Saddam’s Terror Training Camps
What the documents captured from the former Iraqi regime reveal–and why they should all be made public.
by Stephen F. Hayes
01/16/2006, Volume 011, Issue 17
THE FORMER IRAQI REGIME OF Saddam Hussein trained thousands of radical Islamic terrorists from the region at camps in Iraq over the four years immediately preceding the U.S. invasion, according to documents and photographs recovered by the U.S. military in postwar Iraq. The existence and character of these documents has been confirmed to THE WEEKLY STANDARD by eleven U.S. government officials.
The secret training took place primarily at three camps–in Samarra, Ramadi, and Salman Pak–and was directed by elite Iraqi military units. Interviews by U.S. government interrogators with Iraqi regime officials and military leaders corroborate the documentary evidence. Many of the fighters were drawn from terrorist groups in northern Africa with close ties to al Qaeda, chief among them Algeria’s GSPC and the Sudanese Islamic Army. Some 2,000 terrorists were trained at these Iraqi camps each year from 1999 to 2002, putting the total number at or above 8,000. Intelligence officials believe that some of these terrorists returned to Iraq and are responsible for attacks against Americans and Iraqis. According to three officials with knowledge of the intelligence on Iraqi training camps, White House and National Security Council officials were briefed on these findings in May 2005; senior Defense Department officials subsequently received the same briefing.
The photographs and documents on Iraqi training camps come from a collection of some 2 million “exploitable items” captured in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan. They include handwritten notes, typed documents, audiotapes, videotapes, compact discs, floppy discs, and computer hard drives. Taken together, this collection could give U.S. intelligence officials and policymakers an inside look at the activities of the former Iraqi regime in the months and years before the Iraq war.
The discovery of the information on jihadist training camps in Iraq would seem to have two major consequences: It exposes the flawed assumptions of the experts and U.S. intelligence officials who told us for years that a secularist like Saddam Hussein would never work with Islamic radicals, any more than such jihadists would work with an infidel like the Iraqi dictator. It also reminds us that valuable information remains buried in the mountain of documents recovered in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past four years.
Nearly three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, only 50,000 of these 2 million “exploitable items” have been thoroughly examined. That’s 2.5 percent. Despite the hard work of the individuals assigned to the “DOCEX” project, the process is not moving quickly enough, says Michael Tanji, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who helped lead the document exploitation effort for 18 months. “At this rate,” he says, “if we continue to approach DOCEX in a linear fashion, our great-grandchildren will still be sorting through this stuff.”
Most of the 50,000 translated documents relate directly to weapons of mass destruction programs and scientists, since David Kay and his Iraq Survey Group–who were among the first to analyze the finds–considered those items top priority. “At first, if it wasn’t WMD, it wasn’t translated. It wasn’t exploited,” says a former military intelligence officer who worked on the documents in Iraq.
“We had boxloads of Iraqi Intelligence records–their names, their jobs, all sorts of detailed information,” says the former military intelligence officer. “In an insurgency, wouldn’t that have been helpful?”
How many of those unexploited documents might help us better understand the role of Iraq in supporting transregional terrorists? How many of those documents might provide important intelligence on the very people–Baathists, former regime officials, Saddam Fedayeen, foreign fighters trained in Iraq–that U.S. soldiers are fighting in Iraq today? Is what we don’t know literally killing us?
ON NOVEMBER 17, 2005, Michigan representative Pete Hoekstra wrote to John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence. Hoekstra is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He provided Negroponte a list of 40 documents recovered in postwar Iraq and Afghanistan and asked to see them. The documents were translated or summarized, given titles by intelligence analysts in the field, and entered into a government database known as HARMONY. Most of them are unclassified.
For several weeks, Hoekstra was promised a response. He finally got one on December 28, 2005, in a meeting with General Michael Hayden, principal deputy director of national intelligence. Hayden handed Hoekstra a letter from Negroponte that promised a response after January 1, 2006. Hoekstra took the letter, read it, and scribbled his terse response. “John–Unacceptable.” Hoekstra told Hayden that he would expect to hear something before the end of the year. He didn’t.
