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IRAQ: Iraqi Ties to Terrorism

April 29, 2003
This publication is now archived.

Has Iraq sponsored terrorism?

Yes. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provided bases, training camps, and other support to terrorist groups fighting the governments of neighboring Turkey and Iran, as well as to Palestinian terror groups. The Bush administration said it believed Saddam could pass weapons of mass destruction to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network or other terrorists. In the first few weeks after Saddam's fall from power, though, convincing proof of an Iraq-al-Qaeda link remained lacking.

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Was Iraq the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism?

No, according to the State Department, which gives that title to neighboring Iran. The State Department has listed Iraq as one of seven states that sponsor terrorism, but experts say Iran, Syria, and, at least in the past, Pakistan, all surpassed Iraq in support for terrorists.

What types of terrorist groups did Iraq support?

Primarily groups that could hurt Saddam's regional foes. Iraq has helped the Iranian dissident group Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a separatist organization fighting the Turkish government, and several far-left Palestinian splinter groups that oppose peace with Israel. Iraq also hosted the mercenary Abu Nidal Organization, whose leader was found dead in Baghdad in August 2002. Saddam was a secular dictator, and his regime generally tended to support secular terrorist groups rather than Islamists such as al-Qaeda, experts say. But Iraq also supported some Islamist Palestinian groups opposed to Israel, and before the 2003 war, the CIA cited Iraq's increased support for such organizations as reason to believe that Baghdad's links to terror could continue to increase.

What kind of support has Iraq given terrorists?

Safe haven, training, and financial support. In violation of international law, Iraq has also sheltered specific terrorists wanted by other countries, reportedly including:

  • Abu Nidal, who, until he was found dead in Baghdad in August 2002, led an organization responsible for attacks that killed some 300 people.
  • Palestine Liberation Front leader Abu Abbas, who was responsible for the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Laurocruise ship in the Mediterranean. Abbas was captured by U.S. forces April 15.
  • Two Saudis who hijacked a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to Baghdad in 2000.
  • Abdul Rahman Yasin, who is on the FBI's "most wanted terrorists" list for his alleged role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Iraq has also provided financial support for Palestinian terror groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Palestine Liberation Front, and the Arab Liberation Front, and it channeled money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. In April 2002, Iraq increased the amount of such payments from $10,000 to $25,000. Experts say that by promoting Israeli-Palestinian violence, Saddam may have hoped to make it harder for the United States to win Arab support for a campaign against Iraq.

Was Iraq involved in the 9/11 attacks?

There is no concrete evidence linking Iraq to the attacks, and although Iraq never expressed sympathy for the United States after the attacks, it denied any involvement. In late 2001, Czech intelligence officials reported that the 9/11 ringleader, Muhammad Atta, had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague in April 2001, but many American and Czech officials have since disavowed the report and say they have no evidence that such a meeting occurred.

Did Iraq cooperate with al-Qaeda?

This is a subject of heated debate. U.S. intelligence officials say they have reports of links, and President Bush has cited Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda as a reason for confronting Iraq. Still, many of the alleged connections remain tenuous, and because U.S. intelligence agencies must protect their sources and methods of intelligence gathering, few specifics have been offered publicly. Most intelligence on Iraq and al-Qaeda draws on sources of unknown reliability, including al-Qaeda detainees.

What ties have been alleged between Iraq and al-Qaeda?

In October 2002, CIA Director George Tenet announced that the CIA had received uncorroborated reports that:

  • Senior-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda stretch back a decade.
  • Iraq and al-Qaeda have discussed the provision of safe havens and reciprocal nonaggression.
  • Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in chemical weapons and conventional explosives.
  • Al-Qaeda leaders have tried to cultivate contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire weapons of mass destruction.
  • Some al-Qaeda members who fled Afghanistan took refuge in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

In October 2002, President Bush said that among those who found refuge in Iraq was a "very senior al-Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks"--apparently a reference to a Jordanian operational commander named Abu Musab Zarqawi, who subsequently left Iraq. A second alleged al-Qaeda operative, the Iraqi national Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, was also thought to have returned to Baghdad after fleeing Afghanistan.

Other charges center on possible ties between al-Qaeda operatives and Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish extremist group that Saddam used as a proxy to combat his Kurdish foes. Some al-Qaeda members who fled Afghanistan were reportedly helping--and receiving shelter--from the group, which operated in a remote corner of northern Iraq's no-fly zone before being routed by U.S. forces. It remains unclear whether mutual ties to Ansar indicate any sort of active cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

Why would Iraq help al-Qaeda?

It's hard to say. Al-Qaeda and Saddam would seem to have incompatible goals. Al-Qaeda is committed to overthrowing secular Muslim rulers like Saddam; for his part, Saddam historically regarded Islamists as a threat to his leftist Baath Party regime and was wary of groups he couldn't easily control.

Still, Saddam demonstrated signs of selectively cooperating with Islamists— or at least co-opting them. In the 1970s and 1980s, he backed the fundamentalist Syrian Muslim Brotherhood; he also on various occasions adopted Islamist rhetoric; and he supported Palestinian Islamist terror groups. And whatever their differences, Saddam and bin Laden shared a deep hatred of the United States.

Has Iraq used terrorism against the United States in the past?

It has tried. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq trained several hundred operatives for planned terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, including bombings of American facilities in Southeast Asia. But these efforts weren't particularly successful: although Iraqi operatives pulled off small-scale shootings and grenade attacks in the Middle East, they bungled efforts to use explosives. Outside intelligence and law enforcement agencies thwarted more significant plots, including a 1993 attempt to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait.

Would Iraq have given weapons of mass destruction to terrorists?

Experts disagree. The Bush administration played up this possibility, but some experts doubt that Saddam would have been so reckless, as his goal was to avoid a U.S. invasion. In October 2002, CIA Director Tenet said that the CIA thought Saddam was unlikely to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States— unless a U.S.-led attack appeared imminent. In that case, Saddam might "decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him." Such an attack failed to materialize.