Terrorism and the War with Iraq

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

March 3, 2003

The impending war with Iraq greatly raises the risk of a terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland, American interests overseas, or U.S. allies. When Saddam Husayn sees war as unavoidable, he may shed his recently acquired caution in using terrorism, either employing Iraq’s own operatives more aggressively or working with al-Qa’eda against Western targets. Al-Qa’eda and its affiliates, on their own, will seek to strike at this time of maximum public attention. Small cells of unknown Islamist radicals, or perhaps even angry individuals inspired by al-Qa’eda, may also see the outbreak of war as a reason to strike. Al-Qa’eda and like-minded groups probably will try to take advantage of the expected rage in the Islamic world at the U.S.-led campaign to bolster their recruitment and fundraising—potentially making them more potent in the future.

The issues of Iraq and the war on terrorism will remain linked even after any war ends. The extent of the reconstruction effort and the nature of the post-Saddam government could shape the prospects for terrorism in the Middle East for years to come.


Although Iraq has repeatedly employed terrorism as an element of its foreign policy in the past, at least since the 1980s, it has carefully chosen its proxies and used them to pursue limited objectives. Baghdad, however, has often failed when trying to use terrorist violence successfully, suggesting that the regime’s own capabilities are limited.

Iraq supported several terrorist groups in the past. For example, Baghdad has harbored the May 15 Organization—a Palestinian group known for bombing airplanes—and gave sanctuary to the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF)—infamous for the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer. Iraq helped form the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO), using it to assassinate Syrian and Palestinian opponents. Most of Iraq’s support to these groups has consisted of logistical support, such as bases, training, and supplies. Nevertheless, the scale of its backing of terrorist groups was dwarfed by others like Iran, which tried to create large popular insurgencies from whole cloth.

Iraq has provided more extensive support to the anti-Tehran Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and the anti-Turkey Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) as means of exerting pressure on their northern and eastern neighbors. In both cases, Iraq has helped these groups establish a safe haven in Iraq itself where they could base their guerrilla wars and plan terrorist attacks. Ties to the MEK are particularly close, and it has in essence become a wholly owned proxy of Baghdad for use against Iran.

Ties to these traditional associates have declined or become less important in recent years. The MEK remains active, but the pace of its attacks against Iran has fallen off as Baghdad has attempted to mend fences with Tehran. The PKK has become far less effective since the arrest of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999. The PLF has not pulled off a major attack since 1992, despite the collapse of the Oslo Accords. ANO has been similarly inactive in recent years, and in August 2002, Abu Nidal himself died in Baghdad in a “suicide” that most suspect was Saddam’s effort to distance himself from charges of harboring terrorists.

In general, Saddam distrusts what he cannot control. Thus, Baghdad has avoided close association with independent terrorist groups, preferring to work with organizations that it could dominate. Iraq worked with the Abu Nidal Organization and the PLF over which it exercised considerable control, but never forged strong relationships with Fatah, Hizballah, HAMAS, or other groups with a strong independent base and so would never be subservient to Baghdad. Even then, its support for ANO and PLF ebbed over time in favor of groups like the MEK which were even more tightly controlled by Iraq.

Baghdad’s ties are not based on ideology. Iraq has worked with Christians and Islamic fundamentalists, with Persians and Kurds, with fellow Ba’thists and pure killers—as long as they have suited the regime’s interests. Nor is Saddam a loyal paymaster. Despite Baghdad’s close working relationship with ANO, it did not hesitate to expel the organization in 1983 to gain Western goodwill during its war with Iran.

Whenever it has sought to attack the United States itself, Iraq has preferred to rely on its own operatives. Thus, Iraqi agents—not terrorist proxies—were involved in attempted bombings of U.S. facilities in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia during the first Gulf War. Similarly, Iraq used its own people in the failed assassination of President Bush in 1993. Even though ANO conducted numerous attacks against Americans during the 1970s and 1980s, these were not believed to be at Baghdad’s behest.

