Last night Donald Trump unburdened himself of the view that Saddam Hussein was an efficient anti-terrorist operator. It is a statement Trump has made before, and it is one of such staggering ignorance—yet one which has such wide sympathy—that it seemed worth examining the multiple ways in which it was wrong.
Trump and Saddam
Trump’s praise for Saddam having “made a living off killing terrorists” in February followed a statement in December 2015,
“Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy, ‘oh he’s using gas!'” Trump said. Describing the way stability was maintained in the region during that time, Trump said “they go back, forth, it’s the same. And they were stabilized.”
One might wonder if the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction against the Iranians during the eight-year war Saddam started can really be called “stability,” and the genocidal use of such weapons as part of the Anfal campaign that murdered at least 100,000 Kurds hardly seems to have helped regional stability either.
Trump’s exact statement from last night was:
Saddam Hussein was a bad guy … really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. It was over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism. You want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq.
Christopher Hitchens used to say that anyone who would content themselves with saying only that Saddam Hussein was “a bad guy” did not know anything about that man, his regime, or Iraq, and that rule can be safely said to hold in this case. It does accidentally contain a truth, however: If you “want to be a terrorist, you go to Iraq,” was in fact a well-known maxim for international terrorists for many decades.
A Long Trail of Murder
Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal) had many paymasters and agendas in his career as the most infamous international terrorist before Usama bin Ladin, but in preparation for that career and then for long stretches of it he was sheltered by Saddam. Hitchens met al-Banna in 1976 in Iraq, where he threatened Said Hammami, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representative to Britain and a moderate who had publicly promoted a two-state solution long before it was acceptable in Palestinian politics. Hammami was struck down in London on 4 January 1978 by a member of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO). This was just one of many crimes Saddam enabled al-Banna to commit.
Al-Banna departed Iraq to Assad’s Syria in 1979, but returned to Saddam’s realm in March 1982, after he had acquired the moniker of “the Arab world’s foremost terrorist.” It was from Baghdad that al-Banna attempted to murder Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to London, sparking Israel’s invasion of Lebanon to dismantle the PLO’s state-within-a-state. Al-Banna had been assisted by his cousin, Marwan al-Banna, and an Iraqi intelligence officer, Nawaf al-Rosan. The assassination was, by al-Banna’s own effective admission (p. 240), directed from Baghdad, and was intended to—and succeeding in—damaging to the strategic standing and military capacity of Saddam’s great rival in Damascus that had heretofore had almost unchallenged primacy over Lebanon. The other intended outcome—to divert Clerical Iran to “resistance” against Israel, rather than being willing to continue fighting the Iran-Iraq War—failed.
A wave of assassinations and attempted assassinations then followed from the ANO against Jordanian, Kuwaiti, and Emirati officials. There is every reason to believe that the attacks against Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates especially were, at the least, encouraged by Saddam since those two states were making overtures to normalize their relations with the Iranian revolution that Saddam was then at war with.
Al-Banna departed Iraq again in November 1983—though parts of his organization remained there—and again put himself at the service of Hafez al-Assad. Though the Assad regime is now presenting itself as a victim and opponent of terrorism, before geopolitical amnesia set in the regime was known for carrying the near-unique attribute of having sponsored terrorism against every single one of its neighbours. Assad’s bugbear in the mid-1980s was Jordan—which was showing dangerous signs of making peace with Israel—so al-Banna was directed to blow up her diplomatic outposts and murder her diplomats, which he duly did from India to Spain.
Al-Banna would, in 1987, take up residence in Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya—another bizarrely lamented government (including by Trump) whose record as a global, long-standing state-sponsor of terrorism has been clumsily revised—where al-Banna ended up massacring most of ANO’s members after being deceived into thinking his organization was riddled with spies. Al-Banna was reported to be in Egypt in the summer of 1998, and finally came back to Iraq in December 1998. The curtain finally came down for al-Banna in August 2002: a suicide, reported Saddam’s regime, wherein he had shot himself three times in the head.
Wadi Haddad, the deputy leader of George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and its head of foreign operations, is the man “chiefly responsible for exporting Palestinian terrorism to Europe” (p. 246). The first PFLP action was the July 1968 hijacking of an El Al 707 that was forced to land in Algiers, and freed sixteen Palestinians after a month-long negotiation with Israel. Haddad was shortly after this recruited as a fully-fledged agent by the KGB. In March 1972, Habash formally renounced international terrorism, a position bitterly contested by a Haddad-led wing of the PFLP, which broke away and formed the Special Operations Group. It was in Saddam’s Baghdad that Haddad’s pro-terrorism faction found haven (p. 250).
