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Homeland Security

SLUG: 1-01280 OTL The Al-Qaida - Iraq Nexus 02-15-03.rtf









Host: Are Al-Qaida and Iraq in cahoots? Next, On the Line.


Host: The Al-Jazeera television network broadcast an audio tape, purportedly from Osama bin Laden, calling on Iraqis to mount suicide attacks against the United States. U-S officials said the tape demonstrated a burgeoning alliance between the al-Qaida terrorist network and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. A week before the bin Laden tape surfaced, Secretary of State Colin Powell laid out the case to the United Nations that Iraq has been aiding al-Qaida:

Powell [at U-N February 5th, 2003]: "But what I want to bring to your attention today is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants."

Host: Secretary Powell said that while operating out of Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi masterminded and bankrolled the assassination of U-S diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman, Jordan. Powell also linked Zarqawi to a terrorist plot uncovered in London involving the lethal poison, Ricin. How strong is the case that Iraq and al-Qaida are working together? I'll ask my guests, Matt Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Mark Mazzetti, national defense correspondent at U-S News and World Report; and joining us by phone from California is Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University's Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political violence. Welcome and thanks for joining us today. So, Matt Levitt, who is al-Zarqawi?

Levitt: Zarqawi is the head of a network that is affiliated with al-Qaida. He is linked not only to the attacks you mentioned earlier, but to a group in Germany that was operating under the name Al Tawhid that was planning attacks on U-S and Israeli interests and was facilitating the escape of fugitives from Afghanistan. He is linked to a Turkish group called Beyyiat el-Imam involving three individuals who are on their way from Iran through Turkey to conduct bombing in Israel. And he's linked to several other attacks and terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, with whom he met while in Syria and Lebanon. He's really a very good example of the nature of the matrix of terrorist relationships that together make up the nature of today's international terrorist threat.

Host: Now when you say he's linked, how robust are these linkages?

Levitt: Well, people make a lot of the fact that Zarqawi is not an individual who pledged a bai'ah, a pledge of allegiance to bin Laden. That doesn't make him not a key operative. He played a key role in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and he is leading a series of cells which makes up this network, including many individuals who are known hardcore al-Qaida operatives. He is a key part of the al-Qaida network. Al-Qaida is in fact the loosely affiliated network of individuals and organizations that operate together. And so, there is a core of people who have sworn this pledge of allegiance, but beyond that, there is this like-minded gathering of fellow travelers. And so to nitpick over whether or not he's a card-carrying member of al-Qaida, misunderstands and misconstrues what al-Qaida is all about.

Host: Mark Mazzetti, how did Zarqawi end up in Iraq?

Mazzetti: Well, it's still a little bit unclear. What the U-S government thinks is that he went through Iraq and Baghdad after being in Afghanistan. He fought in the war in Afghanistan and received medical treatment in Baghdad. From there, it's believed he went on to Syria and other places but one of the things Powell talked about last week was that he has actually established a cell within Iraq that is plotting future terrorist attacks.

Host: Let's bring in Magnus Ranstorp by phone. Are you there, Magnus?

Ranstorp: I'm here.

Host: How solid is the evidence presented by the U-S that Zarqawi is heading up a cell of terrorists?

Ranstorp: Well, it's very clear that he has sought refuge in Iraq. In fact, he was previously in Iran. It became a hot political issue behind the scenes. During the time when Bush was declaring his "Axis of Evil" speech, Zarqawi was actually in Iran. It is, of course, very troublesome. I think that the strongest linkage is really with the assassination of Lawrence Foley in Jordan. Zarqawi is Jordanian. He has a great interest in trying to not only create problems for the Jordanians, but also his network stands out from influences in there. In terms of the case Powell has made, I think that it is a serious cause of concern. Zarqawi is a serious operative. I'm not so sure how strong the linkages are with the European cells, particularly because some of those arrests have been very fresh and it would be extraordinarily surprising to me if they'd been able to backtrack that back to the person of Zarqawi.

Host: What do we know about the London case involving ricin? Is there much information available at this point about that?

