Iraq’s Real Weapons of Mass Destruction Were ‘Political Operations’


Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in “Ministry of Truth,” a special series on state-sponsored influence operations. Read the first installment here

Influence operations are by their nature clandestine. In other words, if they are done well, we do not even know they occurred. As such, in most cases it is difficult to obtain reliable information on how exactly they were planned or carried out. Fortunately, most cases are not all cases. In fact, we have troves of sources on one very important and still fairly recent case: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The now-opened archives of the Iraqi Ba‘th Party have already provided stunning insights into how Saddam ruled his country. They also shed significant light on Ba‘thist operations outside of Iraq.

Iraqi Ba‘thists were engaged in what they called “political” operations. Their goal was to influence the internal politics of other states to help Iraq achieve its strategic goals. They carried out espionage, planted stories in the foreign press, established overt and covert relations with various parties, and attempted to silence anyone who disrupted their preferred political narrative. In short, their activities match what others in the West have termed political warfare or influence operations. And they were quite good at it. As Angelo Codevilla, the statesman-turned-Boston University professor, has noted, “In our time, the past master in the techniques of political warfare may well have been Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Between 1991 and 2003 politics was Saddam’s ‘weapon of mass destruction’.” Iraq’s internal documents not only demonstrate the details of its fairly successful influence operations in the 1990s, they also highlight the ­limitations of such operations. Most importantly, the Iraqi case suggests that such operations cannot be used in a vacuum. Like other aspects of national power, if they are not employed in accordance with broader geopolitical realities, they will likely fall flat.

As Codevilla suggests, Iraqi influence operations hit their stride in the 1990s. However, their origins lie in the early 1980s when Saddam extended the Iraqi Ba‘th Party outside of Iraq to carry out his political operations. Saddam viewed political operations abroad as distinct from diplomatic or intelligence operations and each was controlled by a separate institution. Diplomacy was carried out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Intelligence was handled by the Iraqi Intelligence Service (the mukhabarat). And political operations were led by the Ba‘th Party. As I outline in an article titled Authoritarianism beyond Borders: The Iraqi Ba‘th Party as a Transnational Actor (forthcoming in the spring 2018 issue of The Middle East Journal), Saddam had significant leverage over Iraqis abroad. His regime held the families of expatriate Iraqis hostage. It also targeted them with physical violence and assassination. At the same time, it wooed the Iraqi diaspora with money and access to power. By the end of the 1980s, the party had branches in 69 different countries. These Ba‘thists operated out of Iraqi embassies, but they operated independently from the Foreign Ministry and reported back to Baghdad through party, rather than diplomatic channels. Ba‘thist networks abroad became the foundation for Iraqi influence operations.

Throughout the 1980s, the Iraqi Ba‘th Party’s operations outside of Iraq focused mostly on silencing Iraqi dissidents. The regime forwarded information provided by Ba‘thists to the Iraqi Intelligence Service which was responsible for the messy work of assassinations, kidnappings, and general intimidation. For example, in 1988, two Iraqi agents met an Iraqi businessman named Abdullah Rahim Sharif Ali at a restaurant in London. When he refused to cooperate with them, the agents slipped an odorless, tasteless, and colorless poison called thallium into his vodka. He died a slow painful death. Amnesty International reported that the Iraqis had used thallium to kill at least 40 dissidents around the world in the previous four months.

Throughout the 1980s, Iraq attempted to gain support from Western powers in its war with Iran. Assassinations and intimidation of Iraqis abroad were important for silencing Iraqi dissidents who could play a spoiler role by exposing the brutal nature of Saddam’s regime and making such cooperation more difficult for Western leaders. Nevertheless, in this period, Iraqi influence operations had little success in their broader goal of using the Iraqi Ba‘th Party to shape and disrupt international politics in a manner that advanced Iraqi interests. Part of the problem they faced was that the Ba‘thist political narrative was out of sync with the realities of Iraqi geopolitics. The Ba‘thists presented themselves as a revolutionary, anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, modernizing, Arab nationalist party. Yet, in the course of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s chief allies were Arab monarchs who represented the conservative ideology that Ba‘thism was supposed to replace. By the end of the war, Iraq was also closely aligned with Egypt, which had recently broken Arab nationalist taboos to make peace with Israel, and Saddam was increasingly working directly with what he considered to be nefarious imperial powers, such as the United States. Moreover, Iraq was fighting an undeniably revolutionary regime in Iran, which had impeccable anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist credentials. In such a context, the Ba‘thist narrative gained little traction internationally.

