On the face of it, the truck bomb attack that tore the facade off the Canal Hotel housing UN Headquarters in Baghdad and murdered the world body’s special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, on Tuesday, August 19, was a repeat performance of the blast that struck the Jordanian embassy in the Iraqi capital on August 7.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources discern a different method in the most devastating attack every suffered by a United Nations facility. They attribute this latest outrage to a Chechen squad they report reached Fallujah via Syria last month.
(Last week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 121 revealed the arrival of Chechens in Iraq.)
For years, Chechen Islamic separatists have honed their special skill in rigging powerful truck-bombs on Russian forces. On Tuesday, they displayed their expertise for the first time in Iraq. A suicide driver hurtled a truck packed with 680 kg. of explosives, shells, rockets and grenades of old Soviet manufacture into the UN building, as they have done often against Russian military targets in their embattled home province.
In the attack on the Jordanian embassy, presumed to have been staged by Ansar al-Islam, the minivan bomb was blown up in the street outside the building where it had been parked all night. It was not detonated by a suicide bomber but by remote control.
While the two groups are virtual arms of al Qaeda, our sources in Baghdad have not found solid evidence of any operational alliance between the Chechen arrivals and the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group.. Both appear to have planted operational teams in the Iraqi capital and it is very possible that they are working together at senior command level.
The Chechens are commanded by Saudi al Qaeda operatives. In our last issue, we named the top commander as Abu al-Walid, a Saudi national.
Ansar al-Islam, on the other hand operates out of headquarters based in Iran since US missiles smashed their central base in Bayara during the Iraq war.
The fact that the two terror groups hail from different places and are controlled by different sponsors indicates to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror experts the convergence of diverse terrorist entities with local guerrillas for a concerted campaign of violence against what US officials call “soft targets,” such as UN headquarters in Baghdad and embassies, power plants, water mains and oil pipelines. Guerrilla tacticians and their terrorist helpers perceive these targets as strategic goals.
By their massive attack on the Canal Hotel, the bombers achieved three objectives, as defined by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources::
They killed UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s personal representative in Iraq.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was a quality target for Saudi al Qaeda chiefs and Chechens because of his close friendship and collaboration with Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq. For them, too, UN headquarters in Baghdad is nothing but a key arm of the American civil administration and its intelligence capabilities in Iraq.
The truck bomb’s suicidal driver knew his target. He drove straight into the lobby of the former hotel making for the space housing UN offices. He detonated 680kg of explosives and munitions with great precision underneath the wing holding De Mello’s office suite. Investigators report the actual blast occurred no more than 50 feet from his office. This sort of operation the Chechens have carried out repeatedly in Grozny.
They delivered a strong warning to Bremer.
The message was clear: We got de Mello and we can reach you too. It was the enemy’s mark of defiance to recent US claims that they were closing in on Saddam Hussein and he would suffer the same fate as his sons, Uday and Qusay, who were killed by American troops.
Coalition security’s first reflex action after the UN headquarters blast was, according DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, to double the protection surrounding Bremer and other top U.S. and British officials in Baghdad.
They put a stop to the joint US-UN effort in Iraq.
Last month, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and UN secretary Annan secretly agreed to expand the world body’s role in Iraq’s reconstruction.
The opposite impression was quite deliberately fabricated to mislead Saddam loyalists and foreign allies by means of public suggestions that US President George W. Bush had lost interest in carving out a role for the United Nations in Iraq’s post-war recovery program. The Rice-Annan understanding was put to immediate use; it was instrumental in producing the UN Security Council resolution passed last weekend that conferred recognition on the interim Iraqi governing council of American appointees.
Many observers of the Baghdad truck bombing were reminded of the terrorist strikes in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, after US intervention in 1993. Back then, Al Qaeda also attempted to sabotage US-UN military cooperation in the Horn of Africa by targeting UN peacekeepers — mainly Pakistanis and Italians – as well US forces under their separate command structure.
They ultimately succeeded in forcing an exodus of foreign forces from Somalia in 1994.
Most worrying in light of the Baghdad bombing is how Al Qaeda or Iraqi guerrillas found out about the secret contacts between the White House and the U.N. secretariat. Al Qaeda and the pro-Saddam Iraqi elements seem to have developed an inside track to the most sensitive top-secret information current at UN headquarters in New York – just as anti-US forces did at the time of the Somali conflict.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, that kind of access was necessary to target and time the bombing exactly when de Mello was in his office meeting UN staffers, and when a news conference was underway in another wing of the building. The cameras present guaranteed powerful footage of the instant of the bombing and resulting mayhem, with the strongest possible impact on world audiences.
This intelligence groundwork was carried out before the Chechens were sent into action.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources describe the Chechens as the foot soldiers of a larger consortium headed by Saudi, Iraqi and Syrian Islamists. They have obtained some fresh details on how this arcane collective operates from its bases in the Sunni Iron Triangle of central Iraq.
The Chechens fighters take their orders from a Saudi Wahhabi Saudi extremist elite called Jamaa al-Salfiyeh.
This group’s central article of faith is an utter belief that nothing less than suicidal combat will be effective enough to end what they regard as the sufferings of the faithful in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya – and now Iraq. The willingness of their adherents to make the ultimate sacrifice will guarantee the victory of Islam over American imperialism.
The campaign Jamaa al-Salfiyeh has mounted in Iraq in the last two weeks targets any party viewed as being out to rob Iraqis of its natural resources, oil and water, i.e. the Americans and their allies.
The high command of this group is Saudi; most of its fighting strength, Syrian Sunni Muslims, drawn mainly from the Arab tribes who roam both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The third largest contingent is the 200 or so Chechens, whose numbers are being boosted all the time by a trickle of comrades arriving daily at Iraq guerrilla bases in the Sunni Triangle which are beginning to spill over into western Iraq.
Some 150 to 200 members of Saddam’s former Baath party have also thrown in their lot with the Saudi Jamaa al-Salfiyeh extremists, augmented by a small but steady stream of foreign fighters – Palestinians, Egyptians, Sudanese and Yemenis – who have been organized in small squads of three to five men. This group, Muhammed's Army, claimed Thursday to have carried out the UN HQ bombing.
The Bush administration would much prefer to keep the Chechen involvement in Iraq under wraps because of its Saudi connotations. Washington is anxious to avoid further frictions with the Saudi royal family. US diplomats would also rather not provide Russian president Vladimir Putin with ammunition for fending off pressing demands from the US and European governments about respecting human rights in the rebellious province and engaging the insurgents in negotiations to end the nine-year old dispute.
Putin consistently counters these demands with his own charges. He accuses Saudi general intelligence elements of pumping young Saudi fighters and guerrilla experts into Chechnya, via the Balkans, thereby feeding the flames of Chechen insurgency. He also claims that Saudi charities are funding cross-border transfers of men and money and paying for weapons purchases used for Chechen terrorist attacks in the province and in Russia. Putin has said all this to Bush, citing input from Russia’s SVR intelligence agency, but failed to draw any response.
Most recently, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources say, aides in Putin’s office offered visiting US emissaries in Moscow the outline of a deal for presenting to the two leaders when they meet in the United States at the end of September. In return for a change of US policy on Chechnya, the Russians would provide detailed evidence of the Chechen role in Iraq — including the fighters’ undercover routes to the country, such as transit through Syria.
Putin’s bureau is waiting for an answer from Washington.