Iraq’s terrorist operations in the past have been startlingly inept. Former Director of Central Intelligence William Webster noted that during the Gulf War the Iraqi intelligence officers used sequentially numbered passports. As a result, once several officers were arrested, the rest were easily discovered and detained. Nor have Iraqis hidden their hands well. One of the bombers arrested in Southeast Asia even asked that the Iraqi Embassy be notified of his detention. In 1993, the assassination team in Kuwait used explosives similar to those of previous Iraqi operations and did not practice phone security, making it easy to trace the origin of the plot.


If the United States goes to war, Iraq’s reticence with regard to terrorism may disappear. In the days before the outbreak of a war and in its initial stages, Saddam will use terrorism primarily to intimidate and deter the United States. As the conflict progresses, however, defiance and vengeance will increasingly drive his actions.

Already, Iraq has made rather grandiose threats, such as Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan’s boast that Iraq would employ suicide attacks in the event of war. The regime’s few realistic military responses to a U.S.-led campaign makes Iraqi-supported terrorism even more likely. Saddam is also infamous for his desire for revenge.

Yet terrorist attacks before Saddam perceives the war as inevitable—particularly any involving chemical or biological weapons—might trigger the very all-out confrontation that Saddam still hopes to avoid. Even deploying terrorist teams outside of the country in anticipation of a war is risky. The operatives could prove disloyal or continue Iraq’s tradition of ineptitude. Either way, if they were caught it would greatly bolster the Bush administration’s case for war.

Iraq’s caution will decline once war is seen as inevitable and will disappear if Saddam’s regime is on the brink of being overthrown. The range of targets that Iraq may strike is vast. It might attack U.S. facilities, particularly overseas facilities, believing that casualties would intimidate Washington and give credibility to the implicit threat that Iraq could resort to chemical or biological terrorism. As coalition forces near Baghdad, any remaining restraints will disappear: Saddam might opt to use biological or chemical agents in terror attacks in a desperate attempt to deter the United States from mounting the coup de grace against the capital, or merely as a final stab of vengeance. Either as part of a general effort to draw Israel into the war or simply to lash out against the Jewish state in a last-gasp effort to realize what he believes is his historic destiny to liberate Jerusalem, Saddam can also be expected to mount terrorist operations against Israeli targets.

To the extent that Saddam continues to rely on Iraq’s own terrorist capabilities, its attacks probably will still be limited by the competence of its officers and the limits on its network. It is foolish to expect that Iraq will make the same simple blunders that hindered its operations in 1991 and 1993, but it is equally mistaken to assume that its capabilities are devastating. Although Iraq could conduct traditional truck-bomb attacks, assassinate soldiers and political leaders, and murder large numbers of unprotected innocents, Iraqi operatives may be unable to attack well-protected targets. In addition, highly sophisticated operations—such as those involving simultaneous attacks in different countries—may be beyond Iraq’s capabilities. Baghdad may also focus on areas that already host many Iraqi nationals, such as Jordan, to enable its operatives to blend in better. In addition, Iraq may look to strike in poorly policed regions or countries, recognizing that most Western and Middle Eastern services will be watching carefully for Iraqi terrorism.

Although Saddam might want to try to employ terrorism as part of his wartime strategy to force the United States to halt operations short of eliminating his regime, it may prove difficult for Iraq to carefully calibrate such attacks. Saddam has traditionally shown a reluctance to allow subordinates latitude on such important decisions as when and whom to strike. In contrast, Saddam risks losing the ability to control the use of terrorism if the military campaign goes swiftly and if regime communications are disrupted or known to be intercepted. As a result, Saddam may be forced to rely on his operatives to break with past patterns and show considerable discretion and initiative or may delay the decision to deploy operatives outside of Iraq even though it hinders overall operations.

Indeed, to ensure that he can take his final vengeance and to maintain a last-ditch deterrent, Saddam may even predelegate some strike authority to terrorists. Predelegation risks numerous complications if the terrorists do not practice careful tradecraft and do not adjust their plans to the rapidly changing strategic situation, but Saddam’s likely desire to demonstrate that he can hurt the United States probably will lead him to try to retain at least the option of using terrorism as part of his final blow.