“I can tell you that I’m reaching the point of extreme frustration,” said Hoekstra, in a phone interview last Thursday. His exasperated tone made the claim unnecessary. “It’s just an indication that rather than having a nimble, quick intelligence community that can respond quickly, it’s still a lumbering bureaucracy that can’t give the chairman of the intelligence committee answers relatively quickly. Forget quickly, they can’t even give me answers slowly.”
On January 6, however, Hoekstra finally heard from Negroponte. The director of national intelligence told Hoekstra that he is committed to expediting the exploitation and release of the Iraqi documents. According to Hoekstra, Negroponte said: “I’m giving this as much attention as anything else on my plate to make this work.”
Other members of Congress–including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Senators Rick Santorum and Pat Roberts–also demanded more information from the Bush administration on the status of the vast document collection. Santorum and Hoekstra have raised the issue personally with President Bush. This external pressure triggered an internal debate at the highest levels of the administration. Following several weeks of debate, a consensus has emerged: The vast majority of the 2 million captured documents should be released publicly as soon as possible.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has convened several meetings in recent weeks to discuss the Pentagon’s role in expediting the release of this information. According to several sources familiar with his thinking, Rumsfeld is pushing aggressively for a massive dump of the captured documents. “He has a sense that public vetting of this information is likely to be as good an astringent as any other process we could develop,” says Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita.
The main worry, says DiRita, is that the mainstream press might cherry-pick documents and mischaracterize their meaning. “There is always the concern that people would be chasing a lot of information good or bad, and when the Times or the Post splashes a headline about some sensational-sounding document that would seem to ‘prove’ that sanctions were working, or that Saddam was just a misunderstood patriot, or some other nonsense, we’d spend a lot of time chasing around after it.”
This is a view many officials attributed to Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Steve Cambone. (Cambone, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed.) For months, Cambone has argued internally against expediting the release of the documents. “Cambone is the problem,” says one former Bush administration official who wants the documents released. “He has blocked this every step of the way.” In what is perhaps a sign of a changing dynamic within the administration, Cambone is now saying that he, like his boss, favors a broad document release.
Although Hoekstra, too, has been pushing hard for the quick release of all of the documents, he is currently focusing his efforts simply on obtaining the 40 documents he asked for in November. “There comes a time when the talking has to stop and I get the documents. I requested these documents six weeks ago and I have not seen a single piece of paper yet.”
Is Hoekstra being unreasonable? I asked Michael Tanji, the former DOCEX official with the Defense Intelligence Agency, how long such a search might take. His answer: Not long. “The retrieval of a HARMONY document is a trivial thing assuming one has a serial number or enough keyword terms to narrow down a search [Hoekstra did]. If given the task when they walked in the door, one person should be able to retrieve 40 documents before lunch.”
Tanji should know. He left DIA last year as the chief of the media exploitation division in the office of document exploitation. Before that, he started and managed a digital forensics and intelligence fusion program that used the data obtained from DOCEX operations. He began his career as an Army signals intelligence [SIGINT] analyst. In all, Tanji has worked for 18 years in intelligence and dealt with various aspects of the media exploitation problem for about four years.
We discussed the successes and failures of the DOCEX program, the relative lack of public attention to the project, and what steps might be taken to expedite the exploitation of the documents in the event the push to release all of the documents loses momentum.
