ISI chief reportedly had Saudi-intelligence connections
That the remnants of the ISI remain strong and are able to mount successful operations throughout the Baghdad region is due to their experienced and dedicated leadership. The Emir of the state, Omar al-Baghdadi — who some American officials claim was killed on May 1 — is known as an effective strategist. Baghdadi, high on America’s list for capture or assassination, is a former Iraqi officer who left Saddam’s military in 1999 for Afghanistan and returned in 2002 through the border with Kurdistan. Our sources in Anbar Province report that Baghdadi had, for many years, close ties with the Saudi intelligence services.Just by way of background, Seymour Hersh had this to say about Saudi influence in Afghanistan in his March piece on US Mideast policy:
[Iran scholar Vali] Nasr compared the current situation [between the Saudi regime and the Sunni extremists] to the period in which Al Qaeda first emerged. In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the Saudi government offered to subsidize the covert American C.I.A. proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities. Then, as now, many of the operatives who were paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama bin Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.So the combination of experience in Afghanistan and a close connection with Saudi intelligence shouldn't be a complete surprise. Hersh goes on:
This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran."We've created this movement, and we can control it."
So not only is a Saudi connection with the ISI leader logical considering his Afghanistan experience, this is exactly the kind of relationship reported by Hersh with respect to overall US-Saudi policy. Interestingly, while Hersh was able to glean comments specifically respecting covert plans for Iran, Syria and Lebanon, the specific Iraq situation doesn't come up in his piece, in spite of the obvious question: Why would the US plan covert operations in all of the trouble-spots except for Iraq?
Meanwhile, just as an illustration of the currency of this idea of US/Gulf-region influence on Sunni extremists in Iraq: The idea was elaborated recently by the Baathist writer Salah al-Mukhtar, whose article dealing with this topic I summarized here.
Once [the Americans] understood that they had well and truly fallen into the Iraqi trap, from which they wouldn't emerge safely unless they could come up with an elaborately thought-out scheme, started putting moles in specific factions, and via these moles they offered the groups generous material and PR support. This enhanced the credibility of these moles, and raised their profile and role within these factions, and some of them came to have leadership roles within those factions....[A]t the same time that the American Mukhabarat toughens its campaign against the Baath by various means...[including] its extreme efforts to dry up the sources of funding for the Party and its resistance, and its arrest of tens of thousands of its fighters and mujahideen, at the same time it is making life easier in a remarkable way for the sectarian Sunni takfiris, offering them financial and military support, whether directly, or channeled via the Gulf, and this at a time when their takfir is being intensified against the nationalists and the patriots and the true Islamists....There is another point: The Conflicts Forum correspondent talks about the nature of the leadership disputes that plagued the ISI project, as follows (the italics are mine):
This idea of "ISI plans to mount attacks on Shias" is exactly what Al-Mukhtar was talking about when he wrote about the plan to use Sunni takfiris and extremists to convert the war against the occupation into a civil war between Shia and Sunnis.
While the new state quickly gained support from other groups in areas dominated by resistance forces, the ISI started to fall apart within weeks of the “Voice of the Caliphate” announcement. Clashes erupted between ISI militias and other Islamic groups (including some of those that had initially pledged their support), and squabbles broke out between ISI kingpins and the the leadership cadre of several resistance groups. The leadership disagreements revolved around ISI plans to mount attacks on Shias, even at the expense of protecting Sunni populations in Anbar, Gaditha, and Fallujah. Nor were resistance leaders satisfied with the ISI’s open support for al-Qaeda tactics that would amount to a purge of Sunni activists who did not meet al-Qaeda’s political standards. Finally, immediately after the formation of the ISI, al-Qaeda militia leaders began a program of forcibly extracting payments from Sunni families and imposing a conscription quota of young men in ISI areas.
The points here are (1) that attacking Shiites was a bone of contention between the ISI and the nationalist resistance groups; (2) the ISI is led by a person who has had close ties with the intelligence agency of the biggest US ally in the Gulf. I think this raises new questions, or elevates old questions to a new level, and that is regardless of whether or not the Saudi person who reportedly said in effect "We've created this movement, and we can control it," was right or wrong about the second part of that.
It is the question that Abdulbari Atwan asked in a recent column when he wrote:
We respect the views of the liberals who criticize the fundamentalist Islamists and their ideas, but are we not entitled to ask them [the liberals] about what it is that supports this [fundamentalist] phenomenon, and uses it, one day, in the service of the American projects, and to strike at the liberalism, and the nationalism and the secular-left which they say should be encouraged.