This all changed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in in August 1990. Suddenly, Saddam positioned himself as the West’s primary adversary. He attempted to overthrow not only a conservative Gulf Arab monarchy, but the entire regional order. He broke ties with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, while threatening to launch missiles at Israel – which he did during the 1991 war. Iraq’s new geopolitical position aligned well with Ba‘thist narratives and the regime saw the potential for cooperation with various anti-imperialist movements in the Global South as well as anti-war and isolationist movements in the West. These geopolitical alignments remained in place following the war with the imposition of international sanctions and no-fly zones in Iraq.

The Iraqis were quick to recognize their new situation. Within days of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Iraqi Ba‘thists operating around the world began reaching out to potentially useful movements and individuals in their respective states. The Ba‘thists tailored their messages to each specific audience. For example, in the United States, Ba‘thists were instructed to emphasize slogans such as: “Why sacrifice the sons of America for the sake of the families of corrupt dictators” and “It is not possible to compare the blood of Americans with the price of oil.” By contrast, Iraqi Ba‘thists in Pakistan courted various Islamist organizations. One such group that the Ba‘thists worked with, though the relationship remains murky, called itself “the Armed Battalions Revolutionary Party.” This organization used different language than the groups that the Ba‘thists worked with in the West. An open letter that it wrote to George H. W. Bush highlights the rather colorful, but violently anti-American idiom that Ba‘thists saw as useful in the broader Muslim world. It begins: “We the people of Pakistan and soldiers of Islam have been helplessly watching you pork eating kafirs [infidels] running our country by proxy through purchased agents and traitors…”

It continues in that vein:

You have infected our pure Muslim society by introducing drug and gun culture through your paid CIA agents. You have made our youth as impotent as your dirty Chicago gangsters…

You pig eaters have desecrated the holy land of MECCA and MADINA by sending your troops infected with AIDS and VD to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. Your unwilling mercenary troops are now ogling at Muslim women with evil eyes to outrage their modesty like you dogs of war did in Vietnam, where your bastards are still growing up…

You are hereby directed to close your embassy and other offices in Pakistan immediately, failing which, we shall burn your embassy…

It signs off with: “Death to American Dogs!!!!”

While this letter was addressed to Bush, one could argue that the real audience was in Pakistan. It was an attempt to incite anti-war sentiments and to create political costs for the Pakistani state if it supported the war.

Many of the people and groups that Iraqi Ba‘thists worked with outside Iraq were not necessarily pro-Saddam or pro-Iraq. They were simply against the war on Iraq, or later in the 1990s, against international sanctions. This was the case with various leftists in the West. As such, the Ba‘th Party often operated covertly and through cover organizations. Ba‘thists working on behalf of the regime presented themselves simply as Iraqis concerned about the suffering of their friends and families in their home country. In doing so, they were able to bring together disparate groups of peace activists, Islamists, leftists, academics, Arab nationalists, as well as mainstream politicians and members of the media into a lose political coalition that was unknowingly being employed to meet Iraq’s strategic goals.

The Iraqis were not concerned with the ideologies of their sometimes unwitting allies. They reached out to communist parties in Europe while crushing the Iraqi Communist Party at home. They did the same with Islamists. In Pakistan they worked with Shi‘i organizations and Sunni extremists even while these groups were fighting each other. Perhaps most controversially, while the Iraqi regime did not have any connections to the 9/11 attacks, members of the George W. Bush administration liked to point out that the regime was in contact with Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s. There is clear evidence for this relationship in the Iraqi archives. However, when the regime reached out to bin Laden, it did so because it considered him a Saudi dissident. And while the Iraqis and bin Laden discussed the possibility for “joint operations against the foreign forces” in Saudi Arabia, it appears that the only project they actually carried out was an influence operation in which Iraq “broadcast the speeches of [the imprisoned Saudi Islamist] Sheikh Salman al-Awda” into Saudi Arabia. These broadcasts were a classic influence operation designed to disrupt Saudi politics and weaken the Saudi regime.