The Bush administration has argued that Iraq is working closely with al-Qa’eda. Although much of the evidence is contested or fragmentary, taken together it suggests at least some degree of tactical cooperation. At the very least, it appears that Baghdad is keeping its options open in anticipation of a war with the United States. In any event, war makes strange bedfellows, and the United States needs to brace itself for their cooperation to deepen if hostilities commence. In particular, Baghdad may reach out to al-Qa’eda if it finds its own operatives’ efforts stymied. In the past, Baghdad has not hesitated to forge new ties even with ideological enemies in times of crisis. In the early 1980s, Iraq worked with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (a group with intellectual leanings similar to al-Qa’eda) against the regime of Hafiz al-Asad, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s antipathy toward Ba’th secularism.

Their mutual interests in a time of crisis create the possibility that Iraq could offer al-Qa’eda money or logistical support, allowing al-Qa’eda to use its already extensive network more effectively. Al-Qa’eda is already determined to strike the United States and would presumably need little inducement to mount further attacks. Saddam may also believe that by aiding al-Qa’eda and keeping it viable, he can distract the United States and prevent the Bush Administration from going to war against him.

Relying on al-Qa’eda or other organizations to carry out strikes on Baghdad’s behalf is risky for Saddam, particularly before a war commences. Saddam knows these organizations seek a conflict with the United States and have no regard for the survival of his regime. Thus, they are more likely to be used actively only after Saddam decides war is inevitable.

As the threat to his rule grows, Saddam might even shed his reluctance to transfer chemical or biological weapons to al-Qa’eda—a capability they have long sought. The collapse of Iraq’s intelligence services, or their demonstrated incapacity to act, might prompt Saddam to take such a drastic step. Saddam’s penchant for revenge makes such a move even more plausible, as it would be a way for the Iraqi dictator to make his mark on history, even after his demise.

Cooperation, however, is not the same as control. Al-Qa’eda will remain highly independent, attacking according to the organization’s needs, even if they do not mesh with those of Iraq. Both Iraq and al-Qa’eda, moreover, will probably remain at arms’ length from each other. Bin Ladin’s statement on February 11 walked a fine line—associating al-Qa’eda with Iraq’s struggle against the United States while making it clear that he opposes Saddam’s regime and its secular ideology.


Even without Iraqi support, al-Qa’eda retains sufficient capability to pose a tremendous danger and has numerous incentives to exploit the conflict with Iraq to conduct terrorist attacks worldwide. Bin Ladin and other leaders have long emphasized the supposed U.S. brutalization of Iraq as justification for their attacks. Bin Ladin’s statement of February 11, in advance of hostilities, highlights the importance of Iraq to al-Qa’eda. The statement is particularly troubling, as Bin Ladin in the past has often telegraphed imminent attacks or changes in targeting through such statements.

In addition, al-Qa’eda is skilled at seizing the spotlight. Attacks linked to the war against Iraq would receive far more media coverage than would an attack related to Chechnya, Kashmir, or other struggles important to the jihadist movement. A successful attack would demonstrate al-Qa’eda’s continued preeminence in the anti-U.S. struggle, aiding its recruitment and fundraising as well as striking a blow against the United States. A successful attack would also offer al-Qa’eda a chance to cement its leadership of the jihadist cause in general.

On the other hand, one of al-Qa’eda’s greatest strengths—an unusual one for a terrorist group—is patience. Consequently, it may instead opt to postpone an attack if a prospective target’s defenses are temporarily increased in connection with a war against Iraq, or otherwise delay an operation in order to ensure its success. Al-Qa’eda leaders may also prefer to wait for an operation already being planned to reach fruition rather than to rely on poorly planned operations that are more likely to fail. Thus, there is no guarantee that al-Qa’eda would strike during a war against Iraq if it believes that U.S. counterterrorist preparations would make such an attack unlikely to succeed. However, it also means that even after a U.S. victory against Iraq, the risk of an al-Qa’eda attack would not substantially diminish.


