The Next Debate: Al Qaeda Link


Jul 20, 2003

By Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon

This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on July 20, 2003.

In all the debate over the disputed claims in President Bush's State of the Union address, we must not forget to scrutinize an equally important, and equally suspect, reason given by the administration for toppling Saddam Hussein: Iraq's supposed links to terrorists.

The invasion of Iraq, after all, was billed as Phase II in the war on terror that began after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But was there ever a credible basis for carrying that battle to Iraq?

Don't misunderstand—we should all be glad to see the Iraqi people freed from Saddam Hussein's tyranny, and the defeat of Iraq did spell the demise of the world's No. 4 state sponsor of international terrorism (Iran, Syria and Sudan all have more blood on their hands in the last decade). But the connection the administration asserted between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the organization that made catastrophic terrorism a reality, seems more uncertain than ever.

In making its case for war, the administration dismissed the arguments of experts who noted that despite some contacts between Baghdad and Osama bin Laden's followers over the years, there was no strong evidence of a substantive relationship. As members of the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999, we closely examined nearly a decade's worth of intelligence and we became convinced, like many of our colleagues in the intelligence community, that the religious radicals of Al Qaeda and the secularists of Baathist Iraq simply did not trust one another or share sufficiently compelling interests to work together.

But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld promised that the Bush administration had "bulletproof evidence" of a Qaeda-Iraq link, and Secretary of State Colin Powell made a similar case to the United Nations. Such claims now look as questionable as the allegation that Iraq was buying uranium in Niger.

In the 14 weeks since the fall of Baghdad, coalition forces have not brought to light any significant evidence demonstrating the bond between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Uncovering such a link should be much easier than finding weapons of mass destruction. Instead of having to inspect hundreds of suspected weapons sites around the country, military and intelligence officials need only comb through the files of Iraq's intelligence agency and a handful of other government ministries.

Our intelligence experts have been doing exactly that since April and so far there has been no report of any proof (and we can assume that any supporting information would have quickly been publicized). Of the more than 3,000 Qaeda operatives arrested around the world, only a handful of prisoners in Guantánamo—all with an incentive to please their captors—have claimed there was cooperation between Osama bin Laden's organization and Saddam Hussein's regime, and their remarks have yet to be confirmed by any of the high-ranking Iraqi officials now in American hands.

Indeed, most new reports concerning Al Qaeda and Iraq have been of another nature. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, the two highest-ranking Qaeda operatives in custody, have told investigators that Mr. bin Laden shunned cooperation with Saddam Hussein. A United Nations team investigating global ties of the bin Laden group reported last month that they found no evidence of a Qaeda-Iraq connection.

In addition, one Central Intelligence Agency official told The Washington Post that a review panel of retired intelligence operatives put together by the agency found that although there were some ties among individuals in the two camps, "it was not at all clear there was any coordination or joint activities." And Rand Beers, the senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council who resigned earlier this year, has said that on the basis of the intelligence he saw, he did not believe there was a significant relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

The Congressional oversight committees evaluating the administration's use of intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have said they will also examine whether the administration manipulated information regarding Iraq's involvement in terrorism. The terrorism issue must not be given short shrift because of the current controversy over claims of Iraq's unconventional weapons. The truth is, we knew for decades that Iraq had nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs—yet it was only after 9/11 that these programs were viewed as an intolerable threat that necessitated a regime change.

This is not only a question of political accountability—it also bears on our nation's fundamental approach to security. United States policy changed dramatically when the Bush administration, lacking compelling evidence of an Iraq-Qaeda link, decided to base the Qaeda part of its pro-war argument on a hypothetical situation. "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists," President Bush said in October. "Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints."

But this scenario is extremely unlikely. For years now the world's leading state sponsors of terrorism have had no confidence that they could carry out attacks against the United States undetected. That is why this brand of terrorism has been on the wane.

After it became clear to Libya that the United States could prove its responsibility for the 1988 attack on Pan Am 103—and United Nations sanctions were imposed—it got out of the business of supporting attacks on Americans. After American and Kuwaiti intelligence traced a plot to kill former President George H. W. Bush in 1993 to Baghdad, the Iraqi regime also stopped trying to carry out terrorist attacks against America. And when the Clinton administration made clear that it knew Iran was behind the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, Tehran ceased plotting terrorist strikes against American interests.

Because of America's intelligence and law enforcement capacities, the world's outlaw states know that they will pay a high price for sponsoring terrorists act against us—and an overwhelming one should they assist in attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. That is why Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and some 20 other countries with chemical and biological weapons have never, as far as we know, given one to terrorists.

Of course, the return of state-backed terror against America cannot be ruled out. And we are right to be concerned that North Korea, the world's most unpredictable regime, might sell a nuclear weapon to terrorists. But this much is clear: all states, even rogue ones, have a strong conservative impulse for self-preservation.

American policy must recognize this clear division between the old state-sponsored terrorism, which we have shown we can deter, and the new, religiously motivated attacks. First, we should think long and hard before seeking regime change as a means of behavior modification. Those who chafe to topple the mullahs in Iran, for example, court unforeseen consequences that may ultimately damage America's interests.

If we were to confirm that extreme elements like the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are harboring Qaeda operatives, we would need to press hard diplomatically, economically and even be prepared to threaten military action. But a concerted effort to upend the regime could well backfire, ending the slow but nonetheless clear evolution of Iran into a genuine democracy.

Second and most important, the Bush administration should focus more on Al Qaeda, the only terrorist group that poses an imminent, undeterrable danger. New instability in Afghanistan and the continued spread of jihadist ideology in the Islamic world mean that the prospects for another 9/11 are growing. America has been fortunate in capturing some high-ranking terrorists, but we still lack a comprehensive program to deal with a growing global insurgency and the long-term threat of radical Islam, for which intelligence and law enforcement will not suffice.

Rogue regimes are bad for the world and worse for the people forced to live under them. Over time, we can use diplomacy—including coercion—and deterrence to bring about change. For now, however, the direst threat to Americans comes not from the mullahs of Tehran, but from the mass-murderers of Al Qaeda.

Daniel Benjamin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Steven Simon, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, are authors of ''The Age of Sacred Terror.''

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