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During a series of email and telephone exchanges Matthew Degn relayed to www.regimeofterror.com his vast array of experiences working with intelligence issues relating to the current and former situation in Iraq. Among his responsibilities during his years in Iraq Degn worked as a civilian interrogator attached to the U.S. Army in Iraq before working as a Senior Policy/Intelligence Adviser to Deputy General Kamal and other top intelligence officials with theIraq’s Ministry of Interior. Degn, currently working on a book about his experiences in Iraq (personal website here), continues to argue against those that feel there was no link between terrorism and Saddam Hussein‘s regime based on his involvement with hundreds of interrogations in Iraq and his involvement with many of the Iraqi Intelligence officials with the Ministry of Interior. Degn says that much of the public perception about Saddam Hussein’s regime and terrorism are incorrect.
Degn is currently the Director of the Intelligence Studies Program and a professor at American Military Universitycurrently a professor at American Military University whose testimony about events in Iraq has been cited by NPR, ABCNews, the Washington Post and elsewhere. According to his American Military University bio Degn (pronounced Dayne) also:
“has extensive experience in the Middle East, serving most recently as a senior intelligence/policy advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.” He also “he was the senior civilian advisor in the creation of the Iraqi Counter-terrorism Agency, mentored Iraqi senior government intelligence officials at the Deputy Minister level, and witnessed the inner workings of the Iraqi government at the highest levels.” “Professor Degn has also been involved in the screening and interrogation process within Iraq. He served at Abu Ghraib prison and was among the last Americans in the prison facility before its closing. He witnessed the harmful effects the infamous prison scandal had on U.S. foreign policy and the interrogation process. While in different prison facilities he has interviewed members of Al Qaida, Jaysh-al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army), Badr Corps, Iranian, Syrian, and Saudi insurgents, and members of other terrorist entities from Iraq and the surrounding region. Moreover, he has experience as a senior counter-terrorism analyst in WashingtonD.C. and in the military. Professor Degn is the author of numerous essays and other writings with subjects ranging from foreign policy and violent militias to terrorist methodologies, private security companies in war, and the use of intelligence within the Middle East.”
In addition to the hundreds of detainees listed in his American Military University bio Degn participated in the interrogations of members of the Abu Nidal organization and Ba’ath party officials at Camp Cropper, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
Former regime’s links to al Qaeda
When asked about recent media reports citing Saddam Hussein’s denial to the FBI about links to al Qaeda Degn viewed these reports as part of an ongoing attempt to rewrite history saying these reports stand in stark contrast to what he saw and heard firsthand in Iraq. In fact, Degn said that to many of the detainees links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and terrorist groups including al Qaeda was not even a point of contention but freely acknowledged. Many of the high value detainees took it as a given that their captors were aware of Iraq – al Qaeda links. Some even bragged about those links.
I interviewed plenty of Saddam’s associates, as well as numerous members of Al Qaeda while at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in 06 and spoke with many who were quite familiar with the inner workings of the Saddam regime while at the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Did they cooperate or have animosity towards each other? Well, this is a tough question to answer- as it seemed that different individuals had a variety of feelings about the subject. Some detainees alleged that members of AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) were in support of Saddam and began attaching the CF (coalition forces) for money, religious reasons, thrills, etc. On the other hand, there were those I spoke with who were opposed to Saddam and happy to see him removed. Still, the reasons for attacking the CF were much the same.
One thing many fail to understand is that Al Qaeda is not a unified group throughout the Middle East, or even regionally. Many small groups take the title of “Al Qaeda” to bolster their notoriety, to feel they are part of the larger effort against the US forces, or for other reasons.
As for how supporters of Saddam felt about AQI- again it would depend on the individual. Many I spoke with claimed they were against the group- probably because that is what they figured I wanted to hear. Some claimed Saddam was against the group because members of AQ were a bit too religious or threatening to his rule. While, other detainees claimed he used various groups as intermediaries to arrange arms and money transfers to the group in order to attack a common enemy- Iran, as well as US interests in the region. Still, there were other hard core detainees, part of Saddam’s core, or members of other groups such as former ANO members (Abu Nidal Organization) as a few alleged, that claimed they would associate with Saddam-ites as well as AQI from time to time as the need would arise.
When pressed for specifics Degn said that Hussein’s regime, like many other Middle Eastern groups, used the “Hawala” system to secretly move money to al Qaeda and made it nearly impossible to “prove” in a legal system that the transfers took place. The “Hawala” system uses multiple layers of middle men couriers to transfer money and leaves no paper trail, making tracing such transactions virtually impossible.
