Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Al Qaeda and Regime Change in Iraq

There is considerable debate over whether Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda had a "working relationship" prior to the U.S. led invasion that toppled the regime. Predictably, the American left is in a complete state of denial. Al Gore called such suggestions "blatantly false." Richard Clark snarled that there was "absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda, ever." The media chimed in too, from the Wapo to the LA(tino) Times; from CBS News to the troubled New York Times syndicate.

In The Connection, author Stephen F. Hayes makes a convincing case that America's two most menacing enemies were, if not in direct collaboration, at least on quite friendly terms. Most of Hayes' research centers on the question of whether Al Qaeda and Hussein may have worked together on the 9/11 plot, and evaluates evidence collected by the intelligence community going back roughly a decade before 2001. The preponderance of the evidence would be enough to sway any reasonable person trying the facts. Quite clearly, Al Qaeda was interested in Iraq, and as that country grew increasingly isolated by the west and moderate Arab nations of the middle east, that interest grew.

I would like to posit another theory on Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. I am becoming increasingly convinced that Al Qaeda was alive and well in Iraq in 2001, and when the loosely knit terrorist group got their collective ass kicked in Afghanistan, moved from Tora Bora to Anbar and Diyala. My theory is that, having lost the protection of the Taliban, Al Qaeda regrouped. They abandoned the expendable, non-Arabic Pashtuns and started looking in
Arab lands for a new home. Al Qaeda sought its own regime change in Iraq, and the United States found itself in a race to depose Hussein and take Iraq before Al Qaeda did the deed.

Here's the logic behind my theory:

  • Iraq forms a better basis for Al Qaeda than Afghanistan. It is an Arab country, with Arabic speaking people and Arab customs. It lies at the geographic center of Islam, and it is as culturally important to Islam as Saudi Arabia and the Levant region.

  • Al Qaeda is primarily a Sunni Islamic movement, and Sunnis are a minority in Iraq. Moreover, it is a minority that everyone knew would be marginalized by any non-Arabic intervention and regime change.

  • Saddam Hussein's regime was crumbling. His ability to govern came under increasing pressure from economic sanctions and isolation by the civilized world. His rule over the national Ba'athist Party was absolute, but he faced sagging loyalty from those in provincial and local authority.

  • Increasingly corrupt provincial leaders made inviting targets for Al Qaeda's "diplomatic overtures." With infrastructure literally crumbling under their feet and economic disaster brought on by international sanctions, Al Qaeda bribes and offers of protection from the security apparatus were more attractive than the distant Baghdad threat.

  • Tribal and sectarian rivalries within Iraq made fertile ground for more bribes and alliances between Al Qaeda operatives promising power and control.

  • The whole world, to include Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network, believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had an active program to develop additional WMD technology. Al Qaeda desperately wanted that capability to wage its global jihad against the U.S. and it's allies.

  • In May 2002, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, future leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, traveled to Baghdad to receive "medical treatment" and stayed two months. During this stay, dozens of Al Qaeda operatives arrived in Baghdad and its suburbs to establish a base of operations.

  • Sometime between May 2002 and the March 2003 invasion, al-Zarqawi met in Iran with Bin Laden's military chief, Saif al-Adel (Muhammad Ibrahim Makawi). The purpose of the meeting: To coordinate the transition of Al Qaeda terrorists from Afghanistan and Pakistan through Syria.

  • al-Zarqawi, on many occasions, expressed a desire to topple the monarchy of his native Jordan, and from their launch relentless attacks on Israel. Saddam's alleged WMD program could supply the weapons he needed to spread that terror through the region.

It is my conviction that Al Qaeda wanted Iraq, and wanted it badly. The stated goal of the coalition invasion was regime change. It was not to take away the WMD. It was not about oil. It was about removing a brutal dictator who twice invaded neighbors, slew hundreds of thousands of his own people and starved thousands more, actively sought horrible and illegal weapons, and lost his moral authority to rule. Perhaps also, the objective was to get to Baghdad and topple Hussein before Al Qaeda did.

The question is not whether Al Qaeda would have toppled Saddam Hussein. Given the opportunity to depose a sectarian (and therefore infidel) government in such a culturally and religiously important place, Al Qaeda would have jumped on it. I believe the evidence shows that they were doing just that. The question is whether Al Qaeda could have achieved regime change and the installation of the Caliphate of Baghdad. While Hussein's power over the party apparatus was absolute, the loyalty of the downstream apparatus is questionable, at best. It is certainly possible that with the right bribes and the right tribal alliances, a well placed truck bomb and a small amount of good fortune could have taken Hussein out. During the power vacuum of the immediate aftermath, Al Qaeda could have sprung also to kidnap, kill or cajole anyone who might make a grab at the seat of power, including Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay.

Would it have happened? Sooner or later, I believe they would have tried. Could it have happened? Thank God we will never know.