IN THE NEWS
The torture story is so big and nasty that it threatens to blot out other news--including important events in the war against terrorists. Case in point is the following chain of events that are being reported as if one didnt have anything to do with the other. It's a confusing picture, unless you look at the entire chain, and not each link separately.
- Before the invasion, a small Islamist terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam, operated in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Ansar al-Islam, which collaborated with al Qaeda, identified the Baathist regime and the Kurdish government as its primary enemies. The group tried to assassinate one of the Kurdish leaders, and ironically would not have had freedom of action in northern Iraq if not for the US and UN cordon sanitaire against the Iraqi army. Ansar al-Islam tried to brew up chemical and biological weapons in a crude lab in Sergat (also reported as Kirma); whether their target would be the Kurds or the Baathists wasn't known.
- After the invasion of Afghanistan, Ansar al-Islam leaders contemplate an attack on US troops. The attack doesn't materialize, in part because of a disagreement within the group.
- Before the invasion of Iraq, the United States had ample opportunity to attack Ansar al-Islam, including the Sergat facility. Since the United States was already committed to defending the Kurds in this region, any attacks on Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq would not have generated the kind of international backlash that Operation Enduring Freedom created.
- During his famous UN briefing laying out the case for invading Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited the Sergat weapons lab as evidence of the need to invade. What he didn't say, obviously, was that the Saddam Hussein's regime had nothing to do with Ansar al-Islam, and was likely as anyone to be the victim of an Ansar al-Islam biological or chemical attack.
- Prior to the invasion, the United States also had an opportunity to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Ansar al-Islam, also reported to be actively coordinating his own operations with al Qaeda's. Continuing a trend, the White House decided not to seize the moment, since assassinating Zarqawi would imply that the United States could limit its military intervention to something less than a full invasion.
- The United States invaded Iraq. When the 173rd Airborne division occupied Sergat, US troops find the Ansar al-Islam facility abandoned. Ansar al-Islam fighters apparently retreated into Iran.
- The insurgency in Iraq began. American troops are attacked in a variety of ways, including road-side bombs. Ansar al-Islam, having slipped back into Iraq, joined the insurgency.
- Masked Islamic militants executed Nicholas Berg, an American telecommunications specialist working in Iraq. To maximize the horror of the incident, the militants videotaped his decapitation and distribute it to the world media. According to many reports, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi actually performed the decapitation.
- A road-side bomb detonated in an unsuccessful attack on an American convoy. The 155mm artillery shell contained sarin, a nerve agent. (It's the same chemical that the Aum Shinrikiyo doomsday cult released several years ago in the Tokyo subway.) How the attackers got the sarin--found it in a pre-1991 Iraqi military cache, manufactured it themselves, or purchased it from some other group--cannot yet be determined.
What do all the previous points have to do with the last point? As of today, we can't be sure who was responsible for the sarin attack, or how they were able to pull it off (as unsuccessful in killing anyone as it was). What can we say?
- There is some likelihood, given Ansar al-Islam's escalated war against the US occupation, that they were responsible for this attack. The use of sarin doesn't finger Ansar al-Islam definitively, but their interest in WMDs for terrorist attacks adds to this suspicion.
- There is no reason to conclude that the sarin attack is absolute proof that Saddam Hussein's regime had an active WMD program or stockpiles of potent chemical weapons.
- The Bush Administration put the full-scale invasion of Iraq ahead of other priorities, including eliminating Ansar al-Islam.
If we're trying to prevent further 9/11s, we should be focusing on groups like Ansar al-Islam. If we're trying to keep a future 9/11 from being an attack with WMDs, it seems, once again, we should be focusing on groups like Ansar al-Islam.