The Uses of al-Qaeda "Links"

Pandora’s Box

Anyone likely to wield political power in the U.S. in the near future will support a large, ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq. Thus have the neocons triumphed, even if President Bush is voted out of office. Even if the public comes to thoroughly understand that lies led to war, policy-makers will point out that a U.S. withdrawal will magnify the risk of fighting between Shiites and Sunnis, conflict between Kurds and other Iraqis, Turkish intervention, the establishment of an Iran-aligned Shiite state, etc. Withdrawal will (it will be argued) allow terrorism to flourish in Iraq, and insure that the country becomes or remains a base for anti-U.S. attacks. (So even if the Iraq invasion, in its criminality and cruel effects, has produced more anti-U.S. anger than ever, and hence made Americans less safe, to apologetically leave Iraq now would make the Homeland even more unsafe You see the logic? Howard Dean saw it, declaring last September that “Failure in Iraq is not an option,” urging Bush to “drum up the troops and the moneyto make Iraq a better place.”) However discredited their rationale for war, those who built the case for war will (in their government offices, in retirement or in prison cells) be able to smugly celebrate their fait accompli, confident that their deed designed to refashion the Middle East is truly undoable, and will be accepted even by some self-professed “anti-war” people.

Unless, of course, the Iraqi resistance makes the occupation just too costly and too unpopular at home. If the casualty toll remains at its current level, or mounts; if GIs decline to re-enlist and military recruitment suffers to the extent that conscription is re-imposed; if GIs resist and speak out against the war, detailing traumatic, unheroic experiences; if the economy suffers significantly; if the effort to tar all Iraqi opposition to occupation as “terrorists” comes to invite widespread skepticism in the U.S.—the antiwar movement may swell. Regardless of the consequences for the Middle East, majority opinion may come to demand (as it did in the later years of the Vietnam conflict): “Bring the troops home NOW!”

In the near term, it appears that some of the phenomena which the U.S. presence is supposedly needed to prevent may happen anyway, even under the occupation’s watch. Specifically, there could be a civil war pitting Shiites against Sunnis. The secular rule of Saddam Hussein, iron-handed and cruel, at least kept the lid on Iraq. In invading, not just criminally but foolishly, the U.S. lifted the lid, opening a Pandora’s box it may be unable to close.

The Occupiers’ Confusion

The Iraqi resistance, taking various forms, including huge peaceful demonstrations called for by the Shiite Ayatollah Sistani, has already forced the occupiers to rethink their policies so often that they seem to be making it up as they go along. Jay Garner was originally appointed to oversee the occupation, but the apishly chest-beating retired general’s presence so provoked the Iraqis that he was replaced early on by the civilian, L. Paul Bremer.

The timetable for restoration of sovereignty was advanced due to Iraqi as well as foreign pressure. The plan for caucuses, which would have allowed the U.S. to hand-pick leaders of the future government, was dropped due in large part to Sistani’s opposition (which was very reasonable, and was even supported by the editors of the Boston Globe).While the Bush administration insists it will restore sovereignty to the Iraqi people by June 1, it remains unclear what sovereignty really means, and what powers will be given to whom.

Maybe all hell will break lose, and the occupiers will yet again adopt new tactics, such as working with the mysterious General Nizar Khazraji and his network of contacts in the disbanded Iraqi Army to contain violent dissent, inter-communal strife and separatism. In any case, having invited disorder by the crime of its invasion, the U.S. cannot blame itself. (Imperialism means never having to say “I’m sorry.”) It will have to blame someone else. Who would these others be? Why, foreigners in Iraq of course. Not the foreign “Coalition” troops from Poland, Spain, Estonia, Japan, etc. mercenarily assisting in the hyper-power’s occupation, but Arabs or other Muslims who share, by definition—in their ethnicity or religious beliefs—something in common with al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda, which attacked the Homeland and prompted America’s righteously unbounded War on Terrorism in the first place. Any organization or state the Bush administration modifies by the awkward adjective “al-Qaeda-linked” can be faulted with trying to provoke Sunni-Shia antagonism, foment civil war, and worsen the U.S. headache in Iraq.


