An unforeseen side-effect of the Breslen siege crisis has been the first sign of a fracture – which may prove transient – in the solid European front against the Bush administration’s international policies, formed originally by German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French president Jacques Chirac, Russian president Vladimir Putin, certain West European intelligence factions and some leaders of finance and political groupings in the European Union.
This front gelled in 2002 ahead of the US invasion of Iraq. Its prime objective two years on is to defeat George W. Bush‘s bid for reelection.
But the first to taste defeat was not Bush but his European-led opponents who suffered a resounding, albeit incidental, setback last week in a remote corner of the Northern Caucasus, unbeknownst to the key players on the scene.
The chronology of events starting in August is instructive.
On August 20, two senior French journalists, Christian Chesnot of Radio France and Georges Malbunot of Le Figaro were seized in Iraq on their way to the Najef battlefront then at its peak.
As a safety measure, the two correspondents, or – according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources – French intelligence, which operates independently of American agencies in Iraq, hired a Syrian driver for the pair, who was familiar to Iraqi Baathist insurgents, Moqtada Sadr‘s militiamen and al Qaeda operatives in Iraq, as one of their contact men with Damascus.
To be absolutely sure, the driver was recommended by Syrian military intelligence.
Despite these precautions, a group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq seized the two Frenchmen.
The place where the kidnap took place, Latafiyeh southwest of Baghdad, and the way it was handled indicated that their captors had been tipped off to the movements of their victims.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the Islamic Army of Iraq consists of al Qaeda members who do not belong to Mussab al-Zarqawi‘s groups but defer to two Saudi al Qaeda commanders based in Chechnya, Abu Hafs and Abu Hajr.
Other intelligence sources believe the hostage takers obey orders from the al Qaeda command HQs based in the Iranian-Afghan frontier region.
The French were initially secure in their conviction that procuring the two Frenchmen’s release would pose no difficulty, given Paris’s favorable policies towards the Muslim world. Chirac and his intelligence chiefs took it for granted that a couple of phone calls from the French president to his Middle East pals would suffice to bring the hostage-takers to heel and free the two journalists.
The Iraqi hostage-takers' demand to lift the French ban on Muslim headscarves in schools – or else the hostages’ lives would be forfeit – was seen as absurdly disproportionate and therefore not taken seriously.
But, as the crisis wore on, Chirac began to realize that the whole point of the impossible demand was to close off any line of retreat to the abductors and so create a standoff.
A ghostly chain of command
According to the information reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, after Chirac phoned all his friends in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Persian Gulf emirates, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, local intelligence agencies and Muslim clerics were instructed to make contact with the elements behind the hostage takers. The result was a blank wall. The kidnappers were willing to let the French journalists go free, provided they received instructions from their superiors. When Chirac asked his interlocutors what they were waiting for, he was surprised to hear that those superiors were unreachable. They could only be contacted in emergencies through the Internet chat-rooms used by al Qaeda.
A few days later, the kidnappers were persuaded to post electronic messages. No answer came back. The eavesdropping devices French intelligence planted at strategic points around the world picked up no signs of a response from al Qaeda. The kidnappers were unrelenting. “Without word from al Qaeda, forget about releasing the journalists.”
On August 25, suicide bombers crashed two Russian airliners taking off minutes apart from Moscow – one bound for the Black Sea resort of Sochi where Putin was vacationing, the second for Volgagrad. None of the 89 aboard survived. The explosions aboard were perfectly synchronized, the first indication of a professionally organized terrorist attack. The second was the traces of explosives found in both the wreckages.
Paris watched in dismay. The spreading scale of these terrorist attacks reduced the chances of the French journalists going free.
Chirac decided to shoot in all directions.
He sent foreign minister Michel Barnier out to the Middle East to set up a situation room in the French embassy in Amman and from there to dig out every intelligence asset he could reach in the Arab and Muslim world. When he realized that Barnier was getting nowhere, Chirac himself emplaned for Moscow to see Putin and Schroeder who was on a visit.
In Amman, there was no stone the French minister left unturned – from Circassian families living in Amman as the traditional guards of the Hashemite throne, through their kin in Chechnya and the Russian Caucasian, to Lebanese Hizballah leaders, through their combat and intelligence infrastructure in Iraq.
They all listened politely but declined to lift a finger to help.
European intelligence blind on al Qaeda and Iraq
Chirac ran into the same response when he asked Putin and Schroeder in Moscow to activate their intelligence contacts in Arab and Muslim countries to save the French hostages.
His timing was unfortunate.
While he was shooting his line, two Palestinian suicides detonated their bomb belts aboard two buses crowded with passengers in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba. Many of the 16 killed and 100 injured were new immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia. The Russian foreign ministry was quick to condemn the attack.
Then, when the French president had all but given up, a women suicide bomber blew herself up outside a subway station in Moscow, killing 10 and injuring 50.
Clearly, this was no time to ask for intercession with al Qaeda in Iraq from a Russian leader who stood helpless against an al Qaeda-Chechen terror offensive in his own capital.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter- terror sources report that the Putin-Chirac-Schroeder encounter exposed an even graver reality. All three were groping in the dark. There was hardly any light coming from Russian, French and German intelligence services on what was going on in the al Qaeda networks, the foreign Arab fighting forces in Iraq and the Iraqi Baath insurgents. All three are running blind.
They are no better placed with regard to the Islamist terror rings operating in the Balkans and the cells planted in Central and West Europe. Most of the data on file with these intelligence services is updated to early 2002 at best, and often dates back to before the 9/11 attacks in America.
As for the information on Iraq, all three European agencies have not been able to update much beyond the Saddam Hussein regime period up until March 2003.
There is no doubt that Bush and his administration have a strong intelligence edge over the three Europeans in war on terror
On September 5, a large US force stormed the Iraqi town of Latafiya south of Baghdad, known as “Hostage City,” where the French journalists were snatched. They searched for leads to the whereabouts of the kidnapped journalists, tried to locate people who knew the kidnappers or abetted them and, above all, sought to smash the Iraqi and al Qaeda guerrilla hostage-taking rings terrorizing central and southern Iraq. The troops rounded up 500 suspects and handed them over for identification and questioning.
But any leads to the missing Frenchmen had gone cold.
This was Bush’s roundabout way of informing his French opposite number that if he wants real information on the missing journalists, there is only one place to find it.