September 24, 2003

Who's Afraid of a Terror Nexus?

We are living in a different time, with weapons of mass destruction more readily available to a number of nations and potentially to terrorist networks. We have to think about this problem in a dramatically different way than we did previously. And the president's point, I think, was soundÖthese three countries have engaged in activities with respect to their own people, as well as their neighbors, that have to be described as "evil." And we know of certain knowledge that each of those three countries is engaged in active weapons of mass destruction programs. And we do know that those countries have relationships with terrorist networks. It's that nexus between weapons of mass destruction and terrorist networks that the president was citing as being different for today and something that we really have to think very carefully about what we do as a people, and as a world, and as a society, given that nexus.
- Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, February 3rd, 2002

The Context
Last Friday, for the first time since a terrorist bomber killed twenty-two people at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad last month, the U.N. flag was once again raised to full staff there during a somber ceremony commemorating those who had perished in the attack. In a speech in New York honoring those who had died, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, ìToday, let us renew that commitment in the name of our irreplaceable, inimitable, unforgettable friends. Let us work to heal these unhealable wounds, by working every day to live up to the standard they set us.î This week diplomats from around the world have assembled at U.N. headquarters in New York for the 58th Session of the General Assembly. The ministers will attempt to determine precisely what the role of the U.N. will be in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Six thousand miles away the worldís newest failed state twists painfully in the wind as Islamist fighters continue to infiltrate the country to fight US forces and the security situation teeters on the brink of chaos. As American soldiers die by the day and criticism of the war at home reaches a dull roar; it is worth taking a step back and re-evaluating precisely how we got into this dangerous situation in the first place.

Two weeks ago, in a nationally televised speech informing the American electorate and the world of the status of the war against international terrorism, President Bush said that Iraq had become the ìcentral frontî of the war against al Qaeda. He asserted that the US is fighting the terrorists in Iraq ìso that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities.î

The Bushís administration pre-war logic rested largely on one principle: Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction which it might provide to terrorists bent on Americaís destruction. As such, Iraq represented a ìnexusî between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction that presented an ìimminent threatî to US security.

Over five months have passed since formal hostilities in Iraq ended and the US has found no weapons of mass destruction inside the country. Moreover, it now appears that the Bush teamís pre-war claim that Iraq had deep ties to al Qaeda may not have been accurate. Yet as Islamist fighters enter Iraq and link up with Baathist elements fighting the American occupation, Iraq has actually become a ìnexus of terror.î How did we arrive at a situation where the basis of the war, which remains highly contested, has now become true after the war?

In this essay I will contrast the evidence used to support Secretary of Defense Rumsfeldís pre-war claim that Iraq represented a ìnexus of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism,î with the doubts expressed within the US intelligence community about Iraqís ties to the group. I will then explore why the Bush administration may have actually wanted to create a ìnexus of terrorî in the newly failed state. Finally, I will compare Iraqís alleged ties to al Qaeda with those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who far from feeling the wrath of the United States, actually enjoy profitable strategic relationships with the worldís only superpower.

Iraq: A Nexus of Terror?
Although the Bush administration repeatedly asserted that Iraq and al Qaeda were working in concert to undermine and attack US interests around the globe, there remains no evidence that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the Sept. 11th attacks. Nevertheless, a recent Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of Americans believe the deposed Iraqi dictator did playa role in the atrocities. On Meet The Press two weeks ago, Vice President Cheney said he ìwasnít surprisedî that such a large percentage of Americans believed that Hussein was involved. But when President Bush was asked a few days later to clarify Cheneyís comments, he acknowledged that he had seen ìno evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th.î

In the wake of this acknowledgement some are wondering whether the President inadvertently admitted that he lied to Congress this past spring. After all, in his letter to the legislative branch formally justifying the war, dated March 18, 2003, Bush said that an invasion of Iraq was required to take necessary action against ìthose nations, organizations, or persons, who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.î Now Bush says that he has seen no evidence connecting Iraq to the Sept. 11th attacks.

