 1990 and fought against Russia in Khosht in 1991.' He said that when the Taliban stormed to power, he chose to stay and in 1999 formed a close-knit group of Jordanians linked to the traditional Islamic-resistance group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
There, al-Zarqawi ran a guesthouse in Logo, a one-hour drive west of Kabul in an area ruled by the anti-Taliban warlord Gulbedin Hekmatyar. 'He lived with a group of 30-40 Jordanians of the Muslim Brotherhood,' said the source. 'There wasn't even a training camp.'
If the link to al-Zarqawi is at best circumstantial, the second connection that the Bush administration apparently plans to develop is equally tendentious. That connection is to the al-Ansar group, which, like al-Zarqawi, is also sheltering in Kurdish northern Iraq. The leader of this group, also expected to be name checked by Powell this week, is Mullah Krekar.
His group certainly is nasty, but what baffles many is that, despite the allegations about his group, he remains at large, living unmolested by the authorities in Norway.
Unlike al-Zarqawi, Krekar can speak for himself. 'I can say to you that this is not true that I am a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda,' Krekar, 47, said in an interview in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. 'I will wait until Wednesday, and if Powell says anything against me, I can use documents to prove it is not true. Everything: that we have chemical bombs, [ties to] Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, all of those things.'
Despite claims by US officials that he is a terrorist specifically linked to al-Qaeda, they also admit they do not have the evidence to charge him, despite two interviews with the FBI.
'I told the FBI, "I can come to America and prove it's not true in your court",' said Krekar, who studied Islamic theology with a founder of al-Qaeda and has praised bin Laden. 'I am not an enemy of America.'
Krekar also purports to puncture another alleged US link between his group and Saddam - via fellow al-Ansar leader, Abu Wael, who is accused of being an Iraqi intelligence liaison to the group. Krekar scoffs at the claim, alleging, to the contrary, that Iraqi agents tried to poison Wael in 1992 and would kill him if they could. Krekar adds what many in the intelligence community claim: 'Our aim has always been the toppling of the Iraqi Baath regime.'
Which leaves us with what? Veteran CIA analyst Melvin Goodman, who heads the National Security Project and maintains contacts with former colleagues, summarises what many in the intelligence community on both sides of the Atlantic believe.
'I've talked to my sources at the CIA,' he said last week, 'and all of them are saying the evidence [of a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam] is simply not there.'
What is the evidence that Iraq supports terrorism?
Iraq is one of half a dozen countries designated by the US as supporters of terrorism, although most groups are inactive. It hosts the Abu Nidal Organisation and other Palestinian splinter groups like the Palestine Liberation Front, but so too have neighbouring countries - and they are not about to be invaded. More recently Saddam has supported groups with agendas more closely identified with Iraq's regional relationships, including the Mujahideen e-Khalq group of dissidents fighting Iran. Saddam has also offered 'rewards' of up to $25,000 to families of 'martyrs' killed fighting the Israelis. But it is unclear if any money has been paid out.
Is it true that Iraq has supported terrorism against the US?
In 1993, the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) plotted to assassinate, with a car bomb, former US President George Bush and the Emir of Kuwait. Kuwaiti authorities thwarted the plot and arrested 16 suspects, led by two Iraqi nationals. During the Gulf war Saddam ordered some clumsy operations against US interests with little impact. Claims of an Iraqi intelligence link to Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, are now largely discounted.
What about al-Qaeda?
The evidence on al-Qaeda is very flimsy. Claims of a meeting between an Iraqi intelligence officer and Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 suicide bombers, are shaky at best. So too is knowledge of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an alleged associate of Osama bin Laden's, who is said to have been in Baghdad for medical treatment. President George Bush has pointed to the existence of al-Ansar, a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda in Kurdistan, which shares Saddam's agenda of fighting the Kurds. But it operates in territory not controlled by Iraq. Others point to the fact that Iraqis are held by the US at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - but so too are citizens of Britain, France, Russia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and many other nations. Despite comments by Tony Blair that he knows of 'links between Iraq and al-Qaeda' intelligence officers remain dubious.
address: Observer UK
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