Skip to comments.Ex-smuggler describes Iraqi plot to blow up US warship
Posted on 04/02/2002 4:09:44 PM PST by knak
Saddam Hussein was allegedly planning nine terrorist operations.
By Scott Peterson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
SULEIMANIYEH, NORTHERN IRAQ Iraq planned clandestine attacks against American warships in the Persian Gulf in early 2001, according to an operative of Iranian nationality who says he was given the assignment by ranking members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle. The alleged plan involved loading at least one trade ship with half a ton of explosives, and sailing under an Iranian flag to disguise Iraq's role using a crew of suicide bombers to blow up a US ship in the Gulf.
The operative, who says he smuggled weapons for Iraq through Iran for Al Qaeda during the late 1990s, says he was told that $16 million had already been set aside for the assignment the first of "nine new operations" he says the Iraqis wanted him to carry out, which were to include missions in Kuwait.
The first plot, remarkably similar to the attack on the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, was never carried out. The status of the other nine operations remains unclear.
The smuggler, Mohamed Mansour Shahab, now in the custody of Kurdish opponents of Mr. Hussein in northern Iraq, says he was first told of the role he was to play in the plan in February 2000 one month after an apparently unrelated attempt in Yemen to target a US destroyer, the USS The Sullivans, failed when the bombers' boat, overloaded with explosives, sank. Suicide bombers later succeeded in striking the USS Cole in Yemen, leaving 17 US sailors dead and a gaping 40-by-40 foot hole in the side of the warship.
If this Iranian smuggler is telling the truth, it would represent the first information in nearly a decade directly linking Baghdad to terrorist plans. No evidence has surfaced to date that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or the bombing of the Cole. But President George W. Bush has declared Iraq part of an "axis of evil," and makes no secret of his determination to end the rule of Saddam Hussein as part of his "war on terrorism."
The last publicly known terrorism involvement by Baghdad was a failed assassination plot against Bush's father, former President George H. W. Bush, during a visit to Kuwait in 1993. The elder Bush orchestrated the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.
"The Iraqis may have been waging war against the US for 10 years without us even knowing about it," says Magnus Ranstorp, at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Iraq may have fought, using terrorism as the ultimate fifth column, to counter US sanctions and bombing. Plausible deniability is something Iraq ... would want to ensure, putting layer upon layer to hide their role."
Part of the justification for any future US strike against Iraq may be the kind of information provided by the young-faced, nervous Iranian smuggler, now held in the US-protected Kurdish "safe haven" of northern Iraq.
Mr. Shahab spoke last weekend in an intelligence complex run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two rival armed Kurdish factions that control northern Iraq. He did not appear coerced to speak, and bore no physical signs that he had been mistreated since his arrest on May 16, 2000.
Still, shaking nervously and swallowing repeatedly, he at first refused to answer questions, saying that he was concerned about his family's safety in Iran. Two days later after learning that part of his smuggling history and role in several killings had already been made public in the New Yorker magazine he agreed to describe information that he had previously withheld, about Iraq's plan to target US warships.
"If this information is true, it would be in the interest of the US, and of all the world, for the US to be here to find out," says a senior Kurdish security officer involved in the case. Kurdish investigators were initially skeptical of some parts of Shahab's story. But the investigators say they later independently confirmed precise descriptions of the senior Iraqi officials Shahab says he met, by cross-examining a veteran Iraqi intelligence officer in their custody, and checking other sources.
Wearing a pale-green military jacket, dark-blue sweat pants and worn plastic sandals, Shahab softly recounts how he smuggled arms and explosives for Al Qaeda and the Iraqis. He at times flashes a boyish smile the same disarming grin he uses in images on a roll of film he was carrying when arrested. Shahab also claims to be an assassin. The photos shown to the Monitor show Shahab killing an unidentified man with a knife. He grins at the camera as he holds up the victim's severed ear.
During a two-and-a-half-hour interview, Shahab describes the origin of the plot to blow up US warships, while his hands work nervously. He received an urgent phone call early in 2000, from a longtime Afghan contact named Othman, who told him to go to a meeting in Iraq. In February 2000, Shahab says he was taken to the village of Ouija, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein near Hussein's clan base at Tikrit, in north central Iraq.
