‘A link between Saddam and bin Laden? No way’
The editor of Britain's top military journal picks some holes in the US case for war.
‘The idea that al-Qaeda is getting political or military support from Iraq is ludicrous. I can see no way.’
Alex Standish, editor of the UK journal Jane’s Intelligence Digest – required reading for war-watchers and war-makers everywhere – thinks US intelligence officials are making ‘a big mistake’ on Iraq.
‘They are trying to convince us of something that is highly unlikely’, he says. ‘If they really believe that Saddam is feeding and sustaining bin Laden’s men, then they can’t possibly understand the fundamental difference between Iraq and al-Qaeda.’
US officials have been playing the al-Qaeda card in relation to Iraq since the start of 2002. In March, CIA director George Tenet claimed that ‘Baghdad has a long history of supporting terrorism [and] it has also had contact with al-Qaeda’ (1).
In early August, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed ‘there are al-Qaeda in Iraq’, accusing Saddam of ‘harbouring al-Qaeda operatives who fled the US military dragnet in Afghanistan’ (2).
Now, as CNN reported on 22 August, the Bush administration claims that al-Qaeda members have taken refuge in northern Iraq. And the fact that Saddam doesn’t control northern Iraq, which has been a US/British protected zone for Kurds since 1991? That’s no excuse, says Donald Rumsfeld: ‘In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near-total control over its population, it’s hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what is taking place in the country.’ (3)
‘Iraq and al-Qaeda: is there a link?’ asks a headline in this week’s Time magazine. According to Time: ‘As the world’s two most nefarious villains, bin Laden and Saddam ought to have reasons to work together. They share similar interests – hatred of Israel, hostility toward the rulers of Saudi Arabia and, especially, enmity toward their common nemesis, the US….’ (4)
‘But they are diametrically opposed’, insists Standish. ‘Absolutely, diametrically opposed. It seems the US State Department and others do not understand the basic, big difference in ideology between Iraq and al-Qaeda.
‘Saddam’s Ba’ath Party regime, despite its Islamic trappings, is a deeply secular and fundamentally socialist ideology. It is an Arab nationalist regime, which clearly resents Western influence anywhere in its backyard. But that doesn’t mean it shares any of the Islamic extremism of al-Qaeda, because it doesn’t.’
According to Standish, Saddam may be seen as mad by many in the West, but he’d have to be literally mad to offer support to bin Laden and co. ‘I can’t see any reason why Saddam, coming from a Arab nationalist, fairly secular background, would have any interest in supporting or promoting an extremist and militant religious ideology that would ultimately be opposed to everything he has ever stood for.’
‘You can think whatever you like about Saddam’, says Standish, ‘but he’s not so foolish that he would threaten his own region’s stability by financing the extreme and violent likes of al-Qaeda. Yet in the face of a complete absence of serious evidence, intelligence officials are suggesting that Saddam might one day provide al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction’.
As for the claims that there are al-Qaeda members inside Iraq with or without Saddam’s knowledge – ‘possibly’, says Standish. ‘But there are people in Britain who support al-Qaeda. That doesn’t mean Tony Blair is in contact with Osama bin Laden.’
Standish emphasises the US intelligence services’ ‘confusion’ over Iraq, claiming that they are ‘making mistakes’. But how much are claims of an Iraqi/al-Qaeda link the result of confusion, and how much are they a desperate attempt to justify invading Iraq?
Since President Bush labelled Iraq part of an ‘axis of evil’ in January 2002, US officials have wheeled out argument after argument against Saddam and for ‘regime change’. It started with the well-worn and evidence-lite accusation that Saddam is building weapons of mass destruction. Some officials then resurrected the age-old claim that Iraq is ‘withholding information about a US Navy pilot who was declared killed in action on the first day of the Gulf War in 1991, but who has since been redesignated by the Pentagon as possibly still living and missing in action’ (5).
In early August 2002, Rumsfeld even played the Nazi card, comparing the Bush administration’s warnings about Saddam Hussein to Winston Churchill’s stand against Hitler in the 1930s. ‘It wasn’t until each country [in Europe] got attacked that they said: “Maybe Winston Churchill was right. Maybe that lone voice expressing concern about what was happening was right”’, said Rumsfeld (6).
Isn’t the claim that Saddam and bin Laden are soulmates just another attempt to bolster support for an invasion?
‘Perhaps’, says Standish, ‘but there is also much confusion and, I’m afraid, ignorance within US intelligence circles about parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. There is an invincible ignorance about what al-Qaeda is and how it functions, and a complete misunderstanding of the internal politics of the Islamic world.’
For Standish, the claims of an Iraqi/al-Qaeda link are further evidence that US policy ‘is in danger of lumping all anti-Western Muslim movements together, and viewing the Islamic world too simplistically. The Bush administration sees “good Muslims”, like Jordan and Oman, and it sees “bad Muslims”, the Syrians, the Iranians and, top of the list, the Iraqis. This black-and-white approach means they miss lots of nuances and end up misunderstanding a region that they are keen to influence.’
America and other Western nations’ misreading of al-Qaeda has even helped to fuel support for al-Qaeda across the Islamic world, claims Standish. ‘The failure of the Western coalition to bring bin Laden to book has fuelled the myth of his invincibility. The coalition in the war against terror made this conflict personal from the outset, presenting it as a battle against one man.
‘In the early days, rather than focusing on the broader al-Qaeda network we made bin Laden public enemy number one – and because it was personalised it was picked up on in the Islamic world and they now have their latter-day hero. We gave bin Laden what Margaret Thatcher would call the “oxygen of publicity”.’
As the editor of an authoritative digest on the ins and outs of modern warfare, Standish is no anti-war activist – but he expresses concern about the drift of US foreign policy.
‘One of the charges laid against Saddam is that he openly preaches anti-Americanism. Of course Saddam is not a democratically elected leader, but one wonders how many other countries might come in for regime change for not liking America – even countries with democratically elected leaders, like Venezuela. It sometimes seems as if we’re moving towards a new era of interventionism – and that is potentially dangerous.’
According to Standish, the desire for regime change could backfire in the end. ‘In Iraq there is no guarantee that if we topple Saddam we will get the regime we want. There is likely to be great instability – and possibly even an Iranian-style revolution in Iraq, which would have unquantifiable consequences.’
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
(1) US says Iraq linked to al-Qaeda, BBC News, 19 March 2002
(2) Iraq harbours al-Qaeda, Rumsfeld says, Globe and Mail, 7 August 2002
(3) Al-Qaeda brass in Iraq?, CBS News, 22 August 2002
(4) Iraq and al-Qaeda: is there a link?, Time, 26 August 2002
(5) Iraq accused of hiding truth about missing US pilot, Independent, 23 August 2002
(6) Iraq urges dialogue to avert war, BBC News, 28 August 2002
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