WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has finally begun to release documents from the huge cache it has captured during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and they are being posted to the website of the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office. One of the most interesting reports to appear is an Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) review of Iraqi efforts to establish ties with the Saudi opposition in the years following the 1991 Gulf war. (Document # ISGZ-2004-009247; the Arabic original is available here. For the full text of our translation, click here.)
One section of this report has already been widely cited, because it mentions a meeting between the IIS and Osama bin Laden: on February 15, 1995, the IIS met with bin Laden in Sudan, and he made two requests of the Iraqis that 1) they broadcast the speeches of a radical Saudi cleric; and 2) they coordinate in attacking foreign forces inside Saudi Arabia.
That, of course, is startling news. Yet the document’s significance is much broader. Bill Clinton introduced a novel concept into the U.S. understanding of terrorism which has far out-lived his presidency: namely, that states had become irrelevant and that even very major attacks were now the work of groups and “networks,” unaided by states. This document, however, suggests otherwise: states remain important, and their resources far out-strip those of individuals and groups. This document also suggests that the much-ballyhooed division between “secular” and “Islamic” figures is, in fact, non-existent.
Mohammed al-Mas’ari and the CDLR
This undated review was apparently written in early 1997 (January 11, 1997, is the last date that appears in the document). It shows that Iraq was actively pursuing contacts with opponents of the Saudi government and begins by describing Iraqi efforts to establish ties with the “Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights,” an Islamic group somewhat less radical than bin Laden, but also more popular at the time.
Muhammad al-Mas’ari, who was seeking asylum in Britain, headed the CDLR. In September 1994, Ibrahim al-Sanusi, a Sudanese official, arranged for the IIS to meet in Khartoum with one of Mas’ari’s representatives, who proposed “joint co-operation” with Iraq and presented a “work plan.” Subsequently, Sanusi visited London to meet with Mas’ari himself. In December, Sanusi traveled to Baghdad, where he met Saddam’s son, Uday, and the IIS director. They discussed “in detail the Saudi opposition” and “studied the recommendations that Sanusi proposed on behalf of Mas’ari.” The Iraqis agreed to Mas’ari’s request that they broadcast opposition programs into Saudi Arabia, even as they sought closer ties with him, independent of the Sudanese.
The IIS established another channel to Mas’ari through a Saudi diplomat, Ahmad Khidhayyar al-Zahrani, who, although posted to the United States, requested political asylum in Britain. The British turned him down, and following an offer from the Iraqis, as the British were about to deport him, Zahrani took refuge in Baghdad. He spoke with Mas’ari from Iraq a number of times; their last conversation was on January 11, 1997. Mas’ari said that he could not leave Britain with his asylum application pending, but he would visit Iraq soon. Zahrani also contacted another Saudi figure in Britain, Saad al-Faqih.
This section of the report ends, “We are thus following up this issue to achieve the goal of establishing the nucleus for the Saudi opposition in the country.” (It is unclear whether “the country” refers to Iraq or Saudi Arabia, as Ayad Rahim notes.)
Bin Laden and the Reform and Advice Committee
Bin Laden is the second major figure described in this report. In 1994, while based in Sudan, he established the “Reform and Advice Committee,” which had an office in London. Al Qaeda was then a small, very secretive organization and is not mentioned in this document. Apparently, the IIS did not know of its existence. (U.S. intelligence was equally ignorant. As late as August 7, 1998, when two U.S. embassies in Africa were bombed nearly simultaneously, al Qaeda was not even on the official U.S. list of terrorist groups; it was added subsequently.)
During his visit to Baghdad, Sanusi also reported on Sudan’s efforts to establish contact between bin Laden and Iraq. Bin Laden had fears that his enemies would denounce him as an Iraqi agent, but he agreed to meet Sanusi. The Sanusi-bin Laden meeting led to a direct meeting between the IIS and bin Laden in Khartoum, in which bin Laden asked that Iraq broadcast the speeches of Shaykh Salman al-Awdah and carry out “joint operations against the foreign forces in the Land of Hijaz.”
Baghdad approved the first request, but the report says nothing about Iraq’s response to the second. Bin Laden, the report explains, was forced to leave Sudan for Afghanistan in July 1996, and “the relationship with him continues to be through the Sudanese side,” even as the IIS is seeking “a new channel in light…of his current whereabouts.”
The IIS Station in Yemen and Stations Elsewhere
As in Sudan, Iraq’s ambassador to Yemen was an IIS agent. Both countries were major centers of Iraqi intelligence activity, but the station in Sana’a did not enjoy the same degree of support from local authorities as that in Khartoum. As the report notes, “the Yemeni side did not keep the promise it gave” to work together to cultivate the Saudi opposition.