At the meeting, he says, were two influential Iraqis, fellow clansmen of Saddam Hussein: Ali Hassan al-Majid Mr. Hussein's powerful cousin and former defense minister and Luai Khairallah, a cousin and friend of Hussein's notoriously brutal son Uday. Mr. al-Majid is known among Iraqi Kurds as "Chemical Ali," for his key role in the genocidal gassing and destruction of villages in northern Iraq that killed more than 100,000 Kurds in 1987 and 1988.
The Iraqis said they considered Shahab to be Arab, and not Persian, and could trust him because he was from Ahvaz, a river city in southwest Iran rich with smugglers and close to the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Kuwait. It is known as "Arabistan" because of the number of Arabs living there.
Al-Majid and Mr. Khairallah spoke of the nine operations: "We've allocated $16 million already for you," Shahab remembers them telling him. "We start with the first one: We need you to buy boats, pack them with 500 kilograms of explosives each, and explode US ships in Kuwait and the Gulf."
The plan was "long term," Shahab says, and meant to be carried out a year or so later, in early 2001, after he had carried out another mission to take refrigerator motors to the Taliban. Each motor had a container attached holding an apparently important liquid unknown to Shahab. He says he doesn't know if all nine operations mentioned were similar to the boat plan, or completely different. Some were to take place in Kuwait.
The attack against a US vessel, Shahab recounts al-Majid and Khairallah explaining, was to be "a kind of revenge because [the Americans] were killing Iraqis, and women and children were dying" because of stringent UN sanctions, which the US backed most strongly. "They said: 'This is the Arab Gulf, not the American Gulf,' " Shahab recalls, referring to the large US naval presence in the area.
The Iraqis knew that Shahab, with his legitimate Iranian passport and wealth of smuggler contacts, would have little trouble purchasing the common 400-ton wooden trading boats. He would have raised few eyebrows sailing under an Iranian flag the only ships in the area, since UN sanctions prohibit such Iraqi trade.
Shahab was to rent or buy a date farm along the water at Qasba, on the marshy Shatt al-Arab waterway that narrowly divides Iraq and Iran, just a few hundred yards from the Iraqi port city of Fao. Using a powerful small smuggling boat, he says he would have been able to reach Kuwaiti waters from Qasba in just 10 minutes.
Iraqi agents were to provide the explosives and suicide squad; Shahab was to handle the boats and the regular crew. "The group that worked with me would sail the ship, and not know about the explosives," Shahab says. "When we crossed out of Iranian waters, we were to kill the crew, hand over the ship to the suicide bombers, and then leave by a smuggler's way."
The job, Shahab said, "was easy for me, I could start at any time." Shahab said the Iraqis told him they "had a lot of suicide bombers in Baghdad" ready to take part in such an operation.
But the plans were never finalized for Shahab, and after delivering the refrigerator motors to the Taliban, he was arrested in northern Iraq in May 2000, with his roll of film, as he tried to avoid Iranian military exercises going on along the border to the south. Though carrying a false Kurdish identity card, his accent gave him away at the last PUK checkpoint.
Iraqi experts say that such a plot is plausible, since Saddam Hussein's multiple intelligence services are sophisticated and smart.
"Anything is possible," says Sean Boyne, an Ireland-based Iraq specialist, who writes regularly for Jane's Intelligence Review in London. "Certainly Saddam has gone to great trouble to shoot down [US and British] aircraft" patrolling no-fly zones in northern and south Iraq, Mr. Boyne says. "He has invested heavily in his antiaircraft system. He is eager to have a crack at the Americans."
That impulse may also help explain the presence of a training camp at Salman Pak, a former biological-weapons facility south of Baghdad. It includes a mock-up Boeing 707 fuselage, which Western intelligence agencies believe has been used for several years to train Islamic militants from across the region in the art of hijacking. A senior Iraqi officer who defected told The New York Times last November that the regime was increasingly getting into the terrorism business. "We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States," an unnamed lieutenant general said. "The Gulf War never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this."