Ranstorp: Well, the ricin case is very troublesome. I think through the unraveling of the European network, beginning particularly with the French, there have been troublesome linkages between all these European countries and it will take a lot of time before we can establish a formal link between all these different groups. And I think that therefore we have to be very cognizant of this fact. I think the real question is: what degree of control does the Iraq regime exercise over Zarqawi? It is very clear that they have allowed him to operate, to use the infrastructure necessary to be able to cause some serious problems. But there is no real evidence of the fact that the Iraqi regime is controlling Zarqawi.

Levitt: Powell said specifically that that's not what they're claiming. But that of course the definition of state sponsorship does not necessarily include that you are operating the cell. Tolerating [and] providing refuge [to terrorists] is sufficient. And I think one of the reasons that we know so much about this network including its links to Europe is because of the arrest of one key Zarqawi lieutenant in particular, who in a really interesting demonstration of lack of being careful, right after the assassination of Foley couldn't help himself and called one of the assassins on a satellite phone from his car as he was leaving Iraq towards the Turkish and Syrian borders to congratulate the assassins and said: "I'm in my car and I'm driving out of Iraq." And he was subsequently captured. So the interrogations of this particular lieutenant who is senior player are providing a great deal of information. And as I understand it, is one of the key issues that led Powell and the U-S government to decide to include the Zarqawi material to convince them of the veracity of the link.

Host: Mark Mazzetti?

Mazzetti: Yeah, I mean, I think it is important to point out this purported link between al-Qaida and Iraq -- at least according to U-S officials, really has been gathering evidence, strong evidence, only during the last few weeks or couple of months. I mean, back in November and October when we were asking about this link, you talked to people and they said, well, we don't have a whole lot of this evidence. This guy Zarqawi, we think was in Iraq. It's really within the last, you know, few weeks where, as Matt was saying, they've gotten more and more interrogations and they think this link is stronger and stronger, as we saw, because Powell would actually say it publicly. So, at least according to them, the case gets stronger by the day.

Levitt: There is another detainee that Powell mentioned specifically in his remarks to the United Nations, again, where he said a member of the Zarqawi's network admitted to dispatching terrorists to Europe to conduct chemical attacks.

Host: Magnus Ranstorp, U-S reports in the media have been for some time that C-I-A analysts had not been convinced of a connection with Iraq and al-Qaida, but that that has been changing with information that's been coming out. Are other security agencies also changing their mind about this?

Ranstorp: I think it's very difficult. On the ground some of them are actually horrble in providing infrastructure. I mean, I would include Iran in this as well.

Levitt: Absolutely.

Ranstorp: I mean we've seen mopping up after the testimony of Powell or the Powell expose at the U-N Security Council. I think a lot of European security agencies are extremely concerned about this nexus that perhaps Iraq and al-Qaida and Zarqawi demonstrate. And that is that there is an intense interest in using chemical and even biological weapons. This is not U-S propaganda. There is real concerted fear among European intelligence agencies that it's not a question of if something will occur, but rather when. And of course, that will have disastrous consequences.

Host: Matt Levitt, people talk about Zarqawi being an expert in biological and chemical weapons. Where did he get that expertise? Is there any reason to believe he got it from Iraq?

Levitt: We know that he trained in chemical and biological weaponry in Afghanistan. He developed that expertise. I don't know that he himself received such training from Iraq, but Powell did include in his presentation, information about Iraq training a certain number of al-Qaida operatives in chemical and biological weapons as well as in the art of document forgery. So there's that link as well. There are other terrorist links to Iraq, of course, that predate this including links to Palestinian groups. There is a known training camp with the fuselage of an airplane that we know terrorists have been training on. There are little bits and pieces that have been out there for quite sometime. But like we said earlier, it's these recent links, stet these detentions and interrogations [revealed] that led the administration to decide to go forward with this information now. I completely agree with Magnus in his comment about Iran. Iran of course is the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, both in terms of harboring terrorists and in terms of using them as proxies and sending them out to operate specifically in the case of Hezbollah. But here of course, the immediate concern is about the nexus between having weapons of mass destruction in the hands of someone as unreliable as Saddam Hussein, who at the same time has some sort of a relationship -- whether it's commanding them or not -- with terrorists. As terrorist individuals in groups and states feel more and more pressed as we constrict the operating environment over the course of the war on terrorism, these relationships are going to become more and more important. And certainly as we press Iraq, I think it's disturbing but likely that they will reach out to terrorist groups to conduct attacks. You know, in 1991 they tried to conduct attacks as well, only there it was kind of a Keystone Cops effort that they did on their own. It was not very sophisticated. In fact, they used almost sequentially numbered passports. So, after the first few operatives were rounded up, the rest of the network was rounded up relatively quickly. I think this time around, it's very likely they're going to reach out to people who they may not have strategic relationships with, they may not like. They may be religious as opposed to the secular regime in Baghdad. They may be Shia as opposed to Sunni. But based on these tactical alliances and "my enemy's enemy is my friend," they may very well hook up to conduct attacks.