Whether or not the President actually lied to Congress, there can be no doubt that in the months before the war, the Bush team repeatedly sought to connect Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda. The administrationís argument rested primarily on three claims. Secretary of State Colin Powell made the first two before the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. Powell asserted that one of Osama bin Laden closest advisors, Ayman al-Zawahiri, (who currently has a $25 million dollar bounty on his head), had met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Baghdad in 1992 and 1998 and that the Iraqi government paid Zawahiri $300,000 in 1998. Powell also alleged that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a known al Qaeda fighter injured in Afghanistan, had traveled to Baghdad for medical treatment in the aftermath of the US victory over the Taliban. Separately, the administration played up assertions made by Czech officials that Sept. 11th ringleader Mohamed Atta had met with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim al-Ani, an alleged Iraqi intelligence officer working at the Iraqi embassy in Prague in April 2001, five months before the Sept. 11th attacks and several weeks before Al-Aniís expulsion from Prague on April 22 for ìconduct incompatible with his diplomatic status.î

The US intelligence community was far from united behind both the veracity of these claims and the extent to which, if true, they painted a picture of Iraq as a ìnexus of terror.î In fact, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which represented the consensus of the US intelligence community and was circulated around the time of Bushís war speech on October 7th, 2002, enunciated the US intelligence communityís doubts about Iraqís connections with al Qaeda. In particular, intelligence officials were unable to produce any documentary evidence supporting the alleged Atta-Prague meeting. After a thorough search, intelligence officials concluded that ìthere was no evidence Atta left or returned to the U.S.î at the time he was supposed to be in Prague.

The classified intelligence report also urged caution about the reliability of conflicting reports by Iraqi defectors and captured al Qaeda members about Iraqís ties to the terror network. According to US intelligence analysts and congressional sources who read the report and were interviewed by Pincus for a June 22, 2003 article that appeared on the front page of the Washington Post, President Bush disclosed none of these doubts within the US intelligence community. Pincus observed that while Bush spoke of ìhigh-level contacts that go back a decade,î he neglected to mention that ìthe contacts occurred in the early 1990s, when Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader, was living in Sudan and his organization was in its infancyÖBush also did not refer to the reportís conclusion that those early contacts had not led to any known continuing high-level relationships between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda, the sources said.î (emphasis added)

In his speech, therefore, President Bush sought to emphasize intelligence findings that bolstered the case for an invasion of Iraq, while simultaneously neglecting intelligence that questioned or cast doubt upon his assertion that Iraq was a ìnexus of terror.î In short, he manipulated the intelligence to make it seem that the case for invading Iraq was stronger than it really was.

Proving that Bush lied to Congress and the American people is not my goal here, it just seems helpful to recall how strenuously Bush asserted that Iraq, as a possessor of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist safe harbor, represented an imminent threat to the United States warranting invasion. Now the Bush administration finds itself locked in a guerilla war which consumes more of our nationís resources and lives every day. Bushís political opponents use the word ìquagmireî to evoke Vietnam, but comparisons to that conflict are as of yet unwarranted. While there are some similarities including the fact that the United States is battling an asymmetrically endowed foe in unfamiliar territory, the situation in Iraq represents a new and different array of challenges that the administration is struggling to confront.

Ontological Bait and Switch
How did we get here? The standard answer is that the Bush administration misrepresented both the threat associated with Iraqís weapons of mass destruction and the linkage between al Qaeda and Iraq, and then went into battle with no plan for how to manage the ìpost-warî situation, and as a result now finds itself occupying a fractured country just as thirty years-worth of silenced societal rage is seething to the surface with explosive and lethal effect.

Perhaps this is true, but there is another possibility. What if the Bush administration not only knew that its ìnexus of terrorî argument was trumped-up, but actually set about trying to create the very condition of terror that it speciously claimed was the justification for the war in the first place? In other words, what if the administration wanted to create the very ìhornetís nestî that so-called ìexpertsî from RAND and CSIS are now decrying? The strategy goes: draw the terrorists in like moths to a flame. Entice then into a country with no laws or civil liberties where they will be in close proximity to 120,000 heavily armed US troops and then systematically kill or capture them. ìTake the battle to the enemy,î in the rhetoric of the administration.

Some might say that because George W. Bush is an ìintellectually uncuriousî thinker, the Bush administration is not sophisticated enough to plan, conceive, or execute something like this. They may be right. But while Bush has said and done some demonstrably stupid things, to underestimate the intellectual firepower of Rice, Wolfowitz, and Perle would be a mistake.

It seems clear that if the Bush team wanted to create a ìhornetís nestî of terrorists in Iraq, they have succeeded. By the end of August, as the number of soldiers killed after Bush announced the end of formal hostilities surpassed those killed during the war itself, radical Islamist fighters were streaming into the country and establishing tactical connections with the secular Baathist fighters waging a guerilla war against US forces.