In an effort to establish relations with Saudi Hizbullah (a Shia organization), the IIS met several times with the leader of Yemeni Hizbullah. However, the IIS suspected his ties to Iranian intelligence and dealt cautiously with him, lest Iran’s involvement lead to the Saudi government’s learning about Iraq’s activities with the Saudi opposition.
The report also notes IIS efforts to develop ties with Saudis through its stations in New Delhi, Islamabad, and New York, none of which proved fruitful.
Were British authorities aware of the efforts of Iraqi intelligence to establish contact with Saudis resident in Britain? Were they aware that Ibrahim al-Sanusi, who presided over a “Popular Arab and Islamic Conference,” held in Khartoum on a biannual basis, was essentially acting as a front for Iraqi intelligence?
Why did bin Laden ask for Iraqi support in attacking foreign [i.e. U.S.] forces in Saudi Arabia? The most evident explanation is that he wanted to do so, but lacked the capability to carry out such an attack on his own.
Finally, the report suggests that states have a continuing importance, while ideology is not as important as many would have it. Once approached by Iraq, Mas’ari and bin Laden both sought things from that country. Iraq’s resources outstripped theirs in almost all respects. Mas’ari seemed to have had no objection to working with Baghdad; bin Laden’s concern appeared to center on how others might perceive him. Ideology — whether the Saudis were “secular” or religious — was irrelevant to the Iraqis, as was the Sunni-Shia divide, although a practical concern — Iran — inhibited them from contacting Saudi Hizbullah through the Yemeni branch. Sudan played an important role in facilitating Iraq’s contacts with Saudi oppositionists, but efforts to establish such ties in Yemen were unsuccessful, largely because the Yemeni government did not cooperate with Baghdad.
Below is additional commentary from Ayad Rahim, translator of the Iraqi intelligence report discussed above by Ms. Mylroie:
ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING THINGS in this document for Iraqis is the openness with which the Iraqi regime acknowledged that it engaged in terrorism, and particularly in its embassies. Iraqis have long considered the Baath regime a terrorist organization, the intelligence services its external terrorist arm, and the embassies as posts for the intelligence services (the dreaded mukhabarat). When an Iraqi came anywhere near an Iraqi embassy, he shuddered with fear. And God help you, if you actually had business to conduct in an embassy. You fretted about it for weeks, dared not go alone, posted friends outside, in case you lingered too long, then recovered from the humiliation. Since the fall of the regime, machine guns, weapons-silencers and torture implements have been found in abandoned embassy safes.
The document is also a reminder of how a gang of thugs took over a rich country, yet saw themselves as a legitimate enterprise, and conducting themselves accordingly. They addressed each other with honorifics and had a code of conduct and a core of beliefs, such as the myth of an Arab nation, with sections, ultimately to be united. They put together delineated reports about their doings, sent them up the line of command, and wrote in flowery language — albeit not very elegant.
An amusing phenomenon suggested in this document is Saddam’s Iraq granting people political asylum. While Iraqis fled the country in droves, seeking legitimate asylum elsewhere (an estimated four to five million ended up abroad, more than a million of them, forcibly driven out), the regime went searching far and wide, inviting “Arabs,” purely for their terrorist utility. Meanwhile, as actual Iraqis feared going to Iraq and had the doors of Iraqi embassies and consulates literally and figuratively slammed in their faces, their Arab “brothers” were being lavished with scholarships, the royal treatment and exorbitant sums of money, at their expense.
Finally, to Iraqis, the notion that Saddam wouldn’t deal with Islamists, because he was “secular,” is laughable. Iraqis, who witnessed on television Saddam’s dealings with any and all terrorists, have considered him the world’s biggest terrorist and have seen him ride whichever wind would prevail for him. During his war with Iran, he “became” Shi’a — among other things, posters of Muhammad’s family tree were circulated showing Saddam and his sons as descendents of the Prophet. In the ’90s, he had a revelation, and called for “a campaign of faithfulness,” putting the country on a fundamentalist track. Alcohol was banned, extreme tribal ways were advocated for dealing with women, and hundreds of women were beheaded in public (allegedly for prostitution, but actually for dissent), and their heads posted in front of their homes. Then there was his constant championing of “the Palestinian cause” and pan-Arabism, while hosting and sponsoring terrorist groups and conferences of every stripe and flavor — with, as we see in this document, a process of give-and-take, in the mix.