Of all the reasons the administration has offered for war with Iraq, keeping chemical and biological weapons out of the hands of Al Qaeda resonates most strongly with the American people. President Bush used that frightening prospect to dramatic effect in his State of the Union speech: "Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."
But the administration's strongest sound-bite on Iraq is also its weakest argument for war. The idea that Saddam Hussein would trust Al Qaeda enough to give Al Qaeda operatives chemical or biological weapons -- and trust them to keep quiet about it -- is simply not plausible.
Bin Laden, who views the rigid Saudi theocracy as insufficiently Islamic, has long considered Saddam Hussein an infidel enemy. Before Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bin Laden warned publicly that the Iraqi dictator had designs on conquering Saudi Arabia. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden offered to assemble his mujahedeen to battle Hussein and protect the Arabian peninsula.
Last summer, when CNN acquired a cache of internal Al Qaeda training videotapes, they discovered a Qaeda documentary that was highly critical of Hussein. Peter Bergen, the CNN terrorism expert who interviewed Bin Laden in 1998, noted that Bin Laden indicted Hussein, as "a bad Muslim."
That theme continues in the latest "Bin Laden" audiotape, released to Al Jazeera. In it, Bin Laden (or someone claiming to be him) urges Muslims to fight the American "crusaders" bent on invading Iraq. But even while urging assistance to Hussein's "socialist" regime, "Bin Laden" can't resist condemning that regime: "The jurisdiction of the socialists and those rulers has fallen a long time ago .... Socialists are infidels wherever they are, whether they are in Baghdad or Aden."
Of course, cooperation is possible; sworn enemies often collude when their interests coincide -- most famously in the Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact of 1939. But Hussein, as a student and admirer of Stalin, knows how that turned out -- with the Russian dictator double-crossed and almost destroyed by his Nazi ally.
No doubt Al Qaeda would accept chemical or biological weapons from Hussein. If he handed them over, the theory goes, he might be able to harm the United States without suffering massive retaliation because the strike would come via terrorist intermediaries. But the theory depends entirely on Al Qaeda keeping quiet about how they acquired the weapons. Why would they?
Al Qaeda wants the Hussein regime overthrown. There's also good reason to believe they want to incite a U.S. invasion of Iraq to draw new recruits into the Al Qaeda campaign against a so-called "Crusader"-Israeli alliance aimed at conquering the Middle East. Provoking a crackdown by the enemy has been a key terrorist strategy for as long as there have been terrorists.
Getting Iraqi WMD would allow Al Qaeda to kill two birds with one stone. They'd get to kill more Americans, and then, by revealing that Hussein gave them the weapons (perhaps on a satellite phone they know American intelligence is monitoring) they'd get a war that would finish Saddam's "infidel" regime and bring "the jurisdiction of the socialists" to an end. A war that promises to bring new Jihadis into the fold. And all that would be necessary for Al Qaeda to achieve these goals is to convince the Iraqi dictator to hand over the goods. Ask yourself: Did Saddam Hussein rise to the top of a totalitarian dictatorship by being quite so... trusting?
The idea that Hussein views a WMD strike via terrorist intermediaries as a viable strategy is rank speculation, contradicted by his past behavior. Hussein's hostility toward Israel predates his struggle with the United States. He's had longstanding ties with anti-Israeli terror groupsand he's had chemical weapons for over 20 years. Yet there has never been a nerve gas attack in Israel. Why? Because Israel has nuclear weapons and conventional superiority, and Hussein wants to live. If he's ever considered passing off chemical weapons to Palestinian terrorists, he decided that he wouldn't get away with it. He has even less reason to trust Al Qaeda with a potentially regime-ending secret.
Of course, if regime change is coming anyway by force of American arms, Saddam Hussein "probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist action." That's what CIA director George Tenet told the House and Senate intelligence committees last October, to the embarrassment of the Bush administration. Is Tenet right? We're about to find out.