Providing Clarity through Bogus Links

(Digression. “Link” is among the vaguest and most dangerously useful of words. The War on Terror deploys it constantly. The first group, other than al-Qaeda and the Taliban, targeted by U.S. military forces after 9-11 was the “al-Qaeda-linked” Abu Sayyaf bandit group in the Philippines. Never mind that the Philippines president herself declared that there had been no ties between al-Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf in five or six years. The linkage however facilitated the U.S. military’s reentrance into the Philippines, so positing some link, which needn’t be close or substantial or even explained at all, served a policy goal. Similarly, the link posited between Chechen rebels in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge and al-Qaeda—never really substantiated—facilitated a U.S. military presence in the former Soviet republic, where the U.S. vies for influence with neighboring Russia. Unidentified “western intelligence sources” told the Independent in May 2002 that al-Qaeda has supplied weapons to Nepali Maoists, a classic piece of disinformation if I’ve ever seen one. That link preceded the provision of $ 20 million in U.S. military equipment to the Nepali regime.)

Syria has been linked to al-Qaeda; so has Iran, and of course, Iraq under Saddam. This can mean simply that an al-Qaeda operative has visited one of these countries, or that there have been low-level, inconclusive contacts between security officials and al-Qaeda. The neocons have excelled in linking 9-11 to a broad array of projects; the establishment of these links is for them a kind of Straussian game in which the Noble Lie is argued through the most creatively effective stringing of links. (Assignment to Defense Department staff: how can we use 9-11 to win popular support for our plans to topple Assad? The Iranian mullahs? Castro? Kim Jong-il? Let us link, link, link, lie nobly and conquer.)

If Iraq becomes increasingly unstable, it will be more and more necessary (and useful) to link its instability to some of these other targets. Opposition to occupation, potentially a setback for the ambitious neocon world-transforming plan, can be placed in the latter’s service if it can, for example, be linked to Syrian “interference” and complicity in the passage of foreign jihadis into Iraq, and provide some justification for regime change in Damascus (an obsessive neocon goal).

The Currently Crucial Zarqawi Link

At present, the occupation blames some of the disorder (especially attacks on Shiite shrines) on foreigners led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Recall that in his address to the United Nations in February 2003, Colin Powell, having detailed evidence for Iraq’s huge arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, proceeded to argue for an attack on Iraq using the additional allegation of long-standing ties between Baghdad and al-Qaeda. The cornerstone of his case was that “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants.”

“Zarqawi,” Powell continued, a “Palestinian born in Jordan, fought in the Afghan war more than a decade ago.” (Note 1: Powell had just accused Saddam of supporting Palestinian terrorism. Some sources, including Jane’s Intelligence Digest and the Christian Science Monitor, call Zarqawi a Jordanian Bedouin. The discrepancy in identification/linkage may be important. Note 2: Powell might have expanded the sentence: “fought in the Afghan war more than a decade ago, a war against a Soviet-backed regime, in which he was fighting on the same side as the U.S., along with thousands of other foreign jihadis recruited by the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI.”) Powell continued: “Returning to Afghanistan in 2000, he oversaw a terrorist training camp. One of his specialties, and one of the specialties of this camp, is poisons. When our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp, and this camp is located in northeastern Iraq.”

Powell went on to describe a camp producing ricin and other poisons, operated by the “radical organization Ansar al-Islam that controls this corner of Iraq.” He was apparently relying on the New Yorker journalism of Jeffrey Goldberg, which has been effectively picked apart by CounterPunch writers Alexander Cockburn, Kenneth Rapoza, and even questioned by my humble self. The nature of the “camp” (obliterated in the opening stage of the war, leaving no evidence of anything) and of the Ansar organization itself remain unclear. Ansar has been variously described as a Kurdish organization, and as a group of mostly Arab al-Qaeda exiles living among Kurds. Goldberg alleged that Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda jointly sponsored the group, a charge heatedly denied by Baghdad (and not specifically echoed in Powell’s speech).