Host: Mark Mazzetti, yes?

Mazzetti: It also just goes to the point that -- which is what the U-S government has always feared -- is that if in fact there is a war against Iraq for regime change and Saddam Hussein [believes] his days are numbered, then he has no disincentive to give his chemical or biological weapons to terrorists to spread terror around the world. I mean, if he had no incentive in the past, he may have it now.

Host: Well, does that suggest though that the effort to rein in Saddam Hussein is then giving him an incentive to do the very thing that is feared?

Mazzetti: Well, a lot of people who are against a potential war with Iraq make that very point. And they say the only way -- remember it was a member of the Senate who said the only way we're sure that Saddam Hussein is going to be using these chemical and biological weapons is if we attack him. So, that's really the sort of scary prospect that faces advancing forces or people around the world, is if in fact we go to war with Iraq.

Host: Magnus Ranstorp, you mentioned Iran before and as Matt Levitt expanded on that to talk about how groups that traditionally were thought not to have shared interests -- certainly Iran and Iraq, no love is lost between the two -- and the idea that bin Laden would be opposed to Saddam Hussein because of Saddam Hussein being very secular. Are those traditional barriers between cooperation falling down?

Ranstorp: Well, I think Matt was making the point earlier that the traditional boundaries between ideological grounds are not a very valuable tool today to look at whether groups would cooperate or not. We're talking about individuals who are working together. And I think a very worrisome signal came around May and the summer when you had a conference of these forces, including Zarqawi's associates, making an alliance with Hezbollah, making alliances and going through Syria and Lebanon and trying to make actually, a mega, catastrophic terrorist event inside of Israel. We should not forget that prior to this, one of the al-Qaida targets was an Israeli tourist resort as well as trying to shoot down an airliner. And I think that there has been an effort to try to include Israel in this equation. I think that will influence very much the ferocity of an al-Qaida campaign and like-minded associates that will possibly continue to try to inflict their pain and suffering against the United States. Let me just make one other comment. Previously [we talked] about the weapons of mass destruction. It's not only Iraq. I mean, Iraq had this conference of forces between Saddam and W-M-D and Zarqawi, but a major concern that even comes outside of this war with Iraq, and that is the expectation from security forces, particularly in Europe, that if you're talking about radiological weapons, they will not come from Iraq, but a lot of them from the former Soviet Union.

Host: And is there evidence that al-Qaida has been trying to get its hands on such weapons?

Ranstorp: Well, we know Chechnya is becoming a new Afghanistan. I think our attention, even after Iraq, will be upon it. It's going to focus our attention toward that area. There's a lot of radiological material there. There's the expertise. Even certain terrorist groups have been casing nuclear warhead facilities in the former Soviet Union. So there's a great concern that they may come through that direction as well. And of course, Zarqawi has links to that region in this network and we should be equally concerned about that area as well.

Host: Matt Levitt, Magnus Ranstorp mentions this meeting that was held with Zarqawi and Hezbollah. What connections are there among Zarqawi, Hezbollah, Iraq, and Hamas?

