On Thursday, May 15, heavily armed US Army forces stormed an unnamed village near Saddam Hussein’s former power base of Tikrit. They captured more than 200 prisoners. But they targeted only two of Saddam’s top guns, who too were not named. One was described as appearing ” on the top 55 list” of wanted regime officials; the other in the top 20. They were sought in a house to house search. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources believe it probable that one of the wanted men is Tahr Habush, former chief of Iraqi intelligence who is known to have been negotiating terms for his surrender for some time.
His capture would close the circle of a dark and intricate spy tale of betrayals, assassinations, terror and covert rivalries, whose final denouement came about in Baghdad, May 2003.
* * *
By the time the British joined the American-led invasion of Iraq, their arch enemy, the master terrorist Sabri al-Bana, aka Abu Nidal, self-styled “Father of the Struggle”, had been dead for some months. He was murdered in his Baghdad apartment on August 19, 2002 along with several of his top operations officers. Thus ended the brutal career of a decades-long thorn in the sides of British intelligence, a figure who had worked long and hard with Saddam Hussein’s security services to bring Britain’s undercover services into decline in a strategic region.
From 1970, Abu Nidal headed the Palestinian Fatah office in Baghdad. For the intervening 32 years until his death, he and Iraqi intelligence mustered every terrorist resource at their disposal for an all-out battle to frustrate the British secret service’s goal of establishing clandestine networks deep inside the Arab and Muslim world. This secret war occasionally came to the surface in the form of high-profile assassinations, such as the 1984 killing in Athens of Ken Whitty, the top British intelligence operative in Greece, and the murder the same year in Bombay of Percy Norris, the deputy high commissioner in India. But mostly Abu Nidal’s war was fought in the shadows, ranging across Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf – often solo but sometimes in ad hoc collaboration with Syrian, Libyan, Yemeni or Sudanese security agencies as well as Iraq.
In 1997 and 1998, Abu Nidal made Cairo his center of operations, hired by Egyptian intelligence for its offensive to destroy the terrorist cells run by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the main operations arm of Al Qaeda in Egypt, Albania, Kosovo, Chechnya and Yemen. Even then, Abu Nidal missed no opportunity of stamping on the MI5 and MI6 cells planted in the Islamic Jihad or their fundamentalist allies.
One of the iron cords binding Abu Nidal to Iraq’s security services and Saddam himself was their shared hatred for British intelligence and its machinations in the Middle East. Abu Nidal and Saddam, who met frequently, agreed for instance that British efforts to bind Yasser Arafat and fellow Palestinian figures to their chariot stymied their own drive to dominate the Palestinian national movement and must be curtailed.
The pair worked hand in glove with a third, far from silent, partner who was equally dedicated to keeping the British out of behind-the-scenes positions of influence in the Middle East: Soviet – later, Russian counterintelligence. The prime mover in this campaign was the former KGB’s First Chief Directorate which was inherited by the SVR and is still located in its old headquarters at Yasenevo on Moscow’s ring road.
For long years, Iraqi intelligence acted as Russian counterintelligence’s proxy in its undercover war against British intelligence, using Abu Nidal as its own surrogate. In the 1970s and 1980s, at Baghdad’s behest, Abu Nidal was placed at the head of Soviet Bloc shell companies headquartered in Warsaw. Under their cover, the terrorist proved to be an acute businessman, conducting a lively trade in the illegal sale of arms and ammunition to various terrorist undergrounds including the IRA, another sideswipe against the British who were locked in bitter conflict with the Irish terrorists at the time.
The historic clandestine ties between Russia and Iraq served Saddam Hussein and his to intelligence officials in good stead when the Americans invaded Iraq and they needed an escape route in a hurry…
When the plan to go to war against Iraq was mapped out last year, Abu Nidal was still alive and living in Baghdad. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources can disclose exclusively that the heads of MI5 and MI6 believed the run-up to the offensive offered the perfect opportunity for settling the score with Abu Nidal – permanently, that is if they could catch their slippery prey.
British undercover forces were already present inside Iraq as part of the preparations for war. To get Abu Nidal, they needed to achieve deep penetration of the Jazair residential compound in southeastern Baghdad, home to senior Iraqi intelligence officials, retirees and Saddam’s tame terrorists, including the Palestinian maverick.
The British clandestine pre-war mission provided an excellent opportunity for this side venture. British covert agents and special forces were in any case directed to go into Baghdad and evaluate the feasibility of killing or capturing Saddam or members of his inner circle, meanwhile gathering data on potential targets and Iraqi troop movements.
However, British prime minister Tony Blair saw the potential of this expedition for more ambitious rewards. He had thrown himself into the Iraq war enterprise, trusting that collaboration with the Americans in Iraq would boost their military ties, as well as restoring British intelligence to the pride of place it enjoyed in the Middle East before and during the Cold War. At some point in 2002, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal, he directed British secret service chiefs to prepare an elaborate “sting”.
