In the past few months, the Egyptian intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman, has been increasingly immersed in America’s war on al Qaeda, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources. They have discovered that captured al Qaeda operatives, said by US and European human rights groups to be held in secret facilities in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, Pakistan, Jordan and Virginia, are actually incarcerated and interrogated at an Egyptian intelligence facility near Cairo. Their numbers have been swelled most recently by network combatants caught in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and Turkey – and even terrorists Syria handed over to Turkey in a goodwill gesture after the Istanbul attacks.
The man in charge of the facility with oversight of interrogations is none other than General Suleiman. He alone, aside from Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, is privy to the input from the questioning of prisoners. Occasionally, he personally delivers these results to George Tenet at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, his trips Washington – he is off to the US capital again in the next few days – often accounted for by his efforts to bring about Israeli-Palestinian understanding.
Tenet went to Cairo last week for a visit billed as a farewell round to associates but actually to discuss future channels of communications after his departure. Despite his reported interview with Mubarak (see previous issue, No. 162), American’s top spymaster's only real conversation was held with Suleiman.
The Egyptian intelligence chief has revealed to Israel and the United States his secret discovery from the interrogations of al Qaeda prisoners in Egypt that the terrorist network is mulling the establishment of its own terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. His deep involvement in the Palestinian question at this time springs from that discovery.
Al Qaeda’s strategists are eyeing Gaza for the following reasons:
The Gaza Strip’s densely populated Palestinian refugee camps offer first-rate concealment and operational conditions for terrorist cells.
Al Qaeda would acquire a new territorial base, one moreover with an outlet to the open sea, the Mediterranean, for the first time since it commanded a base in Sudan in the 1990s.
Gaza would be handy for terrorists to jump off into Israel in the north and Egypt to the south. This consideration led the Egyptian intelligence chief to his urgent involvement in the Palestinian issue with regard to the Gaza Strip.
Osama bin Laden’s terrorist units are drawing nearer to the Gaza Strip all the time. Already, teams crossing the Red Sea in small craft land on the Mediterranean shores of the Sinai Peninsula and proceed to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. A base in the Gaza Strip would cut their journey by half.
Terror cells in Saudi Arabia and the Gaza Strip would offer each other reciprocal sanctuary and logistical assistance.
But not all al Qaeda strategists are enamored of the idea of branching out into Palestinian territory. They know that Palestinian intelligence and security services are thoroughly penetrated by every possible clandestine agency, whether American and Israeli, or al Qaeda’s own allies, Iran and Hizballah, making operational secrecy in Gaza impossible. Moreover, some al Qaeda leaders simply do not trust Palestinians and view Gaza as an inimical religious and operational environment. The massive Israeli military presence in the territory and on its periphery, in the event of a pullout, would severely curtail al Qaeda’s terrorist activity. Occasional strikes in the Jewish state are desirable; daily battlefield brushes with Israeli forces would open a fresh and hazardous front and severely strain al Qaeda’s resources already heavily extended in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources say Suleiman has concluded on the strength of the information he has gathered that al Qaeda has not decided finally on a full-scale commitment to the Gaza Strip. It has opted instead for an interim solution, the creation of a relatively small logistical infrastructure in Gaza to be based on such local radical elements as Hamas as well as the south Gazan crime families, with whom the organization already maintains drug smuggling links.
That the prospect of an al Qaeda presence in the Gaza Strip is of paramount concern to Suleiman was underscored by his action following the capture in November 2003 by Egyptian intelligence of Libyan intelligence officer Colonel Mohammed Ismael on his way to Saudi Arabia. (Reports that he was on an assassination mission against Crown Prince Abdullah are apparently false).
According to our counter-terrorism sources in the Egyptian port city of Suez, Suleiman advised handing Ismael over to the Saudis without delay in the hope that Riyadh would reciprocate by extraditing to Cairo the al Qaeda men the intelligence chief was after – especially those with ties to extremist Islamic groups in Egypt. (Several are currently held in the Saudi port city of Jeddah). No less importantly, Suleiman argued that Egypt should stay out of any potential quarrel between Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah.
Mubarak took his intelligence chief’s advice.
Our sources note that Suleiman had a third option – telling Washington about Ismael’s arrest and waiting to see if the United States wished to interrogate the Libyan. But Cairo was particularly peeved at both Washington and Tripoli at the time for failing to give advance notice of their deal to dismantle Libya’s weapons of mass destruction, including its nuclear arms. So Suleiman told Mubarak it would be best to turn the Libyan colonel over to the Saudis and let the United States dicker with Riyadh rather than with Cairo for interrogation rights.