TWS: In what areas is the project succeeding? In what areas is the project failing? Tanji: The level of effort applied to the DOCEX problems in Iraq and Afghanistan to date is a testament to the will and work ethic of people in the intelligence community. They've managed to find a number of golden nuggets amongst a vast field of rock in what I would consider a respectable amount of time through sheer brute force. The flip side is that it is a brute-force effort. For a number of reasons--primarily time and resources--there has not been much opportunity to step back, think about a smarter way to solve the problem, and then apply various solutions. Inasmuch as we've won in Iraq and Saddam and his cronies are in the dock, now would be a good time to put some fresh minds on the problem of how you turn DOCEX into a meaningful and effective information-age intelligence tool. TWS: Why haven't we heard more about this project? Aren't most of the Iraqi documents unclassified? Tanji: Until a flood of captured material came rushing in after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom [in October 2001], DOCEX was a backwater: unglamorous, not terribly career enhancing, and from what I had heard always one step away from being mothballed. The classification of documents obtained for exploitation varies based on the nature of the way they were obtained and by whom. There are some agencies that tend to classify everything regardless of how it was acquired. I could not give you a ratio of unclassified to classified documents. In my opinion the silence associated with exploitation work is rooted in the nature of the work. In addition to being tedious and time-consuming, it is usually done after the shooting is over. We place a higher value on intelligence information that comes to us before a conflict begins. Confirmation that we were right (or proof that we were wrong) after the fact is usually considered history. That some of this information may be dated doesn't mean it isn't still valuable. TWS: The project seems overwhelmed at the moment, with a mere 50,000 documents translated completely out of a total of 2 million. What steps, in your view, should be taken to expedite the process? Tanji: I couldn't say what the total take of documents or other forms of media is, though numbers in the millions are probably not far off. In a sense the exploitation process is what it is; you have to put eyes on paper (or a computer screen) to see what might be worth further translation or deeper analysis. It is a time-consuming process that has no adequate mechanical solution. Machine translation software is getting better, but it cannot best a qualified human linguist, of which we have very few. Tackling the computer media problem is a lot simpler in that computer language (binary) is universal, so searching for key words, phrases, and the names of significant personalities is fairly simple. Built to deal with large-scale data sets, a forensic computer system can rapidly separate wheat from chaff. The current drawback is that the computer forensics field is dominated by a law-enforcement mindset, which means the approach to the digital media problem is still very linear. As most of this material has come to us without any context ("hard drives found in Iraq" was a common label attached to captured media) that approach means our great-grandchildren will still be dealing with this problem. Dealing with the material as the large and nebulous data set that it is and applying a contextual appliqu? after exploitation--in essence, recreating the Iraqi networks as they were before Operation Iraqi Freedom began--would allow us to get at the most significant data rapidly for technical analysis, and allow for a political analysis to follow in short order. If I were looking for both a quick and powerful fix I'd get various Department of Energy labs involved; they're used to dealing with large data sets and have done great work in the data mining and rendering fields. TWS: To read some of the reporting on Iraq, one might come away with the impression that Saddam Hussein was something of a benign (if not exactly benevolent) dictator who had no weapons of mass destruction and no connections to terrorism. Does the material you've seen support this conventional wisdom? Tanji: I am subject to a nondisclosure agreement, so I would rather not get into details. I will say that the intelligence community has scraped the surface of much of what has been captured in Iraq and in my view a great deal more deep digging is required. Critics of the war often complain about the lack of "proof"--a term that I had never heard used in the intelligence lexicon until we ousted Saddam--for going to war. There is really only one way to obtain "proof" and that is to carry out a thorough and detailed examination of what we've captured. TWS: I've spoken with several officials who have seen unclassified materials indicating the former Iraqi regime provided significant support--including funding and training--to transregional terrorists, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ansar al Islam, Algeria's GSPC, and the Sudanese Islamic Army. Did you see any of this? Tanji: My obligations under a nondisclosure agreement prevent me from getting into this kind of detail.
Other officials familiar with the captured documents were less cautious. “As much as we overestimated WMD, it appears we underestimated [Saddam Hussein’s] support for transregional terrorists,” says one intelligence official.
Speaking of Ansar al Islam, the al Qaeda-linked terrorist group that operated in northern Iraq, the former high-ranking military intelligence officer says: “There is no question about the fact that AI had reach into Baghdad. There was an intelligence connection between that group and the regime, a financial connection between that group and the regime, and there was an equipment connection. It may have been the case that the IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] support for AI was meant to operate against the [anti-Saddam] Kurds. But there is no question IIS was supporting AI.”
The official continued: “[Saddam] used these groups because he was interested in extending his influence and extending the influence of Iraq. There are definite and absolute ties to terrorism. The evidence is there, especially at the network level. How high up in the government was it sanctioned? I can’t tell you. I don’t know whether it was run by Qusay [Hussein] or [Izzat Ibrahim] al-Duri or someone else. I’m just not sure. But to say Iraq wasn’t involved in terrorism is flat wrong.”
STILL, some insist on saying it. Since early November, Senator Carl Levin has been spotted around Washington waving a brief excerpt from a February 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency assessment of Iraq. The relevant passage reads: “Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control.”
