All may not be well for Adib Shaaban, senior aide to Saddam’s powerful son Uday and Iraq’s highest-ranking would-be defector. It looks like his attempt to flee to the United States, first revealed exclusively in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 97 (February 14), never came off.
First a recap: DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reported, in information later confirmed by DEBKAfile‘s insiders, that Shaaban — charged with Uday’s most sensitive missions — traveled to Jeddah early last week, saying he needed to put through some gold transactions ahead of the war.
From Jeddah, he flew to Beirut and disappeared.
But he never really went to the Lebanese capital. Instead, he made his way undercover to Damascus Monday and was picked up by an unmarked plane that flew him out of the Middle East.
At least, that’s how Shaaban scripted his plan. But like so many things in the murky world of intelligence, the plan went awry – as is strongly indicated by the fresh information reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly.
Simply put, he never made it.
Our sources conclude that upon landing at Damascus on Saturday, February 8, he walked straight into the arms of waiting Syrian military intelligence officers who took him to their isolated headquarters in the capital. He is probably still there under heavy guard, as Syrian leader Bashar Assad fights off conflicting demands from the White House and Saddam Hussein’s presidential office for his handover.
Further discoveries by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources of the defector’s secret duties on behalf of the Iraqi regime only enhance is value for Washington and explain Saddam’s anxiety to keep him and the secrets in his head out of his enemies’ hands.
Shaaban was the senior go-between for Baghdad’s business with Damascus.
He was also privy to the clandestine movements of al Qaeda operatives from Iraq to Lebanon via Syrian sea and air ports.
His hand was on the contraband route along which smuggled Iraqi oil reached world markets through Syria’s Mediterranean terminals.
Saddam and Assad share a stake in keeping all this information under wraps. The last thing the Syrian president can afford is for the United States or any other Western country to uncover the full extent of Syria’s operational support for al Qaeda or the degree to which Assad violated UN sanctions against Iraq.
Shaaban may be presumed to have been lost the moment his feet touched Syrian soil.
For the time being, Assad is holding this high card close – handing him over neither to America nor Iraq. He is biding his time until he sees how the first round of the US military offensive against Iraq turns out. If Saddam, his sons and army weather the American assault, Shaaban’s value will rocket, an ace in the hands of the Syrian president for sale to the highest bidder, Washington or Baghdad.
His potential value as a rich asset may explain the defector’s appearance, one last time, on Saturday, February 15, in Damascus, just 36 hours after his defection was revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly. Speaking to a small group of journalists, Shaaban said: “I am one of Saddam’s soldiers and allegations about my defection are totally false and reflect the disillusionment of those who oppose Iraq’s victorious march. I blame the Iraqi opposition for fabricating the tale of my disappearance and defection to a Western embassy in Beirut while I was still in Baghdad.”
On the other hand, our sources do not dismiss the possibility that Shaaban met a crueler fate than that of a bargaining chip. His summary execution may have been ordered by Assad
to make sure he never spills the beans on the Syrian president’s dealings with the Saddam regime – or else he may have been shipped back to Baghdad to face a firing squad.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources interpret Shaaban’s last words to reporters in Damascus – blaming “the Iraqi opposition for fabricating the story” of his disappearance and defection in Beirut “while I was still in Baghdad” – as betraying obliquely that someone in the Iraqi capital got wind of his plan to defect and sold him out to Uday while he was still making his way to Damascus.
For Shaaban’s route is likewise still unclear. His last remarks suggest he did indeed travel from Baghdad to Jeddah, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported. However, the Saudis must have decided that this potato was too hot for them to hold and hustled him aboard the first flight out, which was bound for Damascus. Alternatively, the defector may have flown directly to Damascus – a kosher destination given his job as go-between – intending to continue from there in secret to Jeddah, where he would have knocked on the door of a US consulate or made his way to the West under his own steam.
Either way, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources say, the chances of Shaaban making it to the West have plummeted to zero. Saddam was too quick for him – and Assad faster than both.