A Suddenly Helpful Damascus

While Syrian information minister Ahmed al Hassan made a show of innocence – “How could Syria have a spy in Guantanamo?” he asked on September 25 – his bosses in Damascus had a more down-to-earth reaction to the uncovering of a suspected nest of Syrian spies inside Camp X-Ray, the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which holds some 680 al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist suspects. Suddenly, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal, high sources at the Radwa presidential palace were on the telephone to the White House and falling over themselves with offers of help for American efforts in the Middle East – and Iraq in particular.

What are we talking about? – was the wary response from White House officials at the other end of the line.

Two main items, replied the Syrians.

  1. We can now tell you that $700 million of Saddam Hussein’s money is on deposit in banks in Damascus and Aleppo – mostly Aleppo. (Until now, Damascus flatly denied Aleppo banks were being used by the deposed Iraq president and his supporters as their main conduit for bankrolling the Iraqi guerrilla campaign against US forces.) Radwa palace was willing to go so far as to transfer Saddam’s hidden funds to Baghdad for the use of the Iraqi Governing Council – a policy about-turn of 180 degrees. It meant that Damascus was offering to be the first Arab government to recognize the American occupation of Iraq, as well as the US-appointed provisional government and the termination of the Saddam regime in Baghdad.

  2. We can let you have special security teams of Syrian special forces and military intelligence agents to operate alongside US forces in northern and central Iraq for two objectives: 1. Some of the teams would be deployed to seal the border between the two countries against the passage of Islamic guerrilla fighters into Iraq. (Until now, the Syrians pretended to use three brigades of special forces for this purpose but in reality ordered them to facilitate the transit in collaboration with the Arab tribes of the border regions – as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 126 revealed last week.). 2. The remaining special security teams would be positioned in the central Sunni Triangle and assist the American forces in their hunt for Saddam Hussein.

On the face of it, this offer is astonishingly forthcoming. No other Middle East or Muslim party has ever come forward with any such offer since the Americans launched their invasion of Iraq.

Yet, according to our sources in Washington, the White House responded to the offers tumbling out of Damascus with a curt promise of consideration and a reply in due course.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources have this to add: The Syrian approach to Washington was prompted by utter panic. A Syrian spy ring has been caught red-handed in the heart of a facility holding the most dangerous al Qaeda terrorists in American hands.

Last March and April, Damascus developed a similarly helpful attitude when Syria was caught granting asylum to hundreds of top Iraqis with their families while letting pro-Saddam fighters enter Iraq. Then, the Syrians were scared enough to turn in a few, though not all, of the fugitives to American forces and stage the captures of some of the trucks escaping with Saddam’s money to Syrian highways. The Assad regime was willing then to make a show of changed spots to ward off US military retaliation and only just made it. On April 13 and 14, US 101st Airborne Division and Delta forces were on their way to hit military targets in Syria when President George W. Bush held up a last-minute stop sign.

This time, the Syrians will have to run hard and fast to hold Washington off. In any case, a steep price will be demanded to persuade the US just to take a look at Damascus’s peace offerings.

Five key American demands will be laid on the table at once:

  1. The names of the high Syrian officials running the spy ring in the United States.

  2. A promise to arrest them and put them freely at the disposal of US investigators.

  3. It being unlikely that the Damascus sent spies to American on its own behalf, the identities of the recipients of the stolen US intelligence – Saudis, al Qaeda or other foreign intelligence bodies. Holding back any of this information will be deemed tantamount to non-cooperation.

  4. A binding Syrian commitment to put a stop to the presence of al Qaeda and other Islamic terror organizations in Damascus.

  5. Complete openness on the locations of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that Syrian military engineering units trucked from Iraq into Syria between January 10 and March 10 2003.

The Bush administration will require Bashar Assad’s cooperation on additional issues. For instance, US intelligence does not trust the $700 million figure cited by Damascus as the amount Saddam and his insiders are holding in Syrian banks. It is thought to be around double that sum.

Even complete answers from Damascus on every query will not compensate the United States for the colossal damage to its national security generated by the Guantanamo espionage affair.

To appreciate the true dimensions of the damage, it is necessary to hark back to some of the pertinent background:

Yee and al-Halabi: Outgrowths of early al Qaeda penetrations

It doesn’t take a counter-terrorism genius to grasp that the discovery of a Muslim spy ring inside the Guantanamo Bay detention center puts Washington back to square one in its shadow war against Osama bin Laden’s global terrorist network.

Senior Airman Ahmed I. al-Halaba, 24, of Detroit, Michigan, an Arabic translator at the base, has been charged with 32 criminal counts, including espionage and aiding the enemy. He is a Syrian native who moved to the United States as a teenager. Arrested on July 23, al-Halabi was later transferred to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

In addition, the military is holding army Islamic Chaplain Yousef James Yee, 35, a Chinese-American brought up as a Lutheran who converted to Islam. He was employed as a chaplain at the facility in Cuba. Arrested on September 10 on suspicion of espionage, Yee is being held at the consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, SC

Their activities may well originate in the malignant seeds planted in US intelligence by the notorious triple spy, the late Larry Wu-Tai Chin. From 1976 to 1982, this Chinese-born American intelligence officer in the CIA’s foreign information service provided Beijing and Moscow with a treasure trove of the CIA’s top secret reports on the Far East. Larry Wu-Tai also planted an intricate clandestine Chinese intelligence infrastructure in the United States. In keeping with the smoke-and-mirrors nature of counterintelligence, it was also possible for him to put together spy networks for China’s rival, Taiwan.

Caught in 1985 – four years after he retired – he was convicted a year later on 17 espionage-related charges. He committed suicide in his cell a month before he was due to be sentenced.

Since Wu-Tai died before many of his networks were uncovered, it is possible that Yousef Yee, the Imam of Guantanamo, is a second or third generation operative of the nest of moles he planted.

As if Wu-Tai’s perfidy was not enough, US intelligence was dealt another bitter blow by the infamous Aldrich Ames, a CIA turncoat who spied for the KGB for nine years before his arrest in 1994. During that time, Ames, who is now serving life imprisonment without parole, sold – for $2 million in cash and another $2 million waiting for him in a Moscow bank — the names of every US spy planted in the Soviet Union. In charge of clandestine operations around the world, he became the most dangerous mole ever to burrow into the CIA.

Ames and Chin were well acquainted and their networks cooperated in strategic and operational matters – and not just in the United States; their tentacles stretched to the Far East and Middle East, notably to Iraq and Syria. It is no coincidence that President George W. Bush has frequently spoken of the need to dismantle Baghdad’s intelligence machine in order to win the worldwide war against terrorism. Those links remain buried to this day.

Ames ran a multiple operation in the Middle East. He set up and controlled spy networks for the CIA, blew them to his KGB masters in Moscow and twice enlisted, in 1981 and 1986, an Egyptian intelligence officer, a fundamentalist Muslim called Ali A. Mohammed.

From Ali Mohammed to Yousef Yee

With Ames behind him, Mohammed was accepted by special US units tasked with fighting Muslim terrorist groups. In this capacity, the Egyptian made occasional trips during the 1980s to Afghanistan for contacts with Osama bin Laden on behalf of US intelligence. Bin Laden cooperated at the time with the American effort to fight the Soviet occupation of the country. The Russians were routed and evicted from Afghanistan in 1987. But Mohammed continued traveling to the country for his meetings with bin Laden. The Egyptian was “run” by Ames as a double agent against US interests; while the Saudi-born fundamentalist was about to begin charting his terror offensive against the United States.

In the 1990s, Bin Laden was forced by US and Saudi pressure to relocate his operations from Afghanistan to Khartoum. Mohammed helped organize this flight and establish al Qaeda’s central base in the Sudanese capital.