This new partnership wasted little time before ramping up its campaign of terror. First, the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was blown up on August 19th, killing the U.N. special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others. Ten days later, a massive bomb exploded in front of Imam Ali Mosque, one of the holiest Islamic shrines in Iraq. Over one hundred people perished, including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

These atrocities put the Bush administration on the defensive. The Democratic Presidential candidates, newly emboldened by the recent and rapid decline in Bushís poll numbers, went on the attack, charging the administration with having no coherent plan for ìwinning the peace.î In particular, critics of the administration charged that Iraq was now becoming the very hotbed of terrorism that the Bush administration had denounced before the war. The Bush teamís response: we have the terrorists right where we want them.

On one level this argument is unremarkable; just more cowboy bluster, like ìBring ëem on!î But consider the statementís ramifications. If the Bush administration actually wants ìthemî to be ìthereî then the question must be asked: What did the Bush team do, if anything, to contribute to this outcome? What did the Bush team do, if anything, to ensure the battle is fought in Iraq, not ìon our own streets, in our own citiesî?

Is it possible that the Bush administration not only exaggerated the degree to which Iraq was connected to al Qaeda, but actually sought to create the very ìnexus of terrorî that it was ostensibly going to war to defeat? Is it possible that the administrationís argument for war was knowingly spurious and the creation of a ìnexus of terrorî inside Iraq has long been one of the principal goals of the Bush administrationís foreign policy with respect to Iraq and the Middle East?

In neo-conservative circles this theory in neither new nor earth-shattering. On the contrary it is a central strategic feature of neoconservative foreign policy. As Joshua Micah Marshall explained in his article Practice to Deceive, neoconservatives believe that ìa full-scale confrontation between the United States and political inevitable, so why not have it now, on our terms, rather than later, on theirs?î But while neoconservative intellectuals can quietly speak of such things, the Bush team could never come out and enunciate such a policy for at least two reasons.

First, to admit that the goal was to create a ìnexus of terrorî in Iraq would expose the fact that lies were used to justify the invasion. It would mean admitting that the American electorate was browbeaten into the false belief that it was essential to invade Iraq and topple its government. After all, saying, ìweíre invading Iraq in order to create a nexus of terror,î would make laughable the claim that Iraq was linked to al Qaeda.

Second, American mothers and wives would surely object to the thought that their sons and husbands were being treated like so many pieces of meat thrown to attract sharks. (Can anyone think of the last time 120,000 US servicemen and women were used as bait?) The families of soldiers are already distressed at the extension of service time and hostile conditions that their loved ones face on a daily basis in the service of an elusive and nebulous end. The idea that their purpose in Iraq is actually to bring as many terrorists into the county to try to kill them is not something that would play particularly well at election time.

But what if this is indeed the policy? Three questions immediately come to mind.

First, for the ìmoths to the flameî strategy to work, a significant number of the terrorists, preferably all of them, would have to be drawn into Iraq where they would be killed. The idea is to fight them in a desert 15,000 miles away, not in Washington D.C. or the skies above Manhattan.

But what about the al Qaeda operative in Hamburg, Peshawar, or Buffalo who declines Rumsfeldís invitation to ìthe big showî ñ a bloody, millennial, end-times struggle between the forces of good and evil at the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and the Euphrates ñ in favor of quietly preparing for his martyrdom while he waits for the phone call or email ìGoî signal? How does the ìmoths to the flameî theory prevent him from carrying out his attack on American interests either inside or outside the United States?

Second, now that any weapons of mass destruction that Saddam may have had prior to the war have either been hidden or spirited out of Iraq entirely, what is to prevent them from being disseminated to actual terrorists and used to attack US interests around the globe? The fundamental issue about Saddamís weapons of mass destruction is not whether the Bush team hyped the threat they posed, but their current location. If they exist, where are they? Former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said recently that he suspected that the weapons were destroyed in the 1990s, but that Saddam maintained the appearance that he had them for deterrent effect. While this may be true, it doesnít seem prudent to blindly accept this explanation for their disappearance. If they exist today, it behooves the Bush team to find them, something they appear to be having some difficulty doing.

Where are the arrests on the international arms black market? Where are the interdictions at sea of weapons, such as the scud missiles found on the North Korean vessel So San, seized by Spanish and American forces on the Arabian Sea on its way to Yemen on December 9th, 2002? To be sure, policing the international weapons trade is difficult, as the Bush administration discovered when it was forced to release the So San and send it with its cargo to Yemen. The ship was sovereign and legal, and the concealed scud missiles apparently legitimate cargo under trade on the international arms market.

