Skip to comments.THE IRAQI CONNECTION:Saddam Controlled The Camps
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'Saddam controlled the camp'
The Iraqi connection
As evidence linking Iraqi intelligence to the 11 September hijackers begins to emerge, David Rose gathers testimony from former Baghdad agents and the CIA to reveal the secrets of Saddam's terror training camp
War on Terrorism: Observer special
Sunday November 11, 2001
His friends call him Abu Amin, 'the father of honesty'. At 43, he is one of Iraq's most highly decorated intelligence officers: a special forces veteran who organised killings behind Iranian lines during the first Gulf war, who then went on to a senior post in the unit known as 'M8' - the department for 'special operations', such as sabotage, terrorism and murder. This is the man, Colonel Muhammed Khalil Ibrahim al-Ani, whom Mohamed Atta flew halfway across the world to meet in Prague last April, five months before piloting his hijacked aircraft into the World Trade Centre.
Evidence is mounting that this meeting was not an isolated event. The Observer has learnt that Atta's talks with al-Ani were only one of several apparent links between Iraq, the 11 September hijackers and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Senior US intelligence sources say the CIA has 'credible information' that in the spring of this year, at least two other members of the hijacking team also met known Iraqi intelligence agents outside the United States. They are believed to be Atta's closest associates and co-leaders, Marwan al-Shehri and Ziad Jarrah, the other two members of the 'German cell ' who lived with Atta in Hamburg in the late 1990s.
In the strongest official statement to date alleging Iraqi involvement in the new wave of anti-Western terrorism, on Friday night Milos Zeman, the Czech Prime Minister, told reporters and Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, that the Czech authorities believed Atta and al-Ani met expressly to discuss a bombing. He said they were plotting to destroy the Prague-based Radio Free Europe with a truck stuffed with explosives, adding: 'Yes, you cannot exclude also the hypothesis that they discussed football, ice hockey, weather and other topics. But I am not so sure.
In Washington and Whitehall, a furious political battle is raging over the scope of the anti-terrorist war, and whether it should eventually include action against Iraq. According to the Foreign Office, British Ministers have responded to this prospect with 'horror', arguing that an attack on Saddam Hussein would cause terrible civilian casualties and cement anti-Western anger across Middle East.
Meanwhile, Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, heads a clique of determined, powerful hawks, most of them outside the administration - among them James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA. The doves argue that an al-Qaeda-Iraq link is improbable, given the sharp ideological differences between Saddam's secular Baathism and Islamic fundamentalism. They also say that claims of Iraqi involvement are being driven by the agenda of the hawks - a group which has for years been seeking to finish the job left undone at the end of the Gulf war in 1991.
Nevertheless, Saddam does not lack a plausible motive: revenge for his expulsion from Kuwait in 1991, and for the continued sanctions and Western bombing of his country ever since. In this febrile atmosphere, hard information about who ordered the 11 September attacks remains astonishingly scarce.
US investigators have traced the movements of the 19 hijackers going back years, and have amassed a detailed picture of who did what inside the conspiracy. Yet what lay beyond the hijackers is an intelligence black hole. If they had a support network in America, none of its members has been traced, and among the hundreds of telephone records and emails the investigators have recovered, nothing gets close to identifying those ultimately responsible.
It still seems almost certain, intelligence sources say, that parts of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network actively backed the conspiracy: about half of the estimated $500,000 the hijackers used reportedly came from al-Qaeda sources, while some of the terrorists are believed to have passed through bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. At the same time, however, evidence is emerging of direct Iraqi links with the US hijackers in particular, and with radical Islamic terror groups in general.
In the early period after the attacks, Western intelligence agencies said they knew of nothing to suggest an Iraqi connection. That position has now changed. A top US analyst - a serving intelligence official with no connection to the 'hawks' around Wolfowitz - told The Observer: 'You should think of this thing as a spectrum: with zero Iraqi involvement at one end, and 100 per cent Iraqi direction and control at the other. The scenario we now find most plausible is somewhere in the middle range - significant Iraqi assistance and some involvement.'
