Saddam Hussein’s potential plan to fight his war against the Americans from an underground, extra-territorial base – and its perfect fit with the schemes of Osama bin Laden – are the subject of fierce debates in the western intelligence community, baffled anyway in their attempts to keep up with the elusive al Qaeda leaders. The skeptics say they cannot see an omnipotent ruler like Saddam, who has lived the good life for the last twenty years in opulent palaces, opting for a life on the run like that of bin Laden, trekking astride a camel or horse through wild, burning desert regions for long weeks and months.
Wrong, say the believers. If Saddam contemplated merely saving himself and his family, he might prefer to go underground inside Iraq and fight the Americans to the bitter end. However, the Iraqi ruler appears to be preparing to emerge victorious from the greatest battle of his life. For victory, he needs a territorial base out of America’s reach. Since Iraq is doomed to fall soon to the United States, his only recourse for a safe haven and an operational collaborator is al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia first?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that Saddam’s forward planning catches al Qaeda leaders in the midst of their own debate over where to concentrate their efforts to destabilize authority: Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan – or both? All these goals may sound far-fetched or even fantastical to Western ears, but not to the lead players who have ever confidence that they will triumph.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly was first to reveal on October 18 that the leader of the Islamic terrorist network was alive and, with his close associates and family, at safe anchorage in the Empty Quarter fringing Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Those same sources now report that Bin Laden heads the faction in the al Qaeda leadership advocating the deepening of the network’s penetration of Saudi tribes, clergy, security forces, intelligence and cities. He believes that planting new cells in every branch of the oil kingdom’s ruling establishment and every corner of the country will in the space of a year or two create the conditions for overthrowing the Saudi royal house and replacing it with a Wahhabbist Islamic republic. From that point on, nothing will stop the dissemination of the authentic Islamic revolution far and wide.
The clash on Saturday and Sunday, November 16 and 17, in the A Shaafa suburb of Riydah (reported fully in HOT POINTS below) between Saudi security forces and young Saudi “jihadists” was one of the first audible rumbles of the earthquake to come. Two groups – Saudi fugitives from Afghanistan who were permitted to return home and new arrivals that bin Laden inserted in the Saudi capital in the few weeks since his arrival – are already busy imparting military training to Saudi youths, many of them out of work, with a view to setting up local militias.
The government in Riyadh has not so far intervened. According to our Gulf sources, the clash in Riyadh would not have erupted either had not the young radicals been carried away and attacked the uniforms.
The incident on Thursday, November 21, when a Kuwait policeman opened fire and seriously injured two US Marines driving into Kuwait City from Doha, was another early symptom of authority breaking down in the face of al Qaeda boldness. The Kuwaiti policeman fled across the Saudi border where a getaway car awaited him and a warm welcome from his fellows in the radical network, indicating that al Qaeda is not afraid to use Saudi soil to organize cross-border assaults.
Or Afghanistan first?
Bin Laden’s senior lieutenant and partner, the Egyptian Jihad Islami leader Ayman Zuwahri, leads the opposite view. Its members do not mind taking over the Saudi kingdom. They only question its timing. On the eve of the US war offensive against Iraq, they think it makes more sense to operate against the more distant target, meaning Afghanistan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Kabul sources say that the internal security situation there is no better than in Saudi Arabia. Guerrilla and terrorist attacks are proliferating against American bases and the central government. The planting of a 25-kilo charge at the main electricity station of the capital indicates that Taliban and al Qaeda forces are active in Kabul. In recent weeks, they fired nine 107mm rockets against US special forces at Gardez in the Paktia region near the Pakistani frontier. The Americans suffered no casualties, but the Taliban promises greater precision in the future. Not far away, two rockets were aimed at the small Chapman Airfield near Khost, while Taliban guerrillas were able to surround the American base at Shkin, also in Paktia. They managed to fire two rockets before being put to flight by the American troops who arrested two.
The main air base at Bagram outside Kabul lives under the constant threat of terrorist attacks against the many aircraft based there and the large arms and ammo stores.
