Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Iraqi Perspective Project on Iraq and Terrorism

My next, and even more outdated, original document will be the Pentagon's Iraqi Perspectives Project report, released in March, describing Saddam Hussein's ties to terrorism. Opponents of invading Iraq have claimed vindication because the report finds no direct ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Proponents have also claimed vindication because the report shows extensive ties between Saddam and terrorism, including some Islamic organizations with links to Al-Qaeda.

The report contains five volumes, the first one consisting of the report and conclusions, and the other four some 2,000 pages of captured Iraqi documents, translated into English. Having read the introductory volume only, my main impression is how poorly written it is. The first volume is 94 pages long, including table of contents, executive summary, footnotes, appendixes, and pages intentionally left blank. Only 46 pages are taken up by actual report.

It addresses terrorism committed directly by agents of the Iraqi state (the Fedayeen Saddam), Iraqi sponsorship of non-state terrorism, and Iraqi cooperation with Islamist terrorists. The reports treats most of its subjects by taking a document it considers a good example and quoting extensively from it, but with little or no attempt at context. The general impression is one of a minute and detailed description of several trees, but no description of the size, density or composition of the forest. When the report does attempt to reach a broader conclusion (as it does about Saddam's ties to Islamic terrorists), it does so with remarkable little supporting evidence.

Attempting to look past all these trees the outline of the forest seems to be as follows:

  • The Fedayeen Saddam had an extensive terrorist network in Europe and kept considerably more arms at Iraqi embassies than would be needed for protection. Their main targets appear to have been Iraqi defectors abroad.
  • The Fedayeen Saddam also recruited and trained suicide bombers from Iraq and other countries. The targets of these terrorists are not clear.
  • Iraq also provided extensive training to non-state terrorists, especially ones attacking Israel, to the extent of building models of Israeli settlements to practice attacking.
  • The Iraqi government collaborated (to an uncertain degree) with various Islamist terrorist groups, especially Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahari, who later became Bin Laden's deputy. It kept an eye on a wide variety of other Islamic terrorist groups, hoping perhaps to exploit them in the future.
  • During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq and allied terrorist groups responded with attacks on American and allied interests.
  • Iraqi intelligence and the Fedayeen Saddam engaged in extensive acts of sabotage and terror in the autonomous Kurdish regions. The report emphasizes attacks on foreigners and does not discuss either the extent to which Kurds were targeted or the extent of cooperation with Islamist organizations in Kurdistan, such as Ansar al-Islam.
  • Iraqi intelligence spied on the Saudi and Kuwaiti royal families and attempted to assassinate members.
  • Iran was also a frequent target of Iraqi terrorism.

One of the report's few attempts at extensive analysis was of Iraqi ties to Islamist terrorists. Saddam ruthlessly suppressed any such organizations within Iraq, but wavered on whether to support them abroad. However:

Saddam provided training and motivation to revolutionary pan-Arab nationalists in the region. Osama bin Laden provided training and motivation for violent revolutionary Islamists in the region. There were recruiting within the same demographic, spouting much the same rhetoric, and promoting a common historical narrative threat promised a return to a glorious past. That these movements (pan-Arab and pan-Islamic) had many similarities and strategic parallels does not mean they saw themselves in that light. Nevertheless, these similarities created more than just the appearance of cooperation. Common interests, even without common cause, increased the aggregate terror threat.
However, the report gives little supporting detail, other than to mention Iraqi support for Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

The report is conspicuous for what it does not address, especially any systematic sorts of comparisons. Obvious questions to ask might include:
  • What sorts of terrorist acts did Iraqi intelligence plan? Who were their most common targets? What percentage of their planned attacks succeeded? Was there any pattern of successes or failures (say, attacks planned far from home were less likely to succeed that ones nearby).
  • Which non-state terrorist organizations did Iraq have closest ties to? Training terrorists and planning attacks together would be evidence of close ties. Providing finance and more passive forms of support are evidence of less close ties. Mere occasional contact is a weak tie. Planning frequent attacks together is evidence of stronger ties than planning occasional attacks. And so forth.
  • What were Iraq's ties with specific Islamist terrorist organizations? How were they similar and how did they differ?
  • How did Saddam's policies evolve over time? Which terrorist organizations did he strengthen ties to, and which did he weaken ties to?
  • And what about the Al-Qaeda fighters who fled to Iraq in the wake of the US invasions of Afghanistan?

Conceivably, the rather weak analysis and poor attempts to quantify the evidence could be because the evidence remains spotty. Although the report is touted as the product of reviewing some 600,000 documents, only 15% of those have been translated into English. And it is not clear whether 600,000 is the total number of documents about terrorism, or the total number of captured documents dealing with all topics. Nonetheless, there are some 2,000 pages of documents in the four succeeding volumes.

If I had the time, I might be tempted to read through all 2,000 pages to see if I could provide a more systematic analysis than the Pentagon has to offer. Unfortunately, I do not.

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