Zarqawi, Powell continued, “traveled to Baghdad in May of 2002 for medical treatment, staying in the capital of Iraq for two months while he recuperated to fight another day.” (The story widely circulated is that he had his leg amputated, but Newsweek currently reports, “The stark fact is that we don’t even know for sure how many legs Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi has”) “During his stay, nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there. These al-Qaida affiliates based in Baghdad now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they have now been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months. Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al-Qaida. These denials are simply not credible. W know these affiliates are connected to Zarqawi because they remain, even today, in regular contact with his direct subordinates, include the poison cell plotters. And they are involved in moving more than money and materiel.”

All of this now appears about as credible as the highly detailed, straight-faced charges about WMD. Anyway, having linked Zarqawi to al-Qaeda and to Iraq (specifically, to “his terrorist network in Iraq” responsible for the killing of Agency for International Development operative Laurence Foley in Amman in 2002, a network plotting “terrorist actions against countries including France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia,” and linked to terror in Georgia and Chechnya), Powell sought to persuade the world and his fellow Americans that Iraq was part of the general Evil requiring aggressive U.S. attention in the post-9-11 world. Some of his omissions (including lack of reference to the alleged “terrorist training camp” at Salman Pak, south of Baghdad, where some reports have Zarqawi visit in 1998) are interesting; Powell, to the consternation of the disinformation enthusiasts at the Weekly Standard, sometimes draws a line with an eye to his historical reputation.

There seems to be much unclarity about this Zarqawi fellow. Is he a close al-Qaeda associate? German intelligence suggests that he is rather a rival of bin Laden, with ideological differences. His organization, al-Tawhid, is separate from al-Qaeda. Asia Times reported March 2 that “according to official US sources, Zarqawi’s relationship to bin Laden is ‘uncertain,’ anda recent report by the intelligence branch of the US Department of State stressed that al-Qaeda and Ansar appear quite unrelated and independent of each other”.

According to some reports, Zarqawi is presently under arrest in Iran; Jordan has requested his extradition to face trial but the Iranians say he carries a Syrian passport. An AP report states that a leaflet circulated in Iraq by a coalition of resistance groups says he was killed by an American bombing attack in the Sulaimaniya Mountains in Iraq. Since the real story’s so unclear, those accustomed to making things up can do so unrestrained by a lot of cumbersome facts.


That Amazingly Useful “Zarqawi Letter”

According to the New York Times (which has a long distinguished history breaking these kinds of stories), on January 23 U.S. forces raided an “al-Qaeda safe house” in Baghdad, netting a CD-Rom with a letter addressed to the inner circle of al-Qaeda. The author is not indicated, but reportedly someone captured in the house said it was written by Zarqawi to al-Qaeda. Note that this new story wasn’t announced in a press conference by Paul Bremer or military officials but by the NYT; nevertheless, it was immediately considered valid by the mainstream press and used by the latter to affirm al-Qaeda-linked Zarqawi’s nefarious role in Iraq.

(It kind of reminds me of the hand-written memo attributed to the Iraqi intelligence boss Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Takriti, revealed by the Richard Perle-linked Telegraph last December, which linked Saddam to Mohammed Atta, Libya, Syria and a “Niger shipment” and touted by the neocon-friendly press as truly validating the war. Too good to be true, it’s been pretty much exposed as another piece of disinformation.But I think there will be more bogus letters, most likely linking Syria to something or other offering a pretext for regime change there.)

The text, translated from Arabic by the Coalition Provisional Authority, immediately appeared in abbreviated form on the National Review and Project for a New American Century and other such websites, just as you’d expect. They leave out much of the preamble, which comprises half the text of the 17-page missive, which recounts Iraq’s religious and ethnic history in detail that you’d think wouldn’t be at all necessary in a communication between a longtime al-Qaeda intimate and bin Laden’s inner circle. The writer denounces Shiites as snakes and vermin, does not recognize them as Muslims, and accuses them of working with the infidels. It notes that (1) the Americans have been “befriended” by the majority Shiites, (2) the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty by June 1 will effectively end Iraqi resistance, and so (3) the al-Qaeda-linked resistance forces should do their best to provoke a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis so that the Coalition forces will have to remain and thus remain targets of the jihad.