Last night, Whitehall sources made clear that parts of British intelligence had reached the same conclusion. Uncomfortable as it may be, this reassessment is having a political impact. Last month, when the CIA was still telling him it did not believe Iraq was involved in 11 September, Powell said there were 'no plans' to attack Iraq. Last Thursday, speaking in Kuwait, he abruptly reversed his earlier pronouncements. He promised that after dealing with bin Laden and Afghanistan, 'we will turn our attention to terrorism throughout the world, and nations such as Iraq'.
The FBI is now sure that Atta, the Egyptian who had studied in Germany, was the hijackers' overall leader. He personally handled more than $100,000 of the plot's funds, more than any other conspirator, and he made seven foreign trips in 2000 and 2001 - all of which appear to have had some operational significance. Investigators lay heavy stress on a captured al-Qaeda manual which emphasises the value of conducting discussions about pending terrorist attacks face to face, rather than by electronic means.
Two of those trips were to meet al-Ani in Prague. The Iraqi's profile has been supplied by defectors from Saddam's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, who are now being guarded by the London-based opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress (INC). CIA sources have confirmed its crucial details. 'There's really no doubt that al-Ani is a very senior Iraqi agent,' one source said.
The Observer has interviewed two of the defectors. They began to tell their stories at the beginning of October, and have been debriefed extensively by the FBI and the CIA. Al-Ani's experience in covert 'wet jobs' (assassinations), gives his meetings with Atta a special significance: his expertise was killing.
According to the defectors, he has an unusual ability to change his appearance and operate under cover. One defector recalls a meeting in the early 1990s when al-Ani had long, silver hair, and wore jeans, silver chains and sunglasses. Al-Ani explained he was about to undertake a mission which required him to look like a Western hippy. A member of Saddam's Baathist party since his youth, al-Ani also has extensive experience working with radical Islamists such as Mohamed Atta.
Since the 1980s, Saddam has organised numerous Islamic conferences in Baghdad, expressly for the Mukhabarat to find foreign recruits. Al-Ani has been seen at at least two of them. On one occasion, the defectors say, he took on the cover of a Muslim cleric at a fundamentalists' conference in Karachi, presenting himself as a delegate from the Iraqi shrine of the Sufi mystic Abdel-Qadir al-Gaylani, whose followers are numerous in Pakistan.
Last Wednesday, Iraq made its own response to the news of the meetings between al-Ani and Atta. Tariq Aziz, Saddam's Deputy Prime Minister, denied Iraq had anything to do with the hijackings, saying: 'Even if that [the meetings] happened, that would mean nothing, for a diplomat could meet many people during his duty, whether he was at a restaurant or elsewhere, and even if he met Mohamed Atta, that would not mean the Iraqi diplomat was involved.'
Yet the striking thing about the meetings is the lengths to which Atta went in order to attend them. In June last year, he flew to Prague from Hamburg, only to be refused entry because he had failed to obtain a visa. Three days later, now equipped with the paperwork, Atta was back for a visit of barely 24 hours. He flew from the Czech Republic to the US, where he began to train as pilot. In early April 2001, when the conspiracy's planning must have been nearing its final stages, Atta was back in Prague for a further brief visit - a journey of considerable inconvenience.
On 17 April, the Czechs expelled al-Ani, who had diplomatic cover, as a hostile spy. Last night, a senior US diplomatic source told The Observer that Atta was not the only suspected al-Qaeda member who met al-Ani and other Iraqi agents in Prague. He said the Czechs monitored at least two further such meetings in the months before 11 September.
The senior US intelligence source said the CIA believed that two other hijackers, al-Shehri and Jarrah, also met known Iraqi intelligence officers outside the US in the run-up to the atrocities. It is understood these meetings took place in the United Arab Emirates - where Iraq maintains its largest 'illegal', or non-diplomatic, cover intelligence operation, most of it devoted to oil exports and busting economic sanctions.
The source added that Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which has now effectively merged with al-Qaeda, maintained regular contacts with Iraq for many years. He confirmed the claims first made by the Iraqi National Congress - that towards the end of 1998, Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Turkey and a key member of the Mukhabarat leadership - went to Kandahar in Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden.