Nine raids on US targets in Afghanistan in the last month went unreported, so as not to foster an impression of lax US control in Afghanistan during the run-up to firm military action against Baghdad.
However, according to our sources, Mullah Omar, the ousted Taliban leader, is getting ready to launch a guerrilla campaign the length and breadth of Afghanistan with a view to recapturing the country. He is counting on two potential advantages:
1. He regards the period of US military action against Saddam, which he estimates will begin in mid-February 2003, as ideal for releasing his counter-offensive against the Americans. He expects the Muslim world to rally round the Taliban’s cause as a means of easing the pressure exerted by the American infidel on a Muslim brother, Iraq.
2. The rigorous Afghanistan winter will be at its worst at this time, seriously impeding American troop mobility in the harsh terrain. However, the Taliban’s indigenous Afghans, with the advantage of intimate knowledge of the land, will be able to execute lightning sorties.
Since the al Qaeda leader surfaced in a recorded message to the al Jazeera Arabic satellite TV station earlier this month, the Americans are reported by our sources as having asked Iran and Pakistan to intensify the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda hideouts. Most are known to be sheltering with the lawless militant Pakistani tribes along the Afghan border, whose leaders never broke faith with the Taliban.
Iran happy to help American terror hunt
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources point out that Iranian intelligence agents are familiar with Afghanistan topography and easily conversant in the country’s two main languages, Dari (Farsi with small variations) and Pashtou.
Tehran had good reasons for agreeing to contribute forces to the search.
First, its agents gained the license to move freely through areas closed to them hitherto either by an American military presence or the central government in Kabul.
Second, the Iranians were promised generous financial and political rewards should their assistance lead to the capture of wanted terrorists.
In any case, Shiite Iran would be glad to see the Sunni fundamentalist Mullah Omar and the Wahhabist bin Laden, who challenges their own primacy over the Muslim world, obliterated.
Third, the Islamic republic of Iran is not averse to a spot of popularity in Washington and perhaps even a chance to persuade the Bush administration to drop plans for regime change in Tehran.
Consequently, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports from its military and Iranian sources, two Iranian units entered Afghanistan at the Taybad crossing on November 19 with America’s blessing. They then proceeded to Herat for preparatory conversations with the provincial governor and old Tehran ally, Ismail Khan. From there, the Iranians continued to Mazar-e-Sharif where Tehran’s influence is strong. As we write this, they are heading for Jalalabad on their way to Paktia to join the search for terrorists. Most of the hunted men are thought to be concentrated in the mountain hideouts of this province, which affords easy access to the Pakistani frontier should the hunt draw too close.
Ayman Zuwahri’s main argument for focusing on the re-conquest of Afghanistan before Saudi Arabia revolves around the presence in the country of a trusted ally and partner, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar. This ally moreover commands military strength and enjoys the support of tribal leaders who will fight with him willingly against the Americans and the shaky Karzai government in Kabul.
The Egyptian terrorist further maintains that Washington’s approaching preoccupation with Iraq, will leave the Afghan door open for a Taliban-al Qaeda victory, that will place any American gains in the Middle East in the shade and point up the transient nature of any American triumph in Iraq.
Saddam’s first choice – Saudi Arabia
A lightning advance in Saudi Arabia would be Saddam Hussein’s first preference, according to our Gulf sources. To this end, he would be prepared to place lavish financial, logistical and intelligence resources at al Qaeda’s disposal. But his ability to influence the argument going back and forth in the Islamic terror group’s top echelon is limited.
Whatever is decided by his potential allies, Saddam knows he has an option ready to hand. Should he choose to flee Iraq ahead of the American attack and accept asylum with al Qaeda deep in the deserts of Arabia, he would then be in a good position for activating his weapons of mass destruction without fear of reprisals. Those weapons would by then be concealed somewhere outside Iraq and operated from a location under al Qaeda’s control. After the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the United States targeted Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to get back at the terrorists who masterminded those attacks. Who will be targeted if Saddam lets loose his infernal devices from an unknown extraterritorial base? How will they lay hands on the self-exiled Iraqi leader if he stirs up Afghanistan-style unrest in Iraq after it is in American hands?