After fruitless searches in Afghanistan and Pakistan for many months, using every known state of the art implement, US special forces and intelligence units in Iraq finally came upon Al Qaeda’s secret archives by means of human intelligence in Iraq. Revealing this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-intelligence sources report the files were discovered three weeks ago in a cave complex linked by natural underground passages in the mountainous Targat region of northern Iraq, north of the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyeh. They were led to their find by local Kurds who sold enough correct information to cross-reference neatly with data obtained from interrogations of Al Qaeda prisoners, some badly wounded, who were captured in the fundamentalist al Qaeda-linked Kurdish Ansar al Islam enclave in northern Iraq. That enclave was subjected to heavy American missile and aerial bombardment in the second week of the Iraq war.
Al Qaeda turns out to have cached its secret archives in these caves in two batches: one before and one after the watershed September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. US experts have just begun examining them prior to an appraisal. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, who obtained limited access to some of their contents find that even a cursory glance sheds light on the bin Laden system of operation.
Pre-September 11 Batch
This collection of documents dates back to 1994 when Osama bin Laden and his headquarters were based in Sudan; they cover the period up until late June 2001. One revelation lays bare the meticulous preparations the network made for the 9/11 suicidal massacres and confirms that America’s responsive invasion of Afghanistan was fully anticipated. There is no indication as to whether Saddam knew the archives were in Iraq or had a hand in hiding them.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism experts find it hard to believe that with his security forces, spies and informers in every corner of the country – certainly in the heart of all the military and terror groups he hosted – could have been completely ignorant of al Qaeda’s doings and the contents of its files. Even without specific foreknowledge of 9/11, he must have guessed that Al Qaeda chiefs had good reason to spirit their archives out of Afghanistan to a safer location. In fact, senior intelligence sources who have viewed the al Qaeda papers told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that Saddam had a pretty good idea that a major terrorist attack in the United States was afoot.
Even before the American invasion, the Iraqi ruler was not in complete control of every movement in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet it would have been sufficient to enable him or one of his sons to remove the al Qaeda archives and carry them out when they fled the country last month. They did manage to abscond with other sensitive intelligence materials. But Saddam did not bother to take the al Qaeda files, or even order them destroyed.
January 2002 – April 2002 Batch
It is clear that Al Qaeda was unable to spirit this batch out of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the first. The files show signs of being hurriedly packed and smuggled out in haste after US forces were deep inside Afghanistan.
The special interest of these documents lies in their inclusion, reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, of a complete blueprint for rebuilding al Qaeda’s terrorist network just in case it was forced to pull up its stakes in Afghanistan. There is no way of telling if the plan was drawn up prior to 9/11 or afterward. However, after quitting Afghanistan, al Qaeda almost certainly reconstructed its operational units along the lines laid down by this blueprint.
The negative evidence contained in the al Qaeda documents is particularly telling. There is no record of active terror collaboration with Saddam’s regime, only written instructions to operatives to make use of the access they enjoyed to Iraqi territory to set up training bases, terrorist command centers, camps. They were to use Iraq also as a short and easy transit route between Iran and Turkey and Syria and Lebanon. But how they procured this access is not revealed. There is no record in the documents that al Qaeda requested or obtained permission to locate its activities in the country from Baghdad or any local authority.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism experts explain the absence of any evidence linking Saddam to the still shadowy al Qaeda on three grounds which may alternate or overlap:
1. Top Iraqi leaders gave Al Qaeda a tacit green light to operate out of Iraq after they were bribed to turn a blind eye to its activities.
2. Al Qaeda operated in northern Iraq under the protection of Iranian – not Iraqi – agents. Towards the end of the Afghan war in the winter of 2001-2002, Tehran opened its doors to Al Qaeda fighters on the run from Afghanistan and Pakistan. In return for large cash payments, Iran let them live in camps in the north of the country, allowing some of the men to move to Teheran, Qom and Mashhad. But then Iran changed its face and decided to clean house as quickly as possible. The ayatollahs turned the al Qaeda fighters out and pushed them over to northern Iraq and from there to Syria and Lebanon. They also had an ulterior motive; the belief that the al Qaeda presence in Lebanon would strengthen the pro-Iranian elements in the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah at the expense of mounting Syrian influence.
3. The al Qaeda presence in northern Iraq fell under the protection of Syrian military intelligence which is still a pervasive influence around the Iraqi oil city of Mosul. The palms of senior Syrian officers were almost certainly well greased for their patronage.
The archived records cataloguing Al Qaeda’s reorganization after the Afghan War lend credence to the third explanation. According to its prepared blueprint, the reorganized network was to establish three terrorist operational centers.
A. The United States and Canada: This center was to evolve in three stages; the nucleus would be fashioned in the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam enclave around the northern Iraqi town of Biara. This nucleus was to be managed, according to the documents and supporting intelligence data, by Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader captured in Pakistan in March. His job was to use this nucleus to seed branches in Europe that would eventually plant cells in the United States and Canada. Those cells were to come together as an active base of operations. There is no information on whether this happened.
On paper, Al Qaeda’s organizational and intelligence methodology appeared smooth and uncomplicated. But when Sheikh Mohammed came to be interrogated he conveyed the impression to US intelligence officers that either he had not been fully briefed on the organization he was assigned to set up, or he was dissembling.
The captive was shown to be out of the loop or playing games – or both – when the Americans acted on his information.
On March 20, just after the Iraq War was launched, US forces also embarked on Operation Valiant Storm in search of top al Qaeda leaders, possibly even Bin Laden in person, along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. Then, in the last week of March, another US operation codenamed Desert Lion was initiated with the same objective. Both operations were based on information gleaned from Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogation. Both, despite widespread rumors of the capture of Bin Laden’s son, came up empty but for al Qaeda minnows.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and counter-terrorism sources, Sheikh Mohammed had deliberately sent the Americans off on a wild goose chase, exhausting large contingents of special forces that could have been put to better use on other fronts.
At the same time, the location of two key al Qaeda men, both outranking Sheikh Mohammed on the fundamentalists’ totem pole, was found in the second batch of the secret al Qaeda archive. Both men are inaccessible. According to our exclusive sources, the two operatives are hiding under the protection of Bashar Assad’s military intelligence in northern Syria. The Syrian ruler denies their presence in his country. US officials have named them and demanded their handover on at least three occasions, the last being when secretary of state Colin Powell visited the city on May 3.
The two al Qaeda fugitives under Syrian protection are full operational. In the last week of March, when coalition forces were advancing in Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report they assembled a force of well-trained terrorists with orders to quietly infiltrate Saudi Arabia. Some crossed overland from Iraq and Jordan; others flew into Jeddah on commercial flights from Damascus. Our sources label some of the team as Algerians with Canadian passports. Seven took part in the al Qaeda street battle on May 7 with Saudi security forces in Riyadh. The same North American Muslim fighters were also on the team that carried out the suicide bombings on residential compounds housing foreign nationals in the Saudi capital five days later.
It is not entirely clear how active are the additional two terror centers or cells planted by al Qaeda or even their scope.
B. Northern Iraq and Jordan: Its operations were meant to range across Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
C. Israel: Long thought to be dormant, this al Qaeda presence is now threatening to burst into action like the one in Saudi Arabia, under its commander, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the notorious Jordanian-born bio-chemical warfare expert who was trained in northern Iraq.