The FBI believes many of the 11 hijackers who made up the conspiracy's 'muscle', Saudi Arabians who entered the US at a late stage and whose task was to overpower the aircrafts' passengers and crew, trained at Afghan camps run by al-Qaeda. But they have no details: no times or places where any of these individuals learnt their skills. Meanwhile, it is now becoming clear that al-Qaeda is not the only organisation providing terrorist training for Muslim fundamentalists. Since the early 1990s, courses of this type have also been available in Iraq. At the beginning of October, two INC activists in London travelled to eastern Turkey. They had been told that a Mukhabarat colonel had crossed the border through Kurdistan and was ready to defect. The officer - codenamed Abu Zeinab - had extraordinary information about terrorist training in Iraq. In a safe house in Ankara, the two London-based activists took down Zeinab's story. He had worked at a site which was already well known - Salman Pak, a large camp on a peninsular formed by a loop of the Tigris river south of Baghdad.
However, what Zeinab had to say about the southern part of the camp was new. There, he said, separated from the rest of the facilities by a razor-wire fence, was a barracks used to house Islamic radicals, many of them Saudis from bin Laden's Wahhabi sect, but also Egyptians, Yemenis, and other non-Iraqi Arabs.
Unlike the other parts of Salman Pak, Zeinab said the foreigners' camp was controlled directly by Saddam Hussein. In a telephone interview with The Observer, Zeinab described the culture clash which took place when secular Baathists tried to train fundamentalists: 'It was a nightmare! A very strange experience. These guys would stop and insist on praying to Allah five times a day when we had training to do. The instructors wouldn't get home till late at night, just because of all this praying.'
Asked whether he believed the foreigners' camp had trained members of al-Qaeda, Zeinab said: 'All I can say is that we had no structure to take on these people inside the regime. The camp was for organisations based abroad.' One of the highlights of the six-month curriculum was training to hijack aircraft using only knives or bare hands. According to Zeinab, women were also trained in these techniques. Like the 11 September hijackers, the students worked in groups of four or five.
In Ankara, Zeinab was debriefed by the FBI and CIA for four days. Meanwhile he told the INC that if they wished to corroborate his story, they should speak to a man who had political asylum in Texas - Captain Sabah Khodad, who had worked at Salman Pak in 1994-5. He too has now told his story to US investigators. In an interiew with The Observer, he echoed Zeinab's claims: 'The foreigners' training includes assassinations, kidnapping, hijacking. They were strictly separated from the rest of us. To hijack planes they were taught to use small knives. The method used on 11 September perfectly coincides with the training I saw at the camp. When I saw the twin towers attack, the first thought that came into my head was, "this has been done by graduates of Salman Pak".'
Zeinab and Khodad said the Salman Pak students practised their techniques in a Boeing 707 fuselage parked in the foreigners' part of the camp. Yesterday their story received important corroboration from Charles Duelfer, former vice chairman of Unscom, the UN weapons inspection team.
Duelfer said he visited Salman Pak several times, landing by helicopter. He saw the 707, in exactly the place described by the defectors. The Iraqis, he said, told Unscom it was used by police for counter-terrorist training. 'Of course we automatically took out the word "counter",' he said. 'I'm surprised that people seem to be shocked that there should be terror camps in Iraq. Like, derrrrrr! I mean, what, actually, do you expect? Iraq presents a long-term strategic threat. Unfortunately, the US is not very good at recognising long-term strategic threats.'
At the end of September, Donald Rumsfeld, the far from doveish US Defence Secretary, told reporters there was 'no evidence' that Iraq was involved in the atrocities. That judgment is slowly being rewritten.
Many still suspect the anthrax which has so far killed four people in America has an ultimate Iraqi origin: in contrast to recent denials made by senior FBI officials, CIA sources say there simply is not enough material to be sure. However, it does not look likely that the latest anthrax sample, sent to a newspaper in Karachi, can have come from the source recently posited by the FBI - a right-wing US militant. 'The sophistication of the stuff that has been found represents a level of technique and knowledge that in the past has been associated only with governments,' Duelfer said. 'If it's not Iraq, there aren't many alternatives.'
If the emerging evidence of Iraqi involvement in 11 September becomes clearer or more conclusive, the consequences will be immense. In the words of a State Department spokesman after Powell's briefing by the Czech leader on Friday: 'If there is clear evidence connecting the World Trade Centre attacks to Iraq, that would be a very grave development.'
