Former CIA Operations Officer says he saw no "operational cooperation" between Saddam (Hussein) and al Qaeda
In a recent interview with this site, former CIA Operations Officer, and co-author of "Operation Hotel California," Charles "Sam" Faddis, talked about leading the CIA's first team into northern Iraq in 2002 and what he found. Faddis, now the president of Orion Strategic Services and working on another book about the future of the CIA, says that while interviewing dozens of al Qaeda/Ansar al Islam detainees he saw no signs of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Faddis also talked about battling Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen, why Saddam Hussein might not have attacked an al Qaeda/Ansar al Islam outpost in Iraq and more.
ROT: Before discussing some of the specifics of your assignment in Iraq can you please explain what your official position was at the time of the invasion and what your background was to that. CF: I was Chief of Base Salahalldin at the time conventional forces invaded. I was running all CIA operations in that portion of Northern Iraq controlled by the KDP. I had been in that capacity since the Fall of 2002. Prior to that, for several months, I was responsible for all CIA personnel in Northern Iraq. Once we began to plus up, in the Fall of 2002, and the scope of operations began to grow, we divided the North into two zones. I took KDP territory. My former deputy took PUK territory (ROT: PUK officials talked more of Saddam-al Qaeda links than did KDP).Analysis
ROT: In an interview with Congressional Quarterly's Jeff Stein you said that you saw intelligence reports that al Qaeda was in Iraq prior to the U.S. led invasion but Saddam Hussein's regime was working against them and working to infiltrate them. Can you talk about what kind intel there was on this? Testimony from members of Saddam's regime who defected or were in custody? Members of al Qaeda/Ansar al Islam who were in custody? Intercepted phone calls or documents? Something else?
CF: There were al Qaeda personnel inside what was technically Iraqi territory. They were located in the area along the Iranian border controlled by a radical Islamic group called Ansar al Islam. This area was not under the functional control of Saddam nor was it under friendly Kurdish control. It was, in effect, an independent mini Islamic state. My team acquired information on this presence and on Iraqi collection regarding it directly. We captured many of the Ansar and al Qaeda personnel and questioned them. I personally did many of these interrogations. We also ran a large number of clandestine sources who reportedl directly to us. Our conclusions regarding the situation on the ground were not based on one or two reports. They were based on literally hundreds of reports that we produced ourselves.
ROT: Where were the majority of the your intel reports on Saddam's regime coming from? It has been reported in the 9-11 Commission and elsewhere that the intelligence community had a lot of difficulty penetrating the former regime when it came to looking at WMD's and whether or not they cooperated with terrorists. Can you comment on this?
CF: We ran a large number of assets. We debriefed defectors. We had Kurdish teams operating across the Green Line. We pulled in a lot of information. That said, I would never be so naive as to think that means we knew everything that was going on.
ROT: A lot of disinformation and misinformation has come into play about intelligence relating to Iraq/terrorism over the past 7+ years. Is it possible that some of that information was let out to muddy the waters and overshadow the little reported stories of cooperation between the former regime and terrorists that has been found in al Qaeda and Baath documents? Is it possible that there is still information about what happened in the shadowy al Qaeda and Baath official meetings that hasn't been released?
CF: I suppose anything is possible. My personal opinion is that trying to prove a lashup between Saddam and al Qaeda is a waste of time and an example of a tendency to try to oversimplify a dangerous, complex and chaotic world. Saddam was a monster. I volunteered to help overthrow him for a reason. The world is a better place without him. Osama is a dangerous fanatic, and the world will be safer when he is dead. None of that means that those two individuals must be in league or that they worked in concert. It just means there are a lot of dangerous people out there, and that it is sometimes a difficult task to understand their motivations and goals.
ROT: When you were working with intelligence on northern Iraq prior to the invasion did the name Abu Wa'el ever surface? What was known of him?
CF: If I recall correctly he was an Ansar leader. Not sure what I can tell you about him. It has been a number of years, and, obviously, I no longer have access to any of the reporting we produced on him.
ROT: What did you make of some of the press accounts mentioning foreign jihadist suicide bombers (perhaps hundreds) awaiting coalition forces in Baghdad early in the invasion?
CF: I am not sure I am aware of hundreds of jihadist suicide bombers awaiting coalition forces. My understanding of what ensued in Iraq post occupation was that we, through gross incompetence, allowed a very dangerous vacume in security to appear. In effect, we created an opening for al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups, and they were not slow to exploit it.