Al-Qa’eda, of course, is both a group itself and an organization dedicated to forming links among like-minded radical groups and inspiring sympathetic Muslims. Numerous local Islamist cells that support al-Qa’eda’s vision and oppose the war with Iraq may also attack the United States and its allies during a conflict. Al-Qa’eda does not control these groups, but it does inspire them. The war may prompt these groups to conduct attacks against Americans or symbolic targets to demonstrate their solidarity. For example, European counterterrorism officials have stated that groups with links to the Chechnya struggle are planning attacks should war break out with Iraq.

Indeed, it is also possible that individuals like Hesham Mohamed Hadayet—who attacked the El Al counter at Los Angeles airport and killed two on July 4, 2002—may come out of the woodwork during a conflict. The FBI has warned that individuals inspired by al-Qa’eda or angered by the war may strike in the event of conflict. These groups and individuals do not have the skill of al-Qa’eda, but they could still prove lethal.

In addition, heretofore independent groups focused on local struggles may decide to affiliate more closely with al-Qa’eda and its global agenda. HAMAS’s spiritual leader, Shaykh Ahmed Yassin, issued an open letter regarding the crisis with Iraq that stated: “Muslims should threaten Western interests and strike them everywhere.”

The already high risk of an attack becomes even higher if groups with primarily a local or regional focus such as HAMAS or Hizballah do adopt al-Qa’eda’s agenda and see America as their greatest enemy. These groups are capable and have an extensive overseas infrastructure—particularly Hizballah. In keeping with their current focus on Israel, they might attack targets that highlight American support for Israel like U.S. facilities in Israel, U.S. citizens (particularly military and diplomatic personnel), or arms manufacturers who supply the Israel Defense Force.


The war against Iraq could easily exacerbate already-high anti-U.S. sentiment and improve recruitment for al-Qa’eda and its allies. U.S. intentions are widely distrusted in the region: perhaps 40 percent of Arabs doubt al-Qa’eda’s responsibility for the September 11 attacks, and polls taken before the war appeared imminent suggest the United States is deeply unpopular even (or particularly) among the populations of close allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The current military buildup, a war, and years of occupation by Western-led peacekeeping forces may reinforce the sentiment that the United States is anti-Muslim. Washington is widely seen as picking a fight, thus giving credence to the image of the United States as a bully that Bin Ladin is trying to foster.

A successful war, however, offers several advantages in the struggle against al-Qa’eda—particularly in the long-term. Removing Saddam’s regime dramatically changes the military balance in the Persian Gulf in favor of the United States and its allies. The large military presence deployed to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in the 1990s could, after Iraq is occupied and rebuilt, be drawn down considerably, perhaps to an “over the horizon” posture similar to that employed before the first Gulf War. Such a drawdown would reduce (though hardly eliminate) Islamist anger at the United States.

In addition, the U.S. campaign may disprove Bin Ladin’s argument that America is weak. Even after being routed from Afghanistan, Bin Ladin scornfully noted a supposed “fear and cowardice and absence of the fighting spirit among American soldiers.” A decisive victory in Iraq would help dispel this myth. Indeed, Bin Ladin himself said on videotape “…when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”

The United States may also gain greater clout in the region from a victory against Iraq. In 1991, Desert Storm demonstrated the United States’ overwhelming power to Syria, the Palestinians, and others opposed to the United States. These anti-U.S. leaders swallowed their pride and worked with Washington for several years, producing unanticipated and dramatic progress in the Middle East peace process. A similar victory today may produce a similar boost in prestige that will help the United States in the war on terror.

Much depends, however, on what is done after Saddam is ousted. An Iraq in chaos would be a playground for Islamist radicals, enabling them to operate more freely and to attract recruits. Washington should strive to ensure peace is maintained, Iraq’s governance improves, and its oil wealth goes toward helping the Iraqi people—and equally important, that the perception is created that Washington is promoting these goals rather than retarding them.