On the home front, the Department of Justice has made some progress in intercepting illicit international arms traffic. The most highly publicized weapons interdiction case in recent months involved an unfortunate British gentlemen, Hemant Lakhani, 69, who unwittingly became the victim of an elaborate double sting operation conducted by Russian and American intelligence agencies, when he was caught trying to smuggle a dud Russian surface-to-air missile into New Jersey to supply to a fictitious Somali terrorist group. Glad to know that Tom Ridge is keeping busy. The poor chapís bail hearing was ultimately set for Sept. 11th, 2003.

Third, even if one assumes that most of the terrorists are going to come to ìthe big show,î you still have to actually fight them. Needless to say, this type of combat will not take place between columns of infantryman under the rubric of the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention applies to states ñ al Qaeda is a non-state actor. As a result, the US military really has no reason to observe the Geneva Convention under such conditions anyway, (hence Guantanamo Bay.) This conflict will be defined by guerilla combat and asymmetric warfare more broadly speaking. Sabotage, ambushes, sniping, and suicide bombings are all tactics that American soldiers can expect in the months ahead. The death toll of US soldiers killed since Bush declared the end of formal hostilities will continue to rise steadily.

Where Are The Real Nexuses of Terror?
Even if one is willing to accept administrationís pre-war claims of actual, if infrequent, contact between Iraq and al Qaeda, the picture that emerges is hardly that of a terror nexus. The connection between Iraq and al Qaeda pales in comparison to the connection between bin Ladenís minions and Pakistanís Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). The ISI has been called ìa state within a stateî for its secrecy and ability to manipulate the political leadership of Pakistan. The ISI uses proceeds from illegal drug and arms traffic to finance its continuing low intensity war with India over Kashmir.

Shortly after Sept. 11th, 2001, James Risen and Judith Miller revealed how the ISI used al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan to train radical militants who proceeded to use their new found skills in the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. In the aftermath of the Afghan war, specifically the battle of Tora Bora, it was widely reported that members of the ISI helped members of al Qaeda escape into the lawless tribal border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is at least possible that rogue elements of the ISI, probably mid-level Pashtuns who oppose General Pervez Musharrafís alliance with the United States, continue to facilitate the safe passage of anti-US elements into and out of Afghanistan as well as supply them with weapons and other resources.

The ISI has also been implicated in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was investigating them at the time of his death. In his recent book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, Bernard-Henri Levy charges that al Qaeda, working in concert with the ISI, had Pearl killed because he was close to connecting them. According to Levy, Pearl had discovered that the ISI was directly implicated in the Sept. 11th attacks after learning what the FBI was to later confirm: that then ISI director general, General Ahmad Mehmoud, instructed a man named Ahmad Umar Sheikh to wire $100,000 to Mohammed Attaís bank account in the US prior to the Sept. 11th attacks. Levy arrives at the conclusion that Pearl had discovered evidence of ìal-Qaeda and ISI working together to destroy the Towers.î

Iraqís alleged connection to al Qaeda also pales in comparison to Saudi Arabiaís connection to the group, despite the Saudi ruling familyís protestations and crocodile tears to the contrary. The ruling family, through its slick D.C. propaganda man, Nail Al-Jubeir, nominally the director of information at the Saudi Embassy, has repeatedly argued that the Saudi government would never aid al Qaeda, because the terrorist group has targeted the royal family itself.

This claim is as disingenuous as it is false: the fact that fifteen of the nineteen Sept. 11th hijackers were Saudi is just the beginning. There is a large body of evidence that suggests that the Saudis were more involved in the Sept. 11th attacks than they would have the American public believe. Indeed, in the recently released Congressional report on the attacks, the Bush administration ordered the redaction of 28 pages that detailed how senior Saudi officials funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations that may have helped finance the destruction of the World Trade Center, according to a July 25, 2003 New York Times article by David Johnston. The classified section of the report also revealed the role played by Saudi intelligence operatives in facilitating the movements of at least two of the Sept. 11th hijackers, according to an August 2, 2003 article in the same newspaper by Johnston and James Risen.

Gerald Posner has presented even more explosive evidence of Saudi Arabiaís connection to al Qaeda in his new book Why America Slept. Posner charges that the house of Saud supported al Qaeda for years and that elements of the Saudi government knew about the Sept. 11th attacks before they occurred. According to Posner, al Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah, captured last year in Pakistan, told US interrogators that longtime Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz agreed to secretly fund bin Laden and al Qaeda as long as the group did not operate inside the kingdom.