There, bin Laden embarked on his disastrous war of terror on the United States. To this day, no one in the US intelligence community can say for sure what precise role Ames played in this development before his arrest in 1994. In retrospect, it is clear that Bin Laden’s transfer to Sudan was the pivot for the expansion of his terrorist networks across the Middle East, Horn of Africa and East Africa.

Those networks were directly responsible for American setbacks like the 1993 “Blackhawk Down” battle in Mogadishu in which US Rangers and Delta Force commandos fell into a lethal trap set by Al Qaeda operatives fighting alongside the militia of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed.

By 1995, Bin Laden was striking out right and left. In that year, he mounted a failed attempt to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak near Addis Ababa international airport; in 1998, al Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Horrific climaxes were reached with the September 11, 2001 suicide air attacks in New York and Washington and the May 12, 2003 bombing of foreigners’ compounds in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

One of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s top experts on Al Qaeda says he is constantly surprised to see operatives allied with the Egyptian fundamentalist double agent in the 1980s and 1990s still fully functioning in terrorist operations of the last two years.

Yee, al-Halabi and the Syrian link to al Qaeda

Examination of the chronology brings another link to light: James Yousef Yee traveled to Damascus in 1995 to study with Syria’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, at a school called Abu Nur. Mohammed, then at the peak of his powers as a senior Bin Laden lieutenant, undoubtedly met Yee who spent four years in Syria. Bin Laden habitually recruits from the school’s student body and the Chinese-American would have been easy prey. After all, Mohammed must have known of his pending arrival, perhaps on a tip-off from the Ames’ network – which continued to operate from 1995 under the direction of FBI turncoat Philip Robert Hanssen or Wu-Tai’s successor-moles.

What all this adds up to is the likelihood that James Yousef Yee has been spying for nine years for the double agent networks created by Ames and Wu-Tai, who put him in touch with Al Qaeda with whom they had nurtured crossed links. Syria became one of the key hubs of these interconnections from the mid-1990s and is more important now than ever before. It was not by chance that Yee took a Syrian wife or that Senior Airman al-Halabi is of Syrian extraction and upbringing.

On Wednesday, September 24, Syrian cabinet ministers scrambled to deny any direct or indirect Syrian involvement in the Guantanamo Bay spy ring. They said it was ludicrous to suggest the CIA did not know what was going on at Camp X-Ray.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts believe the spy network may not actually be controlled from Damascus but is rather a covert branch of Al Qaeda’s terror infrastructure. As a matter of policy, the Assad regime both assists and exploits bin Laden’s agents as intelligence sources. Syrian military intelligence provides them with logistical aid, grants them a presence in Damascus and help for recruiting and training students at Muslim religious seminaries in the city for terrorist activities to be carried out – not only by Bin Laden’s own group but also by the Palestinian Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades organizations.

Typical of Syrian military intelligence modus operandi is the case of the two British Muslim terrorists, Asif Mohammed Hanif and Omar Sharif, who were sent to Tel Aviv to blow themselves up at the US embassy on April 30, 2003.

The pair rented a room in a youth hostel near their target. When they saw they stood no chance of getting explosive belts past the security cordon at the embassy, one of the suicide bombers blew himself up at an adjacent jazz club. The second attacker failed to detonate his belt and took to his heels; his body washed up on a beach several weeks later.

Like Yee, the pair had spent time at a religious seminary in Damascus. The American was recruited as a spy, the British Muslims as terrorists – both by al Qaeda and both in Syria and with Syrian connivance.

Why does Washington refuse to crack down on Damascus?

Last April, President Bush prevented a US military offensive from going forward against Syria – notwithstanding the sanctuary the Assad regime granted Saddam’s henchmen and the hiding places for his unconventional weapons in Syria and the Lebanese Beqaa Valley. Syria’s connections with the former Saddam regime and al Qaeda have surfaced again and again.