Levin treats these two sentences as definitive proof that Bush administration officials knew that Saddam’s regime was unlikely to work with Islamic fundamentalists and ignored the intelligence community’s assessment to that effect. Levin apparently finds the passage so damning that he specifically requested that it be declassified.
I thought of Levin’s two sentences last Wednesday and Thursday as I sat in a Dallas courtroom listening to testimony in the deportation hearing of Ahmed Mohamed Barodi, a 42-year-old Syrian-born man who’s been living in Texas for the last 15 years. I thought of Levin’s sentences, for example, when Barodi proudly proclaimed his membership in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and again when Barodi, dressed in loose-fitting blue prison garb, told Judge J. Anthony Rogers about the 21 days he spent in February 1982 training with other members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood at a camp in Iraq.
The account he gave in the courtroom was slightly less alarming than the description of the camp he had provided in 1989, on his written application for political asylum in the United States. In that document, Barodi described the instruction he received in Iraq as “guerrilla warfare training.” And in an interview in February 2005 with Detective Scott Carr and special agent Sam Montana, both from the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force, Barodi said that the Iraqi regime provided training in the use of firearms, rocket-propelled grenades, and document forgery.
Barodi comes from Hama, the town that was leveled in 1982 by the armed forces of secular Syrian dictator Hafez Assad because it was home to radical Islamic terrorists who had agitated against his regime. The massacre took tens of thousands of lives, but some of the extremists got away.
Many of the most radical Muslim Brotherhood refugees from Hama were welcomed next door–and trained–in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Spanish investigators believe that Ghasoub Ghalyoun, the man they have accused of conducting surveillance for the 9/11 attacks, who also has roots in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, was trained in an Iraqi terrorist camp in the early 1980s. Ghalyoun mentions this Iraqi training in a 2001 letter to the head of Syrian intelligence, in which he seeks reentry to Syria despite his long affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Reaching out to Islamic radicals was, in fact, one of the first moves Saddam Hussein made upon taking power in 1979. That he did not do it for ideological reasons is unimportant. As Barodi noted at last week’s hearing, “He used us and we used him.”
Throughout the 1980s, including the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam cast himself as a holy warrior in his public rhetoric to counter the claims from Iran that he was an infidel. This posturing continued during and after the first Gulf war in 1990-91. Saddam famously ordered “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) added to the Iraqi flag. Internally, he launched “The Faith Campaign,” which according to leading Saddam Hussein scholar Amatzia Baram included the imposition of sharia (Islamic law). According to Baram, “The Iraqi president initiated laws forbidding the public consumption of alcohol and introduced enhanced compulsory study of the Koran at all educational levels, including Baath Party branches.”
Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law who defected to Jordan in 1995, explained these changes in an interview with Rolf Ekeus, then head of the U.N. weapons inspection program. “The government of Iraq is instigating fundamentalism in the country,” he said, adding, “Every party member has to pass a religious exam. They even stopped party meetings for prayers.”
And throughout the decade, the Iraqi regime sponsored “Popular Islamic Conferences” at the al Rashid Hotel that drew the most radical Islamists from throughout the region to Baghdad. Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey, who covered one of those meetings in 1993, would later write: “Islamic radicals from all over the Middle East, Africa and Asia converged on Baghdad to show their solidarity with Iraq in the face of American aggression.” One speaker praised “the mujahed Saddam Hussein, who is leading this nation against the nonbelievers.” Another speaker said, “Everyone has a task to do, which is to go against the American state.” Dickey continued:
Every time I hear diplomats and politicians, whether in Washington or the capitals of Europe, declare that Saddam Hussein is a "secular Baathist ideologue" who has nothing do with Islamists or with terrorist calls to jihad, I think of that afternoon and I wonder what they're talking about. If that was not a fledgling Qaeda itself at the Rashid convention, it sure was Saddam's version of it.
In the face of such evidence, Carl Levin and other critics of the Iraq war trumpet deeply flawed four-year-old DIA analyses. Shouldn’t the senator instead use his influence to push for the release of Iraqi documents that will help establish what, exactly, the Iraqi regime was doing in the years before the U.S. invasion?
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.