In other words, the Saudi royal family entered into a corrupt bargain with Osama bin Ladenís terror network whereby the latter agreed to refrain from promoting jihad in the kingdom in exchange for protection and funding, which flowed largely through Prince Turki. According to Posner, Zubaydah told US interrogators that he was present at a meeting in Kandahar in 1998 with Turki, senior ISI agents and Taliban officials. There Turki promised, according to Posner, that ìmore Saudi aid would flow to the Taliban, and the Saudis would never ask for bin Ladenís extradition, so long as al-Qaeda kept its long-standing promise to direct fundamentalism away from the kingdom.î

Thus Posner concludes, the Saudis ìeffectively had (bin Laden) on their payroll since the start of the decade,î and directed funds to him through three princes, including none other than Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, whose horse War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby in 2002. It is worth noting, as Posner does, that all three Saudi princes implicated in the al Qaeda bargain died within days of one another in the summer of 2002. On July 22, 2002, the 43 year-old Prince Ahmed died of a ìheart attack.î One day later Prince Turki, 41, was killed in what was called ìa high-speed car accident.î The last member of the trio, Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, officially ìdied of thirstî one week later while traveling east of Riyadh. While he acknowledged to Time magazine that their deaths ìmay in fact be coincidences,î Posner notes that the men died suddenly after CIA officials passed along Zubaydahís accusations to the Saudi royal family. Finally, Posner concludes that Prince Ahmed, whose horse won the Kentucky Derby, actually ìknew that an attack was scheduled for American soil on that day.î

President Bush now asserts that Iraq is the central stage of the war on terror. He may have a point. After all, the spotlight of the international media is trained on the country at a time when radical Islamists are making the pilgrimage to Iraq from points throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia to fight American forces and blow up humanitarian offices and mosques. But even as Iraq becomes the very ìnexus of terrorî that the Bush team claimed it was before the war, the newly failed state also becomes a canard, a distraction from the true ìnexuses of terror:î Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran. There is much more voluminous and convincing evidence of Pakistani and Saudi connections to al Qaeda than there is of an Iraqi connection. And Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been directly implicated in a devastating sneak attack on the United States that killed thousands. Why arenít we going after them?

It is understandable that the Bush team would want to fight this conflict in an arena far removed from America, in a setting where there are no constitutional protections and they wonít be hampered by the Geneva Convention. The American military has already invented a new classification of prisoners, so-called ìsecurity detainees,î who enjoy less rights than standard prisoners of war. It is clear that it makes the US militaryís life easier to conduct military operations in a stateless environment. The problem is if the Bush teamís goal was to create a ìnexus of terrorî where there was none, this represents an appalling abrogation of duty and a deception of Congress and the American public of historic proportions.

Speciously claiming that Iraq was an imminent threat while simultaneously protecting Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is one thing. Creating a ìnexus of terrorî out of thin air is something else entirely. In a realist sense, we have important strategic relationships with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that must be tended to. But when do these relationships begin to undermine the war on international terrorism? Wanting to keep the terrorists away from the mainland of the United States is a noble goal, but when does using American soldiers as bait become too costly an option? Employing counterintuitive strategy is not in itself bad, but when does concealing the true nature of that strategy begin to undermine the very basis of the American system of democracy?

Posted by Sam at 05:42 PM GMT

Well, that's quite a post. Your central point -- that Neocons deliberately set out to create a hornet's nest -- bears too many hallmarks of a conspiracy theory, though: I think you attribute far too much omniscience, omnipotence and deliberate intent to the administration for what is clearly a haphazard postwar trajectory of events.

To me, all the evidence points to an administration whose aim was to remove Saddam Hussein, because it had managed to convince itself through paranoid induction that there were WMDs and terror links. That was the great Neo-con strategy, as published. To posit a hidden agenda beneath all this is too great an alternate reading of history. Too great because there are simpler reasons why the fly-paper theory is now put forward (and I always favor Occam's razor in such matters): The flypaper theory is obviously what you would say of things go badly. It's the "at least they're not fighting over here" shrug of the shoulders when you are not in control.

Perhaps over cigars on a wintry December night last year in a study somewhere in Arlington, Perle leaned over to Wolfowitz and said, "Paul, what if Ahmed (Chalabi) can't deliver us a stable Iraq?" Paul puffed on his Dominican cigar, thought a moment, and said, "Dick, we'll tell 'em we ordered an unstable Iraq."

Posted by: Stefan Geens on September 24, 2003 09:55 PM