Haddad directed the two most spectacular terrorist operations of the 1970s out of Baghdad: the 21 December 1975 takeover of the meeting of the OPEC oil ministers in Vienna and the 27 June 1976 hijacking of an Air France plane that ended a week later with the Entebbe raid on 4 July. On the ground, the OPEC attack was led by a man nearly as notorious as al-Banna, the Venezuelan terrorist and mercenary Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, much better known as “Carlos the Jackal,” who was a close associate of Haddad’s. Long believed to be a Qaddafi-supported attack, Sanchez biographer David Yallop is among those who names Saddam as the “real culprit” (p. 424).
Haddad and Sanchez fell out after the operation. Haddad had ordered that the oil ministers be released one-by-one after making an obeisance to the Palestinian cause, except for the Iranian and Saudi ministers who were to be killed. Sanchez instead ransomed the two captives for a large sum, and Haddad dismissed Sanchez from his “operational teams” (p. 254). Haddad died in March 1978 after being poisoned months earlier by MOSSAD via Belgian chocolates and was buried in Iraq. Haddad’s men retained (p. 142) residence in, and assistance from, Saddam’s regime into the 1990s.
Sanchez has denied that Saddam was involved in the Vienna operation, but this was not his only link to the Iraqi Ba’ath regime. In September 1976, after Sanchez was deported from Jugoslavija, it was to Baghdad he was transferred (p. 107-109), where he was “put up free of charge, … provided with bodyguards, and chauffeured American limousine,” until he decided to move on several weeks later. In December 1977, Sanchez travelled (p. 111) again to Baghdad, this time in the company of Libyan intelligence officers, meeting Saddam personally and forging a relationship that made Saddam one of the first Arab rulers to support Sanchez, “with the blessing of the KGB-trained members of Iraq’s most powerful secret service,” the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) or Mukhabarat.
Sanchez resurfaced in the Iraqi context in the run-up to Operation DESERT STORM. In 1990-91, as Saddam sought to retain his conquest in Kuwait, he tasked various actors to conduct terrorist attacks (p. 37-42) against U.S. targets worldwide; Sanchez was believed at the time to be one such cutout. Sanchez was arrested in Sudan in 1994 and transferred to French prison, where he made his admiration for Bin Ladin known and came to the conclusion a number of far-Leftists have: the working class has let down the revolutionaries and the wave of the future is jihadism.
Muhammad Zaydan (Abu Abbas) led the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) and directed the taking of hostages aboard the Achille Lauro on 7 October 1985. During the assault, the PLF shot and killed the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer because he was a Jew, and threw his body overboard. When Italian authorities caught up with Zaydan they had to release him because he was travelling on an Iraqi diplomatic passport—despite being neither Iraqi nor a diplomat. Zaydan moved to Saddam’s Iraq and remained there until he was captured five days after the fall of Saddam’s regime.
(That Zaydan found support from Saddam is all the more interesting because Zaydan had orchestrated the attack at the instruction (p. 235) of Saddam’s nemesis, Hafez al-Assad, another of his schemes to avert the danger of Israeli-Palestinian peace breaking out.)
In July 1986, after a wave of bombings in Paris organized by the Iranian government, France expelled (p. 57-61) the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK) as part of an arrangement whereby Tehran would cease-and-desist attacks against French targets, including calling off Hizballah in Lebanon. MEK is an Islamist-Leninist cult organization that was among the revolutionary groups that overthrew the Shah, before quickly falling afoul of the Islamic Republic. Fleeing Iran in 1981, MEK relocated to Iraq after its expulsion from France. MEK operated under Saddam’s protection and with his financial and other support right down to the end, and returned the favour by fighting on Saddam’s side during the Iran-Iraq War and mobilizing to help Saddam put down the Kurdish revolt in 1991. Maryam Rajavi, who leads MEK ostensibly jointly with her husband Massoud (who may or may not be alive), infamously told her troops: “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.” MEK is particularly sensitive about its assistance to Saddam during the Kurdish uprising—and will send you apparently irrefutable evidence that this is untrue if they notice you mentioning it on social media. MEK has an influential phalanx of (paid) supporters these days to echo these talking points, but the fact remains: between 1997 and 2012, MEK was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the State Department for, inter alia, killing several Americans in Iran in the 1970s and a terrorist attack in the U.S. in 1992. Even on the most cynical reading, MEK’s utility is minimal: the group has no standing inside Iran, is virulently rejected by Iran’s democratic opposition, and is infiltrated by the Iranian theocracy’s intelligence services to boot.