I have never seen anything which suggests that these people were sitting there pre invasion waiting for us. Everything I have ever seen says they flooded in once we let the place go up in flames.
ROT: Did you get any intelligence reports about the thousands of Islamic militants who reportedly (according to the Insitute for Defense Analysis study) passed through regime-run training camps for the decade leading up to the invasion? If so, what did you make of those reports?
CF: I don't know anything about such reports. Also, just to be clear, neither I nor anyone else I know is trying to make a case that Saddam never had any contact with any terrorists or that he never assisted them. That would be silly.
ROT: Is it possible that al Qaeda, Zarqawi and others could have really operated in Saddam Hussein's Iraq if the former regime did not want them there? Specifically, is it possible that they were in Baghdad, going back to 2002, which many of their members and internal documents point to them being?
CF: I think we are back to the same point again. I can't vouch for every report the CIA ever had on this topic. But, I don't know of any operational cooperation between Saddam and AQ. What I saw with my own eyes inside Iraq was that Saddam and his intelligence apparatus regarded Ansar and their AQ allies as very dangerous. There was no indication of any support or liaison. There was plenty of evidence that Saddam was spying on Ansar and AQ in order to keep tabs on what they were doing and prevent them from being a threat to his regime.
ROT: Regarding the spying by Saddam Hussein's regime on Ansar al Islam and AQ, it would seem that if the two groups were really enemies the regime could have easily stomped a few hundred of them out if they wanted to. It would have been cost-free politically at a time when Iraq could have really used some international goodwill and yet there were no accounts of open conflict between the two? (as opposed the fighting that was taking place between the Kurdish government and Ansar al Islam/al Qaeda) Couldn't the regime have been spying on Ansar al Islam to make sure they were attacking their mutual enemy, the Kurdish government? (ROT note: Press accounts at the time even mentioned some members of Ansar al Islam in the north praying for Saddam Hussein's survival)
CF: Ultimately, I cannot prove a negative. Meaning that I am never going to be able to say that it was absolutely impossible for Saddam to have had any links with Ansar and al Qaeda. That said, everything I ever saw and that my team collected told me there were no such links ongoing. Certainly, what I can say definitively is there was no material aid flowing. Ansar was getting arms and munitions from lots of places, but none of them from Saddam. Ansar's little enclave was really in an area along the Iranian border where Saddam could not get to it. Essenially hemmed in along the border by PUK. Plus, given the no fly zone and sensitivity about any move he would make into Kurdish areas, I think it would have been opening the door to a lot of unpredictable international response to have moved north in any direction. Finally, I suspect Ansar (al Islam) just did not make the cut for a threat so immediate that he felt compelled to act. They were basically surrounded by the PUK and they occupied a fairly small area of what is, frankly, pretty lousy territory. He did not like them. He wanted to keep his eye on them. They were not an immediate threat in the sense that if he did not kill them all today he was doomed.
ROT: What motivation would al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam detainees have had to tell the truth about their goals and relations? Were all of those detainees captured in northern Iraq or were some from Mosul and other Sunni areas in Iraq where Baathists were soon captured working alongside some Ansar al Islam and al Qaeda agents?
CF: We interrogated dozens of Ansar and AQ guys summer of 2002. I conducted a number of those interviews myself, including some of the most high profile ones. Why did they talk? Because we broke them down. As to exactly how we did that, I think the less said about that the better. We have already spilled enough detail about our methodology to the world. These detainees were captured in many different places. Most of the AQ guys were caught as they tried to make it to Ansar territory following their flight from Afghanistan. I never met any Ansar or AQ guys who ever said anything positive about Saddam. In Spring 2003 SF and our guys in PUK territory overran Ansar and captured a large number of them. I would not be the guy to talk to for the gospel on what all those guys said, but I never heard any info that suggested they told us anything we did not already know.
What I always told my team in 2002 was that the day we found hard evidence of a link between Saddam and AQ, I would gladly send that message to Washington. I considered both Saddam and Osama enemies of the United States. That said, as a pro, I also stressed that we were not going to cut any corners or shade anything. We were going to do it by the numbers, check all our sources and call it as we saw not as someone wanted us to. We never found that smoking gun. In fact, everything I saw, as I have noted, told me that Saddam considered Ansar and AQ to be adversaries whom he needed to watch very carefully.
ROT: Back to the reports on the foreign suicide bombers in Baghdad. These types of reports were privately confirmed to me by a writer for NEWSWEEK who was in Baghdad during this time and indicated that he saw evidence of a pipeline of suicide bombers coming via Syria months before the invasion. Did these accounts not make it to your area of responsibility?
CF: I am well aware of the existence of a "pipeline" across Syria for foreign fighters coming into Iraq to fight the coalition. I do not have any information regarding the existence of this "pipeline" in advance of the invasion or of any organized effort by Saddam, in cooperation, with Islamic extremists to bring in suicide bombers. That does not mean it did not exist, it means simply I have no information on that topic. My team engaged heavily against the Fedayeen after the invasion began. I recall no information suggesting that any of the folks with whom we engaged were foreigners or Islamic radicals.
ROT: Is it your opinion that the close cooperation that has gone on since days after the invasion between some of the Baathist holdovers and al Qaeda was put together all after U.S. forces arrived?
CF: Again, I suppose on some level anything is possible. What I understand to have happened is as follows. We invaded Iraq with a relatively small force. All of our planning for post-invasion control of that nation, to the extent it existed, was predicated on the basis of our having the cooperation of the bulk of the Iraqi Army and security forces. That is part of the reason that my team spent so much time working on coopting the Iraqi military. Then, for reasons which remain mysterious to me to this day, a decision was made at some level, I would assume by the President, to change course, formally disband the Iraqi Army and other security forces, and take on the task of policing a large, populous nation composed of a myriad of different ethnic and religious groups, by ourselves. These groups had never peacefully coexisted except when forced to do so, and all Saddam's reign of terror had done was to suppress the differences and hatreds and to so brutalize the society as to largely destroy any sense of the rule of law or civil society. What ensued was a lot like what you would see in a pressure cooker if you took the lid off at full heat. The water boiled, and it boiled furiously. We were besieged by a host of different elements. Sometimes these elements cooperated. Sometimes they acted independently but based on a common opposition to our presence. Al Qaida is nothing but opportunistic. They can smell blood. They came running as well. What amazes me to this day, is that the men and women of our military and intelligence services, despite the horrific strategic errors made by their leaders, found a way to walk through that firestorm and, ultimately, to survive it.
On a broader level, my suggestion would be that we spend less time trying to prove President Bush, for whom I voted twice, and Vice-President Cheney right and more drawing the correct conclusions and figuring out a way to win the war which is still going on against Islamic terror. Bill Clinton demonstrated what happens when you pretend like there is no war and don't fight back. Bush demonstrated what happens when you combine great power with ignorance and arrogance. Somewhere in between is a middle ground, where we fight intelligently and emerge victorious.
ROT: How can readers get a copy of your book and what should they expect from it?
CF: Which book? Operation Hotel California is available from most online book sellers. My new book, on the future of the CIA, comes out this fall.
The testimony of Faddis, and others with intimate experience with the interrogations/interviews of members of al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime, is important when attempting to unravel the true feelings members of the al Qaeda movement and Saddam Hussein's regime had for one another. Faddis's testimony also supports the work that writers and analysts such as Walter Pincus, Michael Isikoff, Spencer Ackerman, Murray Waas, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, Daniel Benjamin, Steven Simon and many many others have produced highlighting the animosities between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.
It remains important to note that Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda both valued compartmentalization (many in al Qaeda were opposed to the Septemeber 11 attacks, strategies or even totally unaware of major al Qaeda plots until they happened, while many Iraqi leaders believed the country had WMD's in 2003 while many did not). Regarding the post-invasion insurgency in Iraq internal al Qaeda documents, reported on by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden had disagreements over working with "apostates" while the remnants of the Iraqi Baath party have split into at least 2 wings with starkly differing opinions over cooperating with Islamists. According to an analyst of the Iraq insurgency at the Jamestown Foundation, one wing is said to be led by Mohammed Younis al Ahmed al Muwali with secular goals and the other being led by Izzat Ibrahim al Douri who is said to be more open to working with a less inclusive group of Islamists.
To further understand the incredibly complex, and often contradictory, stories of what cooperation, exchanges and conflicts between Saddam Hussein's regime and al Qaeda more people like Charles Faddis, who have had much more exposure to al Qaeda and Baath intentions than the public has had access to, will need to come forward in the coming years and tell their story of what those detainees have said and put all the information into the public discussion.