Alert -- The Same Neocons Who Peddled the Al Qaeda-Iraq Connection Are Setting Their Sights on Iran

Very few Americans would argue that the strikes on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon weren’t an act of war perpetrated by Al Qaeda terrorists, an attack that represented a direct threat to U.S. security. In the debate over the Afghan war, for example, even many proponents of withdrawing the massive U.S. occupation force there say that drones and small special forces units are capable of continuing to target Al Qaeda and its close affiliates (as is done in Pakistan).

Given the broad consensus that Osama bin Laden and Co. carried out the 9/11 attacks, it’s easy to understand that mentioning his group continues to elicit strong emotions — among them fear, anger, and a resulting desire to continue to wage war against Al Qaeda.

So when hawks are trying to drum up support for a war in the Middle East, it’s natural for them to try to connect the target country with Al Qaeda. This pattern was easily observable in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Cliff May, having already morphed from a journalist into the president of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies by 2002, opted to paint with a broad brush: linking people together because they think alike. They’re "Jihadists,” he wrote, and that was enough to slap bull’s eyes on a wide variety of Arab and Muslim heads.

The Jihadist framework even allowed him, as he outlined in a September 2002 column for the Scripps Howard News Service, to “easily accommodate true religious fanatics such as Osama bin Laden as well as those like Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat who — though they too, explicitly call for jihad — have more secular backgrounds and inclinations.”

Even “moderate” Saudi Arabia and Yemen could be shoehorned into the category. One wonders why May bothered specifically eschewing Daniel Pipes’ label of “Islamic militants” -- perhaps because it cast too wide a net over Islam. Perhaps May avoided specific allegations because, in the run-up to and aftermath of the Iraq invasion, many of the specific charges made by various neocons proved somewhat problematic.

Jeffrey Goldberg, for example, wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker and Slate that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Among them was a long piece in March 2002 about links between Saddam and Al Qaeda. But it turned out that Goldberg’s star witness, a weapons smuggler in Kurdish jails whose tale earned him an 1,100-word section of of the piece called “The Al Qaeda Link,” was full of it. As Ken Silverstein pointed out at his former Harper’s blog (which lists other myths about Saddam propagated by Goldberg), Jason Burke of the London Observer demolished the smuggler’s story. Among other inconsistencies and outright fabrications, the gun-smuggler had never been to Khandahar, which made his alleged meeting there with bin Laden less than plausible. (Whether his account of working with Saddam’s intelligence service is accurate becomes a moot point.)

Just over a year after Goldberg’s story, Saddam’s government had already been toppled by a U.S.-led coalition. On the day that the disheveled former dictator was pulled from his styrofoam-capped "spider hole," British journalist Con Coughlin wrote a piece for theTelegraph purporting to have proof of the relationship between Saddam and Al Qaeda — “Terrorist Behind September 11 Strike Was Trained By Saddam,” blared the headline. But that, too, turned out to be bad information. The story was based on a letter that investigative journalist Ron Suskind later said was a forgery, drummed up by the CIA to prove the Bush administration’s allegations about the links. Despite warning signs that the letter was fake, Coughlin appeared on the widely viewed Sunday talk show "Meet the Press" to explain details of his story to a credulous Washington establishment.

Now these same journalists are focusing their energies on Iran. Con Coughlin is busy these days, as Serkan Zorba pointed out, peddling dubious stories about Iranian influence in recently assertive Turkey. Goldberg, for his part, is being far more aggressive, blogging regularly about Iran and its existential threat to Israel, and authoring a massive story for the Atlantic about the chances that Israel will attack Iran. (Eli Clifton demonstrates how Goldberg’s Atlantic story can be seen as a push for U.S. military action.)

Cliff May, too — though still without use for disprovable details like witness accounts laced with lies or forged letters –has turned to the Islamic Republic, which was perhaps inadvertently omitted from his 2002 piece. Unlike Goldberg and Coughlin, he’s sticking with the theme of "Al Qaeda ties."

In an article on National Review Online, May is at work conflating his various perceived enemies under the banner of “Jihadis,” having only slightly tweaked the meme. With, again, a blaring headline that reads “Two Sides of the Jihadi Coin,” May dismisses sectarian rifts and claims that all the various hard-line groups in the Mid East are the same:

People forget — too many have never grasped — that there are two jihadi camps, one Sunni, one Shia, two sides of the same coin. They are rivals, not enemies. Often they compete. Sometimes they cooperate.

There’s little doubt that some modicum of Shia-Sunni cooperation does exist, but the overwhelming thrust of the relationship is enmity. Hezbollah, a Shiite group in Lebanon, is at odds with the Saudi-backed Sunnis of the Hariri faction. The Taliban and Iran are sworn enemies, and unproven allegations of cooperation stem not from “Jihadi” ideology, but rather from the dovetailing of tactical goals toward disparate strategic aims.

But May is not finished. Not only are radicals from these two Islamic sects directly linked, but one was actually born from the other. In a suggestion that surpasses even Tom Friedman’s drug-induced sophistic musings on the subject, May writes that the Islamic Revolution in Iran gave rise to Saudi Wahhabism by “energiz[ing]” those militants.

As his piece draws to a close, May gets even more specific about the “Jihadi” connections: Iran, he says, is working toward fulfilling Al Qaeda’s “mission”:

Al-Qaeda and the terrorist groups it leads have a mission. Iran’s revolutionary theocrats and the terrorist groups they instruct have goals and a strategy to achieve them.

Then comes a thinly veiled threat of a military attack against Iran: “Iran’s rulers should be under the guns — metaphorically for the present….” But the present, too, shall pass. And when it does, May, pressed by Glenn Greenwald, has made his policy preferences clear.

The "Al Qaeda link" lives on, with just as little evidence as there was in Iraq. Secular Arab nationalists, Sunnis, Shiites — all the same: “Jihadis.” “Al Qaeda and Iran,” the mantra goes, and emotions will run high. It remains to be seen if the U.S. public will fall for the ruse again.

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