At worst, the anti-terrorist coalition would currently be bombing the wrong country. At best, the world would see that some of President Bush's closest advisers - his father, Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney, to name but three - made a catastrophic error in 1991, when they ended the Gulf war without toppling Saddam.
The case for trying to remove him now might well seem unanswerable. In that scenario, the decisions Western leaders have had to make in the past two months would seem like a trivial prelude.
Additional reporting by Ed Vulliamy in New York and Kate Connolly in Berlin.
Subject: SALMAN PAK FACILITIES
Not Finally Evaluated Intelligence
TO FACILITATE ELECTRONIC ACCESS, THIS DOCUMENT HAS BEEN REFORMATTED TO ELIMINATE INFORMATION THAT DOES NOT PERTAIN TO GULF WAR ILLNESS ISSUES OR THAT IS CLASSIFIED. A COPY OF THIS REDACTED DOCUMENT, IN ORIGINAL FORMAT, IS AVAILABLE ON REQUEST.
FEB 92 CIA 252068
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY
WARNING: INFORMATION REPORT, NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE.
SUBJ: ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON IRAQ'S AL-HAKAM
SALMAN PAK FACILITIES
2. THE ONLY TIES THAT EXIST BETWEEN SALMAN PAK AND AL-HAKAM
ARE ADMINISTRATIVE ONES; BOTH FALL UNDER THE MILITARY INDUSTRY BOARD.
BEFORE IRAQ'S BW PROGRAM WAS TRANSFERRED TO SALMAN PAK, IT IS LIKELY
THAT SOME BW-RELATED ACTIVITIES TOOK PLACE AT AL-HAKAM.
4. PRIOR TO THE ARRIVAL OF THE FIRST INSPECTION TEAM IN IRAQ, SOME BW-RELATED EQUIPMENT WAS HIDDEN, BUT MOST WAS DESTROYED COMPLETELY, IN ACCORDANCE WITH IRAQ'S DENIAL OF BW PRODUCTION CAPABILITY. SOME FACILITIES SURROUNDING THE TOXICOLOGY BUILDING AT SALMAN PAK WERE TORN DOWN BECAUSE THEY WERE STRUCTURALLY DAMAGED DURING THE GULF WAR
5. THE lNHALATION CHAMBER AT SALMAN PAK WAS LOCATED IN A SMALL BUILDING SITUATED BEHIND THE TOXICOLOGY BUILDING. THE CHAMBER AND ITS CONTROL PANEL WERE DAMAGED DURING COALITION AIR STRIKES. EQUIPMENT USED AT SALMAN PAK INCLUDED THE FOLLOWING: LABORATORY FERMENTORS, 150-LITER FERMENTOR, INHALATION CHAMBER, ANIMAL HOUSES, AND REGULAR LABORATORY APPARATUS, INCLUDING GROWTH MEDIA.
DEFECTOR: I'm sure that Saddam himself would know, but I'm not so sure about his sons that they would know. This is a closed camp which is under the direct control of the intelligence service itself. Because the special operations unit is under their control, Saddam Hussein himself.
Salman Pak, located 30-40 km SE of Baghdad, engaged in laboratory scale research on Anthrax, Botulinum toxin, Clostridium, perfringens (gas gangrene), mycotoxins, aflatoxins, and Ricin. Researchers at this site carried out toxicity evaluations of these agents and examined their growth characteristics and survivability.
Equipment-moving trucks and refrigerated trucks were observed at the Salman Pak BW facility prior to the onset of bombing, suggesting that Iraq was moving equipment or material into or out of the facility. Information obtained after the conflict revealed that Iraq had moved BW agent production equipment from Salman Pak to the Al Hakam suspect BW facility.
The Qadisiya State Establishment [aka Al-Qadsia], involved in the program to produce Al Hussein class missiles, is apparently located nearby [at 33°06'N 44°35'E], along with the Al-Yarmouk facility which according to some reports was associated with the chemical munitions program [and which other reports place at Yusufiyah.
SPECIAL POLICY FORUM REPORT
IRAQ'S BIOLOGICAL WARFARE PROGRAM: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE CHALLENGES
On January 23, 1998, Dr. Richard Spertzel, UNSCOM's chief biological weapons (BW) inspector since 1994, addressed The Washington Institute as part of a panel of United Nations weapons inspectors. The following is a rapporteur's summary of his remarks.
A Brief Chronology of the Iraqi Biological Warfare Program:
1974-Iraqi BW program begun at Salman Pak as the al-Hazan Ibn al-Hathem Institute under the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Funded by Iraqi Intelligence Ministry, first employees are Ministry of Defense personnel (subsequent employees recruited from universities). Initially a joint effort to produce weapons for both clandestine delivery and military applications.
1978-New, more advanced building built at Salman Pak.
1979-1985-Iraq may have suspended its program to develop BW for military applications, instead focusing on BW for clandestine operations.
1980-Dr. Rihab Taha brought into the BW program at Salman Pak.
1984-Four senior managers of the BW program are imprisoned for failure to make sufficient progress. (Iraq claims the BW program was terminated at this point. Salman Pak did continue to conduct research on BW agents.)
1985-Salman Pak taken over by the Technical Research Center (TRC).
1987-Dr. Taha moves her team into the new "al-Hakem" BW facility at Salman Pak. Iraq begins construction of facilities for production of anthrax and botulinum toxin and begins work on clostridium perfringens. Simultaneously, Iraq begins research into mycotoxins-both trichopycenes and aflatoxins- under Dr. Imad Diyad.
1988-Iraq begins work on smut spores-a plant pathogen, known in the West as wheat bug-and ricin covert application in the Biological Research Center of the Scientific Research Council, eventually transferred to the Technical Research Center at Salmon Pak.
Status of Iraq's BW Program at the Time of the Gulf War: Iraq acknowledges the large-scale production of botulinum toxin and anthrax spores, as well as the development and fielding of BW agents in aerial bombs and missile warheads. They claim to have filled 100 R-400 bombs with botulinum toxin, fifty with anthrax and seven with aflatoxin.
In addition, they acknowledge filling twenty-five warheads for the Al-Husayn missile: five with anthrax, four with aflatoxin and sixteen with botulinum toxin. There are discrepancies concerning the quantities and the agent allocations. When you add the chemical warfare R-400s to the BW R-400s, Iraq claims to have destroyed more R-400s than they acknowledge producing.
Iraq does not acknowledge having weaponized clostridium prefringens, although they did produce 340 liters of weapon-grade prefringens spores. They do not acknowledge weaponization of ricin-which UNSCOM suspects is true-although there are numerous problems with Iraq's ricin story leading UNSCOM to suspect that something else was going on. Finally, it appears that Iraq did not achieve the means to weaponize trychophycenes.
UNSCOM's Efforts to Eradicate the Iraqi BW Program: Even in Iraq's latest "Full, Final and Complete Declaration" regarding its BW program, submitted in September 1997, Baghdad continues to withhold, lie, and distort information to present UNSCOM with a false picture. For example, there are problems with Iraq's "unilateral destruction" of al-Husayn biological and chemical warheads, which it claims to have undertaken in 1995. It is clear that the destruction occurred neither at the time nor the location submitted by Iraq. Similarly, there is evidence indicating that Iraq produced at least twenty-five more special warheads (both biological and chemical weapons) than they have acknowledged.
Today, UNSCOM has more questions than answers about Iraq's BW arsenal. UNSCOM is quite confident that there are no residual weapons filled with botulinum toxin. Botulinum in a liquid state seven years ago is unlikely to still be potent. However, it is unclear whether Iraq dried botulinum toxin or anthrax, which would have allowed them to be stored and employed far more easily. At the very least, Iraq undoubtedly possessed the technology to do so. Similarly, Iraq apparently did not weaponize ricin, but today it is producing massive amounts of castor oil whose residual mash is at least five percent ricin. Thus, the current status of Iraq's capabilities concerning ricin remains uncertain.
UNSCOM requires answers to a range of questions before it will understand past and current Iraqi BW capabilities and be able to design an effective long-term monitoring system. However, Iraq has baldly stated that it will not provide additional information or documentation to support its positions. This is particularly problematic because if Iraq believes it has a period of time-even a few days-during which it will be free of weapons inspections, the Iraqis can immediately begin to reconstitute their production of bulk agents to be used for biological warfare. The munitions required for their dispersal are already available, so Iraq could quickly build a powerful BW capability.
This Special Policy Forum Report was prepared by Stephanie Sines.