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Strategic ambiguity about Ansar al-Islam

By Bryan Keefer
November 7, 2003

In recent weeks, a number of Bush administration officials have renewed efforts to build a rhetorical linkage between Ansar al-Islam, an Al Qaeda-backed terrorist group operating in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein. Despite the slim evidence of any operational connection between the two, these officials have continued to use strategically ambiguous language to imply a connection.

Prior to the war, Ansar al-Islam operated in Kurdish-controlled areas in the northeastern Iraq, a region that had been outside of Saddam's control since the Gulf War in 1991. At the time, administration officials suggested the group was directly connected to the Iraqi dictator. In his February speech to the United Nations, for instance, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that there was contact between Saddam and the group, and cited it as a potential link between the Iraqi dictator and Al Qaeda.

However, evidence found at a Ansar al-Islam training camp in March indicates that the group had ties to Al Qaeda, but it did not demonstrate a connection to Saddam. At this point, the strongest evidence to date for a linkage was presented by General Richard Meyers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 24 that "We do know that Iraqi intelligence service had people involved back and forth" with the group. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz also claimed there were unspecified "links" between Saddam and the group in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 9, stating that both Saddam and Ansar al-Islam "went to very great lengths to bury and hide the links that they had with one another. So you have to recognize, we'll probably see only the tip of the iceberg, but we certainly see links."

In short, the evidence is muddled, but there is little proof of a direct connection between Saddam and the group, particularly prior to the war. Rather than acknowledging this, members of the Bush administration have repeatedly attempted to link Ansar al-Islam with the deposed dictator (and thereby help justify the war) by claiming that the group operated in Iraq prior to the war, while pointedly neglecting to mention that the area in which it operated was not under Saddam's control.

Most recently, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made three such claims in separate interviews last Sunday, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out on the American Prospect's Tapped weblog. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Rumsfeld stated that "The Ansar al-Islam was already in Iraq. There were Al Qaeda already in Iraq. The Iraqis were engaged in terrorism themselves. They were giving $25,000 to suicide bombers' families, who would go in and kill innocent men, women and children." On "Fox News Sunday," Rumsfeld claimed that "There's an organization called Ansar al-Islam, which was in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was there, it was functioning, and Saddam Hussein knew all about it." And on "This Week," he stated, "take the terrorist organization Ansar al-Islam. It was in Iraq. Saddam Hussein knew it was in Iraq. It was functioning." All of these statements, as Yglesias points out, clearly suggest that Saddam had a hand in the organization's operations.

Rumsfeld, however, is only the latest in a long line of administration figures who have made similar claims in the last several months. In July 24 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) asked Meyers, "Prior to the initiation of hostilities in Iraq, Secretary Rumsfeld indicated that he had bullet-proof evidence that there were Al Qaeda elements within Iraq... But the implication, obviously, of the secretary's comments was that within Baghdad, within the control of the Saddam Hussein regime there were Al Qaeda elements. Have you found any of those elements?" Meyers answered that "The elements that we know have a direct connection to Al Qaeda are the Ansar al-Islam elements that I think you were referring to because they were up there in northeastern Iraq before the Iraqi conflict began." While this is technically true, it unfairly implies that Saddam had some control over this group and therefore a link to Al Qaeda.

At an August 20 press conference, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stated in response to a question that "Iraq has been on our terrorist list before the war. Iraq was a place that harbored terrorists. So terrorism existed in Iraq. And we know groups like Ansar al-Islam, Al Qaeda-associated groups operated in Iraq before the war."

On September 8, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stated on the "Sean Hannity Show" on ABC Radio that "Well, we do know that there are some foreign jihadists coming in. We're not sure what organizations. One is probably Ansar al-Islam, which was an organization that was operating in Iraq before the war, up in the north."

And in September 25 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Paul Bremer, Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, claimed that "Saddam Hussein supported terrorism. He was identified as a state sponsor of terrorism for almost 20 years. He played host to terrorists to Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas. There were connections with Al Qaeda over the last decade. There was particularly a strong connection with an Al Qaeda-related group called Ansar al-Islam." He went on to note that members of the group had escaped into Iran and recently re-entered Iraq.

These comments echo assertions by Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney attempting to link Saddam to Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks by virtue of geography (there is no evidence linking Saddam to the attacks directly). In a July 30 interview with Jim Lehrer, Rice asserted, "What we knew going into the war was that this man [Saddam Hussein] was a threat... He was sitting astride one of the most volatile regions in the world, a region out of which the ideologies of hatred had come that led people to slam airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington. Something had to be done about that threat. And the President was not prepared to simply allow this brutal dictator with dangerous weapons to continue to destabilize the Middle East." Cheney made a similar linkage between Saddam and the September 11 attacks in a September 14 appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," claiming that "If we're successful in Iraq ... we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."

There is little doubt that such comments reinforce perceptions that Saddam Hussein had substantial ties to Al Qaeda and was involved with the September 11 attacks, neither of which are supported by hard evidence. As the Bush administration must be aware, geographic proximity does not imply an operational connection. To continue to make such strategically ambiguous statements is utterly disingenuous.

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Related links:
-The strategically ambiguous George W. Bush (Bryan Keefer column, 6/12/03)
-Spinsanity on Iraq

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