Its purpose was to prove to Washington that British agents were second to none in their ability to get close to top Iraqi leaders, penetrate Baghdad’s intelligence centers and even plant eyes and ears inside Saddam’s closest ally, Russian counterintelligence. Moreover, if the British could set up Abu Nidal for a fall, the Americans might be convinced Saddam could likewise be disposed of covertly and so obviate the need for war.
The “sting” worked like this: British agents planted clues and scraps of information with secret service contacts in the Gulf who could be counted on to pass them on to Iraqi intelligence. The mass of innuendo suggested that Abu Nidal and his cronies had sold Saddam Hussein out to US intelligence for a multi-million dollar reward. He was said to have passed on to Washington insider intelligence on Saddam’s hideouts and family intrigues, as well as Iraqi troop movements and war preparations. The British, knowing that gossipy insinuations would not suffice to convince the Iraqis of Abu Nidal’s treachery, went on to fabricate an accumulation of “intelligence evidence”, feeding it out so that each portion confirmed the previous fragment and built up a solid picture of the terrorist’s deepening ties with the Americans and mounting menace to Saddam in person. The data had to be convincing. Even a tyrant like Saddam would not lightly order the liquidation of a useful tool like Abu Nidal in the heart of the Iraqi capital.
On August 19, 2002, the first reports filtered out of Baghdad that unknown assassins had shot dead Abu Nidal and two of his operational chiefs after breaking into their apartment.
That was not the end of the episode for the British, but only the first chapter – and a highly embarrassing one at that. Abu Nidal was dead but their “sting” had backfired. This they realized
two days later, when Iraqi intelligence chief Tahr Habush (see photo) invited foreign correspondents to a rare news conference.
As cameras flashed, he held up pictures of Abu Nidal’s body to prove his claim that the terrorist had died by his own hand. Habush insisted that Abu Nidal had lived in Baghdad without the knowledge of Iraqi intelligence. When his presence was discovered in mid August, a team of Iraqi security men was sent to check out the apartment where he was said to reside. The Palestinian terrorist, realizing the game was up, stuck a pistol in his mouth and fired. The photograph Habush displayed as proof of this tall story was said to have been taken in the apartment directly after the “suicide”. In fact, it proved nothing as the bodies were impossible to identify.
So what was the point of the demonstration?
Saddam’s motive was to let Washington know what is in store for any would-be assassins sent to kill him.
But the inference for Washington was quite different. The Americans were shocked. They had not realized the British had taken their “sting” operation so far or so fast. Some senior intelligence sources told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that Washington had not been fully informed that the faked evidence against Abu Nidal passed to Saddam had implicated the United States in the terrorist chief’s drummed up conspiracy. This was not the impression of American intelligence US President George W. Bush sought to present on the eve of going to war – not even to Saddam. While acclaiming the British spy service’s professional virtuosity in bringing off Abu Nidal’s demise, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington report that not all Bush’s war planners were delighted with its outcome and many still fault the British initiative. The shock waves hitting the top Iraqi leadership and its security establishment were intense enough to force American and British undercover and special forces to hold up operations for several weeks and led to the unscheduled retardation of war preparations.
But the convolutions of the tale were still not over. After US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq and American troops entered Baghdad, American intelligence began to sweep Iraqi intelligence headquarters. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, one of the files they found in Habush’s now vacant office held yet another surprise. The frame British intelligence built to incriminate Abu Nidal had not after all persuaded Saddam to liquidate the semi-retired Palestinian terrorist. Another, stronger determinant was now revealed.
In early August 2002, two weeks before Abu Nidal’s death, president Vladimir Putin dispatched to Baghdad a Russian general, one of Saddam’s closest confidants, bearing strong evidence that Abu Nidal was in secret collusion with the Americans to stab him in the back. The evidence presented made no mention of the British case against him. But the Russians – not British intelligence – were the more convincing and ultimately swung Saddam round to believing that Abu Nidal was double-crossing him.
It is not entirely clear why Moscow was so keen to be rid of Abu Nidal as to hitch a ride on the British sting and give it a final push. Perhaps the Palestinian terrorist having performed many covert services for Moscow held too many secrets about the clandestine terrorist links of Russian intelligence to be allowed to fall alive into the hands of the Americans, as did Saddam’s Palestinian stooge, Abu Abbas. For by August, when it launched its own sting, Moscow knew that the US invasion of Iraq was not far off.
Or perhaps, the Russian leader wanted to exacerbate Saddam’s paranoia, focusing it on an enemy within allegedly planted by the Americans.
The answer to this mystery was not found in Habush’s filing cabinets. The man himself – if he was indeed captured Thursday – may yield the missing information under interrogation. However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources, a confidential investigation was quickly launched in Washington to determine how Russian intelligence got wind of British intelligence’s top secret plans and what use was eventually made of them.