In April 1993, Saddam tried to murder former President George H.W. Bush with a car bomb during his trip to Kuwait, using Wali al-Ghazali, who had taken part in the Shi’a uprising in March 1991, as a cut-out to give the regime plausible deniability. President Bill Clinton ordered airstrikes in retaliation.
It might be felt that this record, bad as it is, doesn’t exactly contradict Trump because this terrorism was not Islamist or jihadist in nature. Not to fear: Saddam supported Islamist and jihadist terrorism, too—a lot.
Saddam’s regime supported the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) from when they initially rebelled against the Assad regime in 1976. Al-Banna was even tasked with training Syrian Ikhwans in camps at Hit, in Anbar Province. One man trained in these camps—which evidently operated even after al-Banna departed the country—was Ahmed Barodi, who later resided in the U.S. before being deported partly for these ties. In the wake of the crushing of the SMB rebellion in 1982 at Hama, Saddam took in the survivors—the “most radical” ones anyway (many others went to Europe), including Eddin Barakat Yarkas and Mustafa Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri). Yarkas became a roommate of Mohamed Atta—the lead death pilot on 9/11—and was swept up in Spain after the 9/11 massacre, later convicted of helping to plan and finance that atrocity. Nasar went on to become probably the greatest strategist in the Jihadi-Salafist world, a guide for both the Islamic State (IS)* and al-Qaeda.
Abdul Rahman Yasin, of Iraqi descent but born in the United States, helped mix the chemicals to create the explosives for the attack on the World Trade Centre in February 1993. Yasin was recruited by Ramzi Yousef, whose exact relationship to al-Qaeda is contested. (The vagaries of this can be seen in the fact that Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, never gave baya to Bin Ladin, but was the chief architect of the second attack on the World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001.) Stunningly, Yasin was let go by the FBI for being a cooperative witness, and flew straight to Baghdad on 5 March 1993. Saddam claimed at various times that Yasin was under arrest, but visiting members of the Western media—Newsweek and ABC, among others—found otherwise, Saddam always found a technicality to prevent Yasin being handed over to the U.S., and the documentation found after Saddam’s ouster showed Yasin was never arrested and was in fact in receipt of a house and a stipend from the Iraqi state. There have been multiple accusations, of varying credibility, of a Saddamist hand in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing itself—which took place second anniversary (26 February) of Saddam’s ordering a retreat in Operation DESERT STORM—but the complicity after-the-fact is rather blatant.
In the mid-1980s, Saddam had re-oriented Iraq’s foreign policy into an alliance with Islamist groups abroad. Saddam had already supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and begun hosting “Popular Islamic Conferences” in Baghdad in 1983 that brought Islamists, many of them on the run from the security services in their home countries, to bolster Iraq against Iran and to allow Saddam’s intelligence agencies to “network”. In time this would lead to “Islamic relations” with the Taliban. One of the largest beneficiaries of this change was Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of the Brotherhood, and soon the de facto ruler, in Sudan. Al-Turabi went to Iraq to support Saddam in 1990, for example, and al-Turabi maintained this relationship with Saddam long afterwards as the Islamization of Saddam’s regime internally intensified.
Saddam had been briefly reconciled to the PLO and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, when Arafat supported Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait but, to make up for that blunder, which had enraged the Gulf states as much as the West, Arafat had engaged in the Oslo process, and Saddam went back to supporting anti-PLO extremists. Saddam supported not just neo-Ba’athist Palestinian groups that engaged in attacks against Israel during the Second Intifada, but paid anything up to $25,000 to the families of suicide-murderers from HAMAS and Islamic Jihad.
Between 1999 and 2002, Saddam trained 8,000 Arab mujahideen at camps in Iraq, a number of them brought to the country via mosques in Sudan, North Africa, and the Gulf that the Saddam regime had made connections with during its Faith Campaign, led by Saddam’s deputy, Izzat al-Douri. Some of these returned to their home countries but a contingent stayed to fight the U.S.-led invasion, and in the end were more or less the only force that did fight the invasion. U.S. Marines discovered a highly sophisticated terrorist training camp that had been used by none-other than Zaydan’s PLF. Saddam’s Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri, wrote to Saddam during the invasion saying that the regime should use some of the suicide bombers at its disposal to pose as civilians and attack American soldiers to pre-emptively destabilize the occupation.
