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Friday, June 18, 2004

I've just finished reading Staff Statement 15: Overview of the Enemy, which was presented to the 9/11 Commission, the US congressional body investigating the events surrounding September 11th. It's an interesting, if brief, history of the emergence and development of Al-Qaeda. It has some interesting information about the organisation's structure, funding and links to national governments. Of particular interest is its conclusion, "That there is no evidence that any government financially supported Al-Qaeda before 9/11 (other than limited support provided by the Taliban after Bin Ladin first arrived in Afghanistan)" (p. 10). This seems to fly in the face of the insinuations by various Bush Administration figures that Al-Qaeda received funding from "Rogue States".

The statement's comments on cooperation between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, much trumpeted as a justification for the invasion of Iraq, are also of interest:
Bin Ladin also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime. Bin Ladin had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded Bin Ladin to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Ladin in 1994. Bin Ladin is said to have requested space to establish training camps , as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda occurred after Bin Ladin had returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Ladin associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States. (p. 5, my emphasis)
That there is no link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda is hardly a great surprise. I've been saying much the same thing for over a year, but its nice to get some official recognition of the obvious. Despite this Blair and Bush continue to insist that such a link did in fact exist. The propaganda reasons for their making such an assertion should be obvious and I would expect nothing more from Bush, however Blair's insistence on the point is interesting. Downing Street made far less of the supposed connection in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq than did the White House. Perhaps he's simply grasping for straws as the various justifications for the war collapse around his ears.

To his credit, Blair's argument was more advanced than Bush's. The US President simply asserted, "The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al-Qaida is because there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida" (Guardian, 18/6/04). According to the Richard Norton-Taylor,
A Downing Street spokeswoman said the government was not claiming a direct link but that the prime minister "has always said Saddam created a permissive environment for terrorism and we know that the people affiliated to al-Qaida operated in Iraq during the regime".(Guardian, 18.6.04)
The reference to "the people affiliated to al-Qaida" presumably means Ansar Al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which did have a presence in Iraq prior to the war. There is no doubt that this group engages in terrorism and it is widely accepted that it is associated with Al-Qaeda, nonetheless there are serious questions about whether it had any links to the Saddam regime. Norton Taylor notes that intelligence sources "said that Ansar al-Islam, a militant Islamist group with al-Qaida connections based on the Iranian border in north-eastern Iraq, was out of Saddam's control" (Guardian, 18/6/04). The mere fact that they "operate in Iraq during the regime" is hardly a credible basis for a link. Various anti-Saddam groups were also so engaged, but no-one suggests that they had any links with the Ba'ath Party (beyond counting former party members amongst their ranks). In addition since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ansar Al-Islam have carried out at least 30 suicide bombings, the kidnapping and execution of American Nicholas Berg and possibly various other attacks, perhaps even some in Europe. Should we conclude from this that there is a link between the group and the US? I think not.

Returning to Statement 15, it should be noted that the document is not without errors and ommissions. Rahul Mahajan notes. "It misses a few elementary points, actually saying that al-Qaeda was created by bin Laden, not Abdullah Azzam, but that can probably be understood simply as an effect of trying to quickly gloss over a dozen years as background" (, 16/5/04). Some of the omissions are more telling. The statement refers to "the Afghan people's war against the Soviet Union" during the 1980s in which Muslims from around the world particpates. It quite correctly notes that it is in this conflict that the roots of Al-Qaeda lie (p. 1). However it makes no mention of Western support for the Afghan Mujahideen. This was extensive and consisted of money, training and weapons and continued despite extensive evidence of human rights abuses carried out by the "holy warriors". Similarly the document states, "By 1992, Bin Ladin was focused on attacking the United States" (p. 2). It makes no mention of the role that the First Gulf War played in this conversion from ally to enemy of the United States, although this seems to be widely accepted as the key event in his transition. The failure to acknowledge the roles our past mistakes have played in creating the problems we face today condemns us to repeat them.

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