September 10, 2004,
Reflecting on the attacks of September 11, 2001, Navy SEAL Lt. Commander Mark Divine told National Review Online: "There are enormous numbers of foreign fighters in Iraq right now. Whether some of those fighters were there before September 11, 2001, or as a call to arms later, will be argued by both [Democrats and Republicans] until they are blue in the face. What I can tell you is that there is tremendous evidence to suggest there were terrorist training camps in Iraq before 9/11."
Divine should know. Having just returned from Iraq, where he's been tasked with observing the work of U.S. special-operations forces, he says, "There is no doubt in my mind or the minds of other SEALs that the war in Iraq is part of our overall response to what happened in our country, three years ago."
The commander's comments seem to contradict a press release issued Wednesday by presidential candidate John Kerry's campaign headquarters. The release says:
Fact: 9-11 Commission Report Said No 'Collaborative Operational Relationship' Existed Between Iraq and Al Qaeda. "We have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."
But U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson (R., S.C.) tells NRO that opponents of President George W. Bush often cite some of the 9/11 commission's findings while conveniently skipping over the obvious Iraqi-al Qaeda connections referenced in the same report. "The claims by the Kerry campaign are not only wrong, but disingenuous," says Wilson, who has three sons in the military, one of whom is in Iraq.
Disingenuous indeed: The Kerry camp fails to mention that the 9/11 report also says Osama bin Laden met with an Iraqi official in Khartoum during the mid-1990s and issued an appeal for space to establish terrorist training camps in Iraq. He also asked for assistance in obtaining weapons. Granted, no evidence points to an Iraqi agreement on such matters, but the report clearly states, "the ensuing years saw additional efforts to establish connections."
In March 1998, al Qaeda operatives were invited to Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence officers after bin Laden issued a "public fatwa" against America and her allies. In July, Iraqi officials traveled to Afghanistan where they met with both the Taliban and bin Laden. The following year, Iraq may have offered bin Laden safe haven after a period of "reported strains" between the al Qaeda leader and the Taliban. And the 9/11 commission's findings reveal there were "indications" of "friendly contacts" between Iraq and bin Laden, and an expression of "common themes in both sides' hatred" of the United States.
Are these oversights on the part of Bush's opponents? Perhaps. But the 9/11 report also states that Ansar al Islam (an al Qaeda-affiliated organization comprised of Iraqi Kurds and Arabs vowing to form an Islamist state in Iraq) was formed with the assistance of bin Laden in late 2001, and "there are indications that by then the Iraqi regime tolerated and may even have helped Ansar al Islam against the common Kurdish enemy."
Some members of Ansar al Islam trained in al Qaeda camps based in Afghanistan, and, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of American Scientists, "the group provided safe-haven to al Qaeda fighters before Operation Iraqi Freedom."
Additionally, terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who has direct ties to both al Qaeda and Ansar al Islam, has been operating out of Iraq since May 2002. And intelligence gleaned since the 2003 invasion of Iraq indicates that as early as 1997 and 1998, Unit 999 (an ultra-secret special-operations branch of the now-defunct Iraqi army) was training foreign terrorists in Iraqi camps. The trainees included members of Iran's infamous Mojahedin-e Khalq, the Turkish Kurdistan Worker's Party, and al Qaeda.
Simply put, the connections between Saddam Hussein's government, al Qaeda, and other affiliated terrorist organizations are legion.
"If this is what we know, imagine what we don't know," says Wilson.
Divine agrees: "Aside from terrorist training camps, we know weapons of mass destruction existed or there was the potential for developing and employing those weapons in short order, and that they were spirited over the border into Syria. We know that. I also know that we're putting a hurt on them [the terrorists] in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I'd much rather have the pros fighting them over there than have my wife and I deal with it here."
Currently, Divine is working on a report for the U.S. Special Operations Command regarding the development of a Marine Corps special-operations unit attached to SEAL Team One, which he has been observing in Iraq. When asked about ongoing U.S. military efforts in that country, he says, "We have established a beachhead in what is Islamist-fascist territory. We're in their breeding ground and we've upset the plans of the Islamic fascists who during the years of the Clinton administration believed they could force our presence out of the Middle East."
That's true, according to Marine 1st Lt. Lamar Breshears, a platoon commander with the 4th Marine Regiment in Najaf. "The reason we are currently facing such a determined insurgency is because we represent freedom from oppression and that fact alone is a threat to the regimes in the entire region," he told NRO.
Marine 1st Lt. Tammy Megow, a Parris Island, S.C.-based recruiting officer whose husband has been in Iraq with an Army National Guard unit, says, "The emergence of democracy in Iraq is a crucial setback for international terror in the region." For that reason alone, she adds, U.S. efforts in Iraq are of "significant strategic importance in the war on terror."
President Bush's opponents, however, continue to rail against the war in Iraq. They contend that the three-year-old response to 9/11 in Afghanistan has been sidetracked by an unrelated adventure in Iraq. "Not so," says Divine, who believes such views are shortsighted. "Look, we are fighting terrorists in the shadows which is where we want to fight, and we are fighting them all over the world, not just in Afghanistan or in Iraq, but in places no one is even aware of. This is a global war where the major victory is in a thousand minor victories."
When asked to comment on the elusiveness of the perceived mastermind behind the attacks of three years ago, Divine is quick to say, "I don't care if we never get bin Laden, because he's just a public-relations head. He might even be dead for all we know."
Divine concedes that bagging bin Laden would be a political coup for the White House, but "tactically, he just doesn't matter anymore. Instead, we're rolling up the terror planners, the facilitators, the financiers, the bomb-makers, the ones who can hurt us again." And each time we find them, according to 1st Lt. Stephen F. Shaw, a platoon commander with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines who recently saw action in Fallujah, "it's game over!"
A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.