One of the few organizations within Iraq that fought the Coalition invasion was the Fedayeen Saddam. A militia loyal to Saddam (rather than Iraq, as the military formally was), the Fedayeen was set up in 1994 as a Praetorian division designed specifically to weaken the military from which Saddam feared a coup. The Fedayeen’s internal security role meant, as Saddam introduced Islamic law, that they were increasingly enforcing the shari’a by, inter alia, amputating hands for theft, beheading adulterous women, and throwing homosexuals from tall buildings. The Fedayeen planned, in 1999, to smuggle fifty of their men into Britain, Iran, and Iraqi Kurdistan to conduct terrorist attacks against the Iraqi opposition and the governments that sheltered them. The Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) was ordered to support this mission, known as “Blessed July”. In July 2000, a Fedayeen suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish target in the autonomous area. In the aftermath of the regime, the Fedayeen would provide considerable logistical help to IS and took up positions in the mid-level of the organization, sometimes even higher, such as the leader of the Umar Brigade, which was specifically designed to fight the Iranian-controlled Shi’a militias.
Now to the touchiest question of all: Saddam and al-Qaeda.
Saddam established contact with Bin Ladin via al-Turabi in Sudan in 1992, Saddam’s son contacted Bin Ladin in 1994, Saddam acceded to a request from al-Qaeda to broadcast anti-Saudi religious sermons in 1995, Bin Laden’s deputy, now al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had a long relationship as head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (which became a part of core al-Qaeda) with the Saddam regime, visited Baghdad at least three times, and when Bin Ladin was on the outs with the Taliban and considering a move in late 1998 and early 1999, it was to Saddam’s Iraq he was considering moving.
It is possible that the Saddam-Qaeda relationship involved direct collaboration in the killing of an American. Saddam had links with Islamist terrorists in the Philippines back to 1991 when he had tried to use them to orchestrate attacks on American diplomatic missions during his expulsion from Kuwait (see: Operation DOGMEAT). On 2 October 2002, the Abu Sayyaf Group—then pledged to al-Qaeda, now IS—blew up a karaoke bar in Zamboanga City that was popular with foreigners, killing U.S. Sergeant First Class Mark Wayne Jackson, three Filipino civilians, and injuring twenty-plus more. The bomb was set off by a mobile telephone that was used hours afterward to call the second secretary at the Iraqi Embassy, Hisham Hussein. Abu Sayyaf were hardly subtle about the Iraqi financial support they received, and in February 2003 Manila expelled Hussein and the Iraqi mission for running terrorist operations in their country.
Leaving aside the still-unclear case of al-Qaeda’s Ansar al-Islam—which was certainly penetrated by the Saddam regime but also seems to have been supported in its war with the Iraqi Kurds—there is the question of Ahmad al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his presence in Baghdad in May 2002.
Zarqawi was at this time not a formal member of al-Qaeda but somebody whose terrorist start-up had been financed by Bin Ladin. (Zarqawi would soon swear allegiance to Bin Ladin.) Having moved into Ansar-held territory in April 2002 from Iran and tried to assassinate Barham Salih, Zarqawi travelled to Baghdad in May 2002 with a dozen or so al-Qaeda leaders, including Thirwat Shehata, Yusuf al-Dardiri, and, probably, Zarqawi’s brother-in-law (and current Latakia emir of Jabhat al-Nusra) Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib). They were soon joined by, among others, Zarqawi’s successor Abd al-Munim al-Badawi (Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), and current al-Nusra military leader Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri).
George Tenet was the CIA director at the time and the one who sat behind Colin Powell when he spoke to the United Nations, having helped Powell write the speech and carefully vetted and approved it. Tenet is also (at least retrospectively) an opponent of the Iraq invasion. In his book, Tenet has this to say:
[B]y the spring and summer of 2002, more than a dozen al-Qa’ida–affiliated extremists converged on Baghdad, with apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government. They had found a comfortable and secure environment in which they moved people and supplies to support Zarqawi’s operations in northeastern Iraq. More al-Qa’ida operatives would follow … Their activity in sending recruits to train in Zarqawi’s camps was compelling enough. There was also concern that these two might be planning operations outside Iraq.