Still, the political situation Saddam Hussein finds himself in today in light of the example of decisive US military action in Afghanistan may not be as conducive to a strike at the US as it was when Shahab says he first heard of the plan to blow up a US warship. In recent months, Boyne notes,
Iraq has engaged in a region-wide charm offensive to portray itself as a victim, and to build Arab and European support against any US attack. Baghdad is even pursuing warmer ties with Kuwait (at the Arab League summit last week) and with Iran, in an attempt to gain mileage from Iran's anger at being listed as part of Washington's "axis of evil."
While the Bush administration focuses on Iraq's apparent pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in the absence of UN weapons inspectors, who were kicked out in 1998 clues to Iraq's true role may lie in the credibility of the 29-year-old smuggler from Ahvaz.
Why is he talking now? "Afghanistan is finished, so now I feel free to speak," says Shahab, who was given the name Mohamed Jawad by accomplices in Afghanistan. Asked if he fears the wrath of senior members of the regime in Baghdad, who still hold power, Shahab replies: "I lost everything. For many years I worked with assassinations and killing it doesn't make a difference to me."
I'm beginning to wonder if these are actually "suicide" missions, or just really incompetant terrorists.
What are the intelligence implications of the liaison in Prague between Mohamed Atta and Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani?
Al-Ani was, aside from the Iraqi Consul, an officer of the Iraq Intelligence Service stationed at the Iraq Embassy in Prague. He was not (as the New York Times called him) an "Iraqi Agent," he was an Iraqi case officer. The difference is not just semantic. An intelligence agent executes assignments, such as stealing documents or blowing up buildings, and may or may not know the identity of true principal for whom he is acting. A case officer, on the other hand, serves as the intermediary between an agent and the state intelligence service controlling the agent. An agent does not necessarily knows the identity of either the case officer or the principal he represents whereas the case officer does.
Al-Ani was a case officer working under diplomatic cover in the Republic of Czechoslovakia as 2nd Secretary of the Iraq Embassy and Consul. This gave him diplomatic immunity which meant he could not be arrested for his activities so long as he had his agents meet him on Czech territory. And, as Consul, he could meet agents overtly in the Iraq Consulate under the plausible pretext of issuing them visas for travel to Iraq.
On April 8th, 2001, Al-Ani met with Mohammed Atta. But he did not meet him at the Iraq consul, but at a discreet location in Prague. Unknown to either al-Ani or Atta, they were observed by Czech counterintelligence (BIS), which had been watching Al-Ani on an unrelated matter (for which he was expelled from the Czech Republic later that same month). But Czech intelligence considered the circumstances of this liaison suspicious enough to follow and identify Atta, and keep a record of it.
Atta had gone to considerable lengths to attend this meeting. He flew to Prague from Virginia Beach, Florida the day before and returned the following day to Florida. He had, according to Czech records, made an earlier trip to Prague from Germany on May 30, 2000. The records showed he was not allowed entry because he lacked a visa to enter the Czech Republic. Atta then he flew back to Germany, obtained a visa from the Czech consulate in Bonn and took a German bus to Prague on June 2. Since he then left for US on June 3rd, he presumably had a reason for making these two trips to Prague. Within the next two weeks following the Prague excursion, Atta opened a bank account at the Sun Bank in Florida and received $100,000 from an anonymous source through a money changer in the Emirate of Shirzah, money that presumably funded his mission.
According to an ex-CIA source who was familiar with the mechanics of Czech counterintelligence, the Czechs would not have reported the encounter to the US State Department, as foreign minister Jan Kevan did after the September 11 attack, unless the behavior of Atta and Al-Ani suggested that this was an intelligence tryst between an intelligence officer and his operative. Such behavior would include efforts at evasion, passwords, aliases, etc. techniques. The BIS, in short, knew that this was not an innocent meeting.
The implications are that:
1) Atta was an intelligence case assigned to al-Ani.
2) The case was considered sensitive enough by Iraqi intelligence to merit bringing Atta to Prague for what it intended to be a clandestine meeting, since it would be outside the purview of German (or US) surveillance.