Greg Weiher raised reasonable doubts about the authenticity of this letter. More tardily, Newsweek’s Rod Nordland has raised questions: “The letter so neatly and comprehensively lays out a blueprint for fomenting strife with the Shia, and later the Kurds, that it’s a little hard to believe in it unreservedly. It came originally from Kurdish sources who have a long history of disinformation and dissimulation.” (Kurdish sources who may have a vested interest in fomenting inter-Arab Iraqi conflict to abet the cause of Kurdish independence.) I won’t repeat Weiher and Nordland’s points. I’ll just observe that if things go very badly for the U.S. in Iraq (as I think they will), and if civil war erupts (as I think it may), then the PNAC guys and whatever administration’s in power will need to say: “This mess isn’t our responsibility, not our fault. It’s Zarqawi, linked to al-Qaeda, linked to Ansar al-Islam, linked to Iran, linked to Syria, and linked to Saddam. All those evil people who started this by attacking us on 9-11. All those now trying to thwart our efforts to achieve main reason now justifying our war: to bestow democracy and our universally applicable values on Iraq.”

Democracy in this case means, of course, democracy in any shape and form chosen by the sovereign Iraqi people—just so long as it allows U.S. control over the flow of Iraqi oil, guarantees massive profits to U.S. corporations receiving contracts for reconstruction, permits the establishment of permanent U.S. military bases, abets Israeli security, and rules out any prospect of a Sharia-based legal system that might enhance the strength of anti-American religious fundamentalism (a phenomenon actually encouraged daily by U.S. policies towards Muslim peoples). The 60% of Iraqis who are Shiites must make a choice. Doesn’t the Zarqawi letter make it clear? Stand with the Americans against terror, or by resisting U.S. forces make common cause with a man who wrote to bin Laden describing Shiites as “vermin.” We’re good, they’re bad. You’re for us or against us. And if you’re against us, you’re with Zarqawi. Make sense?
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Many of the attacks on Shiites have been blamed by the occupation on foreign, al-Qaeda linked forces, but by the Shiites themselves as well as by the Sunnis on the occupation itself. The mainstream media implies that the latter accusation is absurd. Why would the Brits and Americans want to attack Shiite holy places and clerics? But the Shiites aren’t really accusing “Coalition” troops of attacking them. They are rather accusing the U.S. and Britain of invading their country in such a way as to make them very vulnerable to hostile actions by certain Iraqi foes (who if they are Sunnis, are unrepresentative of that group). By attributing the attacks to (Arab, Sunni) foreigners the occupation administration minimizes its responsibility for creating an environment inevitably conducive to looting, rape, and the murderous settling of old scores. But on a number of occasions, commanders in the field have contradicted reports of foreign involvement in anti-Shiite actions and stated that Iraqis were responsible.

Thus the officers implicitly support the Shiite argument that the occupation isn’t able to defend the Shiites, who must therefore maintain militias for self-defense, even as the occupiers try to dismantle those organizations. If Shiite patience with the occupation is exhausted, and Shiites rise against the invaders and their agenda, those truly responsible for all the disorder will likely finger Zarqawi as a key culprit, whether he is or not, and insist that al-Qaeda-linked forces in Iraq require the indefinite presence of American friends.

Real links? I’d suggest the following. Capital accumulates and concentrates and assumes the form of empire, requiring for its maintenance and expansion “full spectrum dominance,”
control of energy supply, establishment of military bases everywhere, alliances with brutal tyrants, and endlessly proliferating officially-generated falsehoods. All these can be causally linked to rage, to terror, and to death. Those understanding these links, can, if they link up effectively, “pluck the imaginary flowers from the chain without fantasy,” demanding and creating conditions that reject all the lies.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: