Bin Laden's voice aside, war on Iraq is not war on Al Qaeda
By Helena Cobban©
From The Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2003
Just when the Bush administration was finalizing preparations for a war
against Iraq, Osama bin Laden speaks up again. In an audiotape aired Tuesday,
a voice judged to be Mr. bin Laden's called on Muslims everywhere to rise
up against the US if Washington attacks Iraq.
This move raises the stakes in the US-Baghdad contest considerably. Washington
will need smart minds much more than smart weapons if it is to avoid global
chaos in the weeks ahead.
In particular, Washington needs to avoid stepping into bin Laden's trap
by assuming that he speaks for politically active Muslims everywhere. He
doesn't. Different groups of Muslims in various parts of the world are concerned
by widely differing issues. But nearly all those issues can be resolved through
serious engagement in negotiations. Let's continue to pursue that path wherever
possible, rather than letting bin Laden take us all down the path of violence.
Right now, the vast majority of the world's Muslims strongly oppose the
US launching what they see as a quite avoidable war against Iraq. (Most non-Muslims
worldwide seem to share this view, too.) With his latest message, bin Laden
seeks to insinuate himself into the leadership of the sprawling collection
of societies known loosely as the "world Muslim community."
If the US blindly goes ahead with the threatened attack on Iraq, will that
bring bin Laden closer to his goal, or further from it?
My judgment, based on more than 25 years of studying Muslim issues, is that
it will bring bin Laden much, much closer.
The tragic irony in this is that, just days before the airing of the bin
Laden tape, Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his presentation at the UN,
significantly inflated the strength of the link between Saddam Hussein's regime
and bin Laden's Al Qaeda. Now, as in the Yiddish folktale "The Golem," bad
dreams seem to be taking on real substance.
In his Feb. 5 speech, Mr. Powell laid out the best evidence he had for the
existence of what he called, "the potentially ... sinister nexus between Iraq
and the Al Qaeda terrorist network."
But the case he made at that time for the existence of this nexus was thin
and deeply unconvincing. To note this is not to stick up for Saddam Hussein.
He's a very abusive ruler with a long record of deception on significant weapons-related
issues. But prudence still dictates that the Bush administration needs to
get its facts straight about the Baghdad-Al Qaeda nexus.
The key piece of evidence on this in Powell's speech was a slide showing
a grainy satellite image of a dozen small buildings grouped around a courtyard.
"Terrorist poison and explosives factory, Khurmal," the caption read.
"This camp is located in northeastern Iraq," Powell said, alleging that
the members of a shadowy terrorist group called the Zarqawi network were
using the factory for "teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other
Scary stuff, yes? The problem is, not much of it seems to be true. Khurmal
is not under Hussein's control at all: It lies in the part of northern Iraq
controlled by the Kurds and protected by the US-British air umbrella.
Further, villagers in Khurmal hotly deny that their village hosts any terrorists
at all. On Feb. 5, they showed Western reporters around Khurmal and told them
that the nearest encampment of Islamic extremists was in another village several
The politics of Iraqi Kurdistan are very complex. But the International
Crisis Group (ICG),a research organization in Brussels whose analysts are
very familiar with the region, has cast serious doubt on the US claims. Some
of these analysts worked on documenting Hussein's use of chemical weapons
against Kurdish villagers in the 1980s - and they're not "soft" on him at
An ICG report released last week - "Radical Islam In Iraqi Kurdistan: The
Mouse That Roared?" assumed that when talking about the Zarqawi network, Powell
was referring to "Ansar al-Islam," a Kurdish Islamic-extremist group that
controls an enclave near - not in - Khurmal. It noted that there is little
independent evidence of links between Ansar and Baghdad. Such evidence as
has been presented came, it said, from the notably unreliable source of "confessions"
obtained from captured Ansar militants, sometimes under duress. ICG judged
that it would be very hard for people or military supplies to pass between
Baghdad and the Ansar enclave because a secular Kurdish group hostile to
both of them controls all the routes between them.
"The only thing that is indisputable," the report concludes, "is that the
[Ansar] group could not survive without the support of powerful factions in
neighbouring Iran, its sole lifeline to the outside world."
Powell set out on Feb. 5 to prove the existence of a significant nexus between
Al Qaeda and Baghdad. He failed to make that case. And his case for invasion
has not been strengthened just because six days later, bin Laden let his voice
of hateful incitement be heard again.
It simply gives us all some salutary reminders: bin Laden still exists,
and is still able to get his message out. He is poised to take advantage
of disquiet throughout the Muslim world.
Ending bin Laden's incitement and incapacitating Al Qaeda's ability to wreak
its potentially deadly consequences have to be our top priorities. As for
Hussein, he can continue to be dealt with through containment. As I said,
it's a time for smart minds, not smart bombs.
• Helena Cobban is the author on five books on international