The scary action features bursting over American, British and Israeli cityscapes this week may be here to stay for a while. Following pressing terror alerts, American F-15 and F-16 jets took to the skies of Washington and New York, Israeli warplanes circled around the clock over Tel Aviv and the country’s slender coastal plain, RAF Tornadoes hovered over London, Stinger missile batteries went up to protect US centers of government in Washington DC and tanks greeted shocked travelers at London’s vast Heathrow airport.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military experts predict that all these symptoms of appalling, unknowable perils will be standard until the campaign against Iraq is over and done and Saddam gone for good. Official spokesmen defined the threat simplistically as emanating from Osama bin Laden’s terrorists, 17 months after suicide attackers struck New York and Washington. That is only part of the truth. It does not explain why the once safe civilian populations of the Western homelands are edging towards becoming the front line, for the first time in the past century, of an armed conflict.
The reason lies in Baghdad – but not from classical means of warfare. Saddam Hussein’s missiles are deployed 6009 miles from New York, 2,549 miles from London, and his surface missiles only 559 miles from Tel Aviv. However, those missiles, even as carriers of chemical and biological warheads, were not the immediate cue for the high alert declared by most of the free world this week – or even North Korea’s rockets, which CIA Director George Tenet revealed could reach America’s West Coast. The greatest peril was perceived as coming from human missiles: suicide-killers. They pose a greater hazard than even military projectiles, because they are the willing carriers of radiological weapons as well as chemical and biological poisons and prepared to die in their use.
Al Qaeda has no monopoly over these human bombs.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer pointed Wednesday to the “unholy partnership” between Al Qaeda and Iraq, echoing the argument made by Secretary of State Colin Powell. He went on to speak of a “nightmare” link between the two. He did not spell out the full extent of this nightmare, the multiple terrorist brigades marshaled by Saddam Hussein, of which the al Qaeda is but one element, for an attempt to terrorize America and its allies.
The nightmare brigade
One of the decisive prompters of the current terror alert was Saddam’s enlistment of a lesser known but extremely violent surrogate force, this one new to the international terror scene: the highly-trained 15,000-strong special units of the armed Iranian opposition, the Mujahideen al-Khalq, or MKO. This name is unfamiliar in the West, which makes it hard for US President George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair to lay the threat on the line for public consumption.
In a word, the Mujahideen al-Khalq, largely recruited from expatriate Iranian communities in the West, has been fighting Iran’s Khomeinist regime since the early 1980s, often staging spectacularly bloody attacks against government and military targets. In the last 15 years, it has fought from bases in Iraq, taken over, funded and trained by Iraqi military intelligence for bold commando actions behind Iranian lines and kamikaze operations. Structured as a military force, with organized camps, military units and commanders, its chief is a woman, Maryam Rajavi, the wife of MKO founder Massoud Rajavi. In the 1990s, she was banned from Britain and Germany and evicted from France because of the “large terrorist faction” in their movement.
Faced with an American invasion, Saddam has called the Mujahideen al-Khalq into his service – both in Iraq (See separate article in this issue) and as a depth charge for the international terror stage. The Iranian group was no more than a faint blip on the recent screens of Western intelligence, whose combined resources are invested largely in pre-empting terror attacks by al Qaeda. Its suicide operatives are therefore free to strike from deep shadows in America, Europe and the Middle East. (As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported in its last issue No. 96)
Another quasi-military terror group that Saddam has pressed into service is the super-secret 999 Special Units.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue 83 published a rundown of this lethal force on November 1, 2002, since when the Iraqis have introduced some adaptations).
In 1996, the “American Battalion” was added to the six already in operation. It was specifically designed for attacks on strategic installations inside the United States and Canada.
All 999 unit members are trained in the use of weapons of mass destruction and suicide tactics, taught how to hijack aircraft, strike at public transport and assassinate VIPs.
Each of