So what is holding the US president’s hand?

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources and experts report that US intelligence, especially CIA circles, has convinced him that Washington’s undercover links with Damascus are vitally important for the ongoing war against terrorism and US attempts to infiltrate Al Qaeda and procure intelligence on the group. So far, those links have yielded no rewards. Except for one case which is classified to protect field operatives, the Americans have derived no real time information on Al Qaeda or its affiliates. Even the single instance did not prove effective for saving many American lives.

US intelligence still lacks concrete information on the logistical infrastructure buried in America which placed 19 suicide-hijackers at Boston’s Logan airport on September 11, 2001 with detailed instructions on how and where to fly the planes they commandeered. US authorities remain clueless about the number of Al Qaeda sleeper and active cells on US territory.

The network uncovered at Guantanamo Bay is proof that al Qaeda’s spies are deployed in America. Bin Laden’s hard operational core has not been cracked anywhere. It can no longer be denied that while counter-terrorism agencies are in the dark about the inner workings of Al Qaeda and its plans, Bin Laden’s group has the tools for finding out what is going on inside US civilian and military intelligence and anti-terror services around the world.

How do al Qaeda’s agents operate?

The “Syrian spy ring”, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence experts note, used couriers like all Al Qaeda networks. Its operational command centers also use Internet chat rooms and email to send encrypted messages to field operatives – but only in emergencies when a short cut is needed.

Last August, the organization passed an encrypted message over the Internet for a fast warning to Mohamed Fazul, al Qaeda’s chief operations officer in East Africa, that a US-Kenyan special forces manhunt was closing in on his hideout in the Kenyan resort of Mombasa. But even in Saudi Arabia, where Al Qaeda fighters are on the run, couriers are still the preferred means of clandestine communication.

The US intelligence inquiry into the “Syrian network” is still at the outset. Still sought are the identities and locations of the network’s agents around the United States and Canada. Yee and al-Halabi are known to have been acquainted and met regularly. Investigators suspect Yee passed secret materials to al-Halabi which he handed on. The Chinese-American appears to have acted as Al Qaeda’s chief liaison with the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay – relaying messages to them when he recited prayers over the camp’s loudspeakers. He also collected messages from the prisoners in private interviews designed to reduce frictions between the inmates and their guards.

Through these two-way channels, Al Qaeda was able to regulate the prisoners’ disclosures under interrogation. In the same way, Muslim chaplains and clerics directed the admissions made by two senior al Qaeda operatives, Abu Zubaydah – who was captured and seriously wounded on March 29, 2002 in Rawalpindi – and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – who was apprehended in the same Pakistani city on March 1, 2003. Both were visited by Muslim clerics at their places of detention.

This form of covert communication explains the manifestation encountered by interrogators: All the fundamentalist prisoners trot out the same story as the first World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and his men, who were nabbed in the Philippines in 1996 after their failed attempt to bring the towers down in 1993.

From then until now, all of bin Laden’s captured operatives sing the same tune. They deny Al Qaeda has any network in the United States, claiming that each cell functions autonomously. Furthermore, most of the captives did not appear surprised to fall into American hands. They even seemed fatalistically prepared for detention, which suggests they may be willing sacrifices or decoys to preserve the cover of a new generation of field commanders.

This tactic was one of the most successful basic methods employed by the KGB’s counterintelligence arm, the First Chief Directorate, which ran the Ames and Hansen networks and liaised, along with the SVR, with Bin Laden’s people during the 1990s.

Two years after 9/11, the United States is still very short of hard intelligence on Al Qaeda, Much of the data in hand could well be misinformation planted by the terrorists.

A senior Middle East intelligence official working for years against Al Qaeda told DEBKA-NetWeekly, “First you must ask one fundamental question: How could an officer of Chinese descent and Syrian background come to be stationed at Guantanamo Bay and be granted direct access to the prisoners? Had I been told this was possible in America, I would have refused to believe it.”

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