Levitt: Well, I don't think you can map out a clear organizational chart and give titles and everything and say exactly what the relationship is. Again, it's a network, and like Magnus said, it's relationships. And they have built relationships that they will call on. People in the administration talk about ad hoc tactical, specifically on training and logistical support, relationships between members of al-Qaida and Hezbollah. Hamas is somewhat of a different story operationally, but even between groups like al-Qaida and Hamas that don't have operational links, there are very significant financial and logistical links. And if you look at many of the banks and the front organizations and the preferred methods of raising, transferring and laundering funds, many of those systems are the same, like the al-Taqwa banking system, which was originally shut down after September 11th for its links to al-Qaida, but has subsequently been linked very strongly to Hamas and many others. The director of the C-I-A, George Tenet, said in response to a question about the fact that Sheik Yassin, the head of Hamas, has come out and said in an open letter on February 7th, in the event of a war with Iraq, all good Muslims should conduct attacks against the West and specifically the United States. The director said, indeed, the time when we used to make [distinctions] between terrorist organizations is over. And I think that's very, very significant. These are different groups. They're not all necessarily doing the exact same thing the exact same way. There are links between them. There are relationships between their members and they are significant.

Host: Is there a concern that Iraq would give, not to al-Qaida, but rather to Hamas the kinds of weapons of mass destruction that have been of concern?

Mazzetti: I'm actually not familiar with concerns about Hamas specifically. I mean, I think one concern is that, again, if there's a war in Iraq, these supposed vast stores of chemical and biological weapons that Saddam Hussein had kept pretty tightly controlled, would all of a sudden then be free for anyone really to sell or to drive across borders and give to any terrorist group who is willing to pay for them. And, you know, the United States has had a tough time targeting these weapons in the past. And the theory is that if there is regime change in Iraq, it will not be very easy to locate where these weapons are. And that would just then make them potentially free to be used by terrorists around the world.

Host: Magnus Ranstorp, is there a concern with regard to Hamas?

Ranstorp: No, I don't think there is a major concern, but we do have the sort of indirect linkages. First of all, there are technical alliances between al-Qaida members, particularly the ones who have been in the Ayn al-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon, where there's a group very much along the same lines as Ansar al- Islam in Iraq. This group is called Asbat al-Ansar and there have been linkages between Asbat al-Ansar and Ansar al-Islam and in this morass Zarqawi and his [group] have been operating. There certainly is a strong operation of linkages between Hezbollah trying to have an influence and trying to connect and reconnect to Hamas and their struggle. But you know, Gaza and the West Bank and the Israeli Palestinian communities are a tightly controlled security environment. I would not be too concerned that they would be able to focus in and that any weapons of mass destruction would be dispersed to Hamas.

Host: Magnus Ranstorp, with regard to Ansar al-Islam operating in the north of Iraq, we recently had the assassination of a Kurdish parliament leader there. Is there any evidence linking Ansar al-Islam to Iraqi operatives?

Ranstorp: Well, this is alleged by Powell. I'm not so sure. You know, I spoke to several individuals as well, long before Ansar al-Islam came on the radar screen. In fact, very few Ansar al-Islam operatives have been actually to Afghanistan to train there. There were efforts by al-Qaida before, about a year, a year and a half ago to try to connect to Ansar al-Islam. So it's a very difficult area. Powell is claiming that the Iraqi intelligence have operatives in there. It's entirely feasible. But certainly they will become one of the first casualties once the war will commence.

Host: Matt Levitt, we have less than a minute to go here. Let's jump some distance over to the Philippines very quickly. Recently an Iraqi diplomat was expelled by the Philippines for having connections with Abu Sayyaf. What do we know about that?

Levitt: husham Husain was his name, and the Philippine authorities are expelling him because he was on the phone with an Abu Sayyaf terrorist shortly after an Abu Sayyaf attack, which is very significant. In 1991, when Iraqi intelligence operatives attempted to conduct attacks against U-S interests during the first Gulf War, most of those attacks were focused on Southeast Asia and that may be the case again. If there is in fact a relationship between an Iraqi operative and Abu Sayyaf, which is a Filipino radical Islamist group, linked to al-Qaida -- bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Khalifa, was the head of the International Islamic Relief Organization office in the Philippines and in that capacity fed money to them then it could be very telling.

Host: Well I'm afraid we're going to have to go that's the last word. That's all the time we have. I'd like to thank my guests: Matt Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Mark Mazzetti of U.S. News and World Report; and joining us by phone, Magnus Ranstorp of St. Andrew's University. Before we go, I'd like to invite our audience to send us your questions or comments. You can e-mail them to Ontheline@ibb.gov. For On the Line, I'm Eric Felten.

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