3) That Iraq intelligence elected to hold the meeting with its agent outside the safety of its embassy grounds suggested it wanted to add a further layer of distancing between itself and its agent. Otherwise, why not have come to the Embassy for a visa? A remote location in Prague, not connected to Iraq, would allow al-Ani to misidentify himself to Atta. Such an alias, or false flag, could both aid the recruitment by appealing to Atta's ideologic interest and conceal Iraq's involvment. False flags are a common tool of recruitment by intelligence services, and, in this case, the Iraqi service would have no problem providing Al-Ani with convincing documents and other material to support it.
4) Atta's previous trip to Prague implies the liaison may have been on-going. If so, the Iraq Intelligence service would use the same case officer to maintain Atta's confidence (especially if it was being done under a false flag).
5)The urgency in which Atta made 2 trips to Prague on May 30 and June 2 in 2000, prior to his departure to the US, suggests that he may have needed documentation of some sort, or money, prior to his departure.
6) There is also a report that Al-Ani also met a second hijacker, Khalid Almihdar who preceded Atta to the US and took flying lessons in San Diego. The Czech ministry has not confirmed (or denied) this report. But, if it is true, it would suggest that Al Ani was handling multiple cases involved in the same mission. Using a single case officer would be standard intelligence practice for agents who might work together.
Whatever else it may be, the liaison between Atta (and possibly Almihdar) and Al- Ani was not accidental. Al-Ani was not a comrade, fellow student or mosque associates of Atta's in Germany, or some shadowy operative in a loosely-defibed network. He was an official of a state intelligence (and diplomatic) service, posted, at the time of the liaison, to an important embassy to carry out missions on behalf of a state: Iraq.
You're right, I keep thinking of anthrax as a powder but it's milled into powder from a liquid. Scary bump.
This seems relevant to our Iraq "smokescreen" discussion.
Its not like you get a lot of practice to carry out a suicide mission! LOL!
Instructor to Students: "OK, but I'm only going to show you this one more time..."
As my Korean friend used to say, "boo-shee."
Saddam said at the time, and many times since, that he would "unleash his agents to attack the U.S."
I guess they forgot about that.
I agree. According to this story, the Iraqi ship was to sail "under an Iranian flag to disguise Iraq's role...."
As I've mentioned in earlier threads, the wording of the anthrax letters is almost identical to the chants used in demonstrations in Iran, even though all the other evidence suggests that it's Iraq that is responsible for the anthrax. Is this the same story -- Iraq trying to get Iran blamed?
I'll speculate further.
It's possible that the anthrax used may well have been stolen or otherwise obtained by Iraq from the U.S. or the U.K., rather than anthrax prepared by Iraq. Again, Iraq would be covering its tracks.
Moving from anthrax to the 9/11 attack, the easily-traceable evidence led the U.S. government to blame al-Qaeda, but there seems to be a deeper connection with Iraq (meetings between some of the hijackers and Iraqi agents, for instance). [I'm not saying al-Qaeda was uninvolved, just that that's not the whole story.]
Even the Oklahoma City bombing appears to follow the same pattern. If you're willing to wear a bit of a tin foil hat, consider the similarity: once again, responsiblity for the blast was easily traceable (to McVeigh and Nichols) and the 4/19 date linked it to militia groups protesting the Waco assault. But once again, there appear to be nebulous Iraqi connections behind the scenes. [I'm not saying that McVeigh and Nichols were uninvolved, or that Waco wasn't a motivation. But Iraq may well have moved behind the scenes, providing support to people whose actions happened to suit Iraq's purposes.]
Is Iraq engaged in a covert war against the United States, inflicting damage by supporting and coordinating the actions of various other groups, letting the blame fall on those groups instead of on Iraq?
Yes. Saddam is waging war on the United States using terrorists as proxies, most recently using suicide bombers to destroy the WTC and attack Washington, DC. This should hardly surprise us, because it's quite clearly his same MO in attacking Israel, his other arch-enemy. I find the notion he was involved in the OKC a bit of a stretch, though -- I cannot see how it would much further his ends, and it's not like he can undertake these operations with zero risk of retaliation. Even under clinton, there had to be some risk.