Iraqi Ba‘thists outside Iraq also worked hard to get their message into local, national, and international media. Ba‘thists wrote articles, created posters, and published statements through their cover organizations. A large part of their job was to court influential people in the media and politics. Baghdad regularly instructed Ba‘thists working abroad to hold demonstrations and organize messages of support for Iraq. Then they were ordered to “exploit these activities by mobilizing and pressuring … the media” to cover them. In essence they created an event and then attempted to drum-up press coverage for it.

The regime’s internal files shed light on some interesting activities of the Iraqi Ba‘th Party branch that was located in the United States. For example, Iraqi Ba‘thists reported on the Iraqi dissident-turned-Brandeis professor, Kanan Makiya. These Ba‘thists actually came to the Brandeis campus and sat in on Makiya’s lectures. The Ba‘thists also identified American reporters whom they thought would spread a strategically beneficial message and gave them privileged access to the Iraqi regime. They arranged for the reporter Jon Alpert to interview Saddam himself in 1993. Alpert did not realize that some of his Iraqi colleagues were connected to the Ba‘th Party, but, in fact, it was the party in the United States which endorsed his request after ensuring that Alpert’s program would showcase Iraqi suffering. Alpert is a serious journalist and he asked Saddam pointed questions during the interview, but he also allowed the regime to lead him on a well-orchestrated tour of a hospital, highlighting gruesome scenes of dying Iraqi children. While Iraqi suffering was real, later studies have shown that the regime manipulated and exaggerated it in an attempt to pressure the international community. In Alpert’s program the regime’s claims about the reasons these children were suffering went completely unchallenged. The final production met Ba‘thist expectations, possibly too well. Parts of it had a propagandistic feel and American networks refused to air the show. That obviously frustrated the regime and probably contributed to Saddam’s refusal to be interviewed by American reporters again until he spoke with Dan Rather in 2003.

These attempts to enhance Iraq’s strategic position through influence operations were assisted tremendously when combined with other elements of Iraqi state power in the 1990s. Most importantly, Iraq had oil that it wished to sell and according to some reports, Saddam

was willing to forego revenue from oil sales or to overpay for imports to reward or encourage certain foreign politicians, journalists, and businesses to exert influence in its favor, most especially in advocating a lifting of the sanctions.

As such, members of the international community who were willing to help Iraq degrade and eventually do away with the sanctions regime could benefit economically. Yet, the optics of pandering to a tyrannical regime simply for profit were not good. Iraqi influence operations helped to change these optics by emphasizing the suffering that the international sanctions had wrought on Iraq. Such a narrative made it difficult for many Arab and Muslim leaders to support continuing the sanctions and provided potentially cooperative regimes with a narrative that allowed them to work toward ending Iraqi sanctions in exchange for privileged and discounted access to Iraqi oil.

This combination of influence operations and economic diplomacy proved quite effective. As a declassified report from the British Joint Intelligence Council argued in July 2001, “Iraq’s isolation has diminished.” The report asserted that the Iraqi regime garnered sympathy, especially in the Arab World, by “maintaining the illusion that UN sanctions inflict suffering on the Iraqi people.” The regime was able to begin rebuilding economic and diplomatic ties. Moreover, Russia, which stood to benefit economically, blocked attempts to reinvigorate sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. The report argued that “Saddam judges his position to be the strongest since the Gulf War.” It described him as “defiant” and “secure.” Influence operations were certainly not the sole or even the most important force for degrading the international sanctions regime in Iraq, but they were almost undoubtedly an effective force multiplier when combined with other instruments of state power.

Of course, the assessment of British intelligence in the July 2001 report was out of date less than two months later when the 9/11 attacks transformed global politics. Consequently Iraq found itself a target in the Bush Administration’s “war on terrorism”, and although influence operations can be effective they are no match for a militarily superior power that is willing to go to war.


Samuel Helfont is the author of Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018). He is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Image: Matt Buck/Flickr