Could we prove that this was Iraqi complicity with Zarqawi and the two Egyptian Islamic Jihad operatives? No. Do we know just how aware Iraqi authorities were of these terrorists’ presence either in Baghdad or northeastern Iraq? No, but from an intelligence point of view it would have been difficult to conclude that the Iraqi intelligence service was not aware of their activities. Certainly, we believe that at least one senior [Ansar al-Islam] operative maintained some sort of liaison relationship with the Iraqis. …
There were, over a decade, a number of possible high-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qa’ida, through high-level and third-party intermediaries. Our data told us that at various points there were discussions of cooperation, safe haven, training, and reciprocal nonaggression.
There are a lot more questions than answers on the Saddam-Qaeda front. Some intriguing threads like Ahmed Hikmat Shakir will probably never be answered now. The boxes of captured documents that remain unexploited might yet provide some answers. The only thing that can be said for certain is that those who maintain that Saddam had no connection with al-Qaeda simply do not know what they’re talking about.
The argument that IS would not exist had Saddam’s regime remained in place is as hypothetical as its counter-thesis that Saddam’s regime had ensured that something like IS would follow it. But it is untrue that al-Qaeda and IS were not in Iraq before Saddam fell: Ansar al-Islam was an al-Qaeda group and had a proto-statelet in operation that is a direct predecessor to IS. Among those who had joined Ansar before the regime fell were Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari), the caliph’s recently-deceased deputy, and Umar Hadid, Zarqawi’s deputy in Fallujah in 2004 who seems to have absorbed Saddam’s Faith Campaign rather too well, finding he could take Salafism without Saddamism. This is essentially the only condition under which Saddam did kill terrorists: when they moved too far outside his religious movement, which one may call Ba’athi-Salafism. Saddam de facto aligned with the “pure” Salafi Trend, reducing a lot of tension with this long-time opposition movement, but some took to Jihadi-Salafism and Saddam would not countenance plots against, let alone violent attacks upon, his regime—a statement about his approach to power, not Islamism per se. IS’s forerunner group, Jund al-Sham (created in 2000), and its founder, Zarqawi, were in Iraq when Saddam was in control. It is also untrue that Saddam kept a lid on sectarian antagonisms: he had exacerbated them with his promotion of Sunnism, deportations of Shi’is during the Iran-Iraq War, his unmerciful repression of the Shi’a in 1991, and his heavy-handed treatment of them ever afterwards.
Trump has shown on the one hand a near-perfect illiteracy in foreign policy, and on the other a very disturbing sympathy for authoritarians, not just in Iraq but Syria, Libya, China, North Korea, and Russia. This admiration has been returned, notably by North Korea and Russia, and even more disturbingly Trump’s entourage includes powerful Kremlin-linked figures. Trump has said he will “bomb the s*it” out of IS and take the oilfields currently under their control, and that he will leave Syria as a “free zone” for IS. Who knows which, if any, of those statements represents his true view? One probably should be able to say, four months from an election, what the position of a candidate is on the major national security questions of the day—and when one cannot, that is its own judgment.
It was notable, in terms of Trump’s simple political competence, that Trump chose to praise Saddam on the day the FBI released a damning report about Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless … handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” that almost certainly led to “hostile actors” having access to it.
As flabbergasting as this must have been for Republicans, they have only themselves to blame for Trump: their message has ceased to resonate and they allowed Trump to pick up issues that matter to the public, notably the welfare safety net and economic nationalism. Trump’s campaign has attracted the “Alt-Right”—the white supremacists with a thing for internet snark—and he has engaged in demagogy of the crudest kind on any number of subjects. But his is not a fascist candidacy, neither in inception or support; its driving energy comes from millions of people who feel, essentially correctly, they have been left behind by the recent economic growth and have been disenfranchised politically. These issues are so important, indeed, that Trump’s disastrous foreign policy might well be overlooked by voters who not-unreasonably do not make the connection between international security and personal security. In the last few years, after all, security abroad and security at home has been set up as an antagonistic, rather than reinforcing, relationship.
The reality still is that the world needs American leadership, and a man who concludes that Saddam Hussein was a bulwark against terrorism is unlikely to be fit to provide it.
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[*] Mustafa Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri) is disliked by IS, but, his ideas and work are used by them, in the same way as those of Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi). Al-Barqawi has publicly broken with IS—and even been called a “pimp” by them—but he mentored the group’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), al-Barqawi’s books from the 1990s are distributed in IS-held areas, and his ideas on the legitimacy of making takfir against the local rulers are integral to IS.
Post has been updated and corrected