Degn said that Iraqi assistance given to al Qaeda also included safehaven. Degn said al Qaeda used that safehaven for at least two training camps in Western Iraq and the Anbar province. Degn argued that Saddam Hussein’s government was certainly aware that the provision of safehaven was being used for these camps. (Related: Captured Iraqi terrorist says al Qaeda had camps in Saddam’s Iraq)
Degn said he had heard reports that indicated that al Qaeda affiliates had multiple, possibly competing, cells in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. One cell was affiliated with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who had not yet “officially” sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Another al Qaeda cell, linked to Ayman al Zawahiri‘s Egyptian Islamic Jihad, was reportedly simultaneously operating in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This detail appears to match up with that of former CIADirector George Tenet’s and Major General William Caldwell on the topic. He cited this as an example of the ability of al Qaeda’s cells to operate independently, a theme he heard more than once during his interactions. Degn said that from what he saw it was true that many al Qaeda operatives got directives and money from al Qaeda’s core closest to Osama bin Laden but many were capable of making independent decisions and relationships.
Degn said that while Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda did have mixed feelings for one another, at best, Hussein praised nearly all of al Qaeda’s attacks as well as anti-Western attacks committed by other terror groups. Degn argued that if he didn’t have some kind of hand in these attacks that he certainly wanted to as he definitely considered the U.S. an enemy (as well as Iran) and thus supported a number of Sunni groups.
Degn says that at least some of the U.S. intelligence community likely knew of the support for regional anti-Western Sunni groups all along.
Former regime’s links to other terrorist groups
Degn said he also saw overwhelming firsthand evidence of links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and numerous other regional terrorist/militant groups.
As noted in the Institute for Defense Analysis report, Degn argued that Hussein’s regime cooperated with regional terrorist groups who opposed Western interests all the way up to the invasion and became increasingly active in the region just prior to the 2003 U.S. led invasion.
When pressed for specific examples of attacks Degn replied that detainees and sources in Iraq’s current government knew that Hussein’s Iraq sponsored repeated attacks on Westerners and U.S. forces in Kuwait. One particular attackwas on a U.S. naval ship and another killed 3 U.S. marines, who were Degn’s friends, during their service in Kuwait.
Degn said that he saw links between both the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) and al Qaeda and the Abu Nidal Organization and the former Iraq regime during detainee interrogations and interviews. Degn said that ANO, according to intelligence reports also had training camps and facilities inside Iraq known to the former regime.
Degn said that Hussein’s regime used primarily anti-Western Sunni groups. While many of these groups operated independently, many of them were also loosely affiliated with al Qaeda and at least one Shi’ite group (Hezbollah) was mentioned as a group Hussein’s regime may have sponsored for attacks on Western targets in Israel and elsewhere.
Those who feel that the complete story of Saddam Hussein and terrorism has yet to be told will agree with Degn when he asserts that others with firsthand experiences with the topic should speak up. Degn also champions the idea of civilian counterparts working alongside the military to offer a different point or perspective to decision makers in Iraq and elsewhere. He was among those involved with this number of interrogations who has opted to speak now and let others know of his experiences.
Degn’s testimony should not viewed as entirely contradictory to that of former CIA officer Charles Faddis (interviewhere) but supplementary. Faddis’s interview came from a different time period and likely involved different detainees (Ansar al Islam affiliates from northern Iraq) and both sets of detainees agreed that the groups held some animosity towards one another.
With the understanding that both Saddam Hussein’s regime and al Qaeda had internal disagreements about cooperation and both would use compartmentalization to protect widespread knowledge of sensitive issues, that would comprimise their operations, it is understandable why conflicting reports on Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda continue to persist.
Another reason for conflicting reports that Degn pointed out is both the chain of command in the U.S. government’s many agencies and compartmentalization of information (“need to know”). Degn said he saw firsthand how these two factors led to vital wartime information being “watered down” before it mades its way to official reports and investigations.
Degn’s recollection of detainee testimony and many discussions within the Iraqi MOI roughly matches the document based work of Kevin Woods in his report The Iraqi Perspectives Project — Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents on regional terrorism, though Degn thinks the links to al Qaeda were more substantial. Degn’s findings, primarily through detainee testimony and assocations within the Iraqi MOI, supports the take on the topic that writers such as Richard Miniter, Andrew McCarthy, Christopher Hitchens, Ray Robison, Jeffrey Goldberg, Ken Timmerman, Christopher Holton, Eli Lake, Rowan Scarborough, Stephen Hayes/Thomas Joscelyn, the Wall Street Journal, Ryan Mauro, Scott Malensek, Scott Peterson, Deroy Murdock and many others whose writing has given heart to those that feel that important evidence on Saddam Hussein and terrorism was largely being ignored and/or overlooked.
As members of the many agencies that were likely involved in the interrogations of Saddam Hussein and others come forward, and additional agencies (following the FBI’s lead) continue declassifying and releasing more documents relating to Iraq and terrorism a more comprehensive look at this incredibly complex topic will become available. Those unsatisfied with the current public understanding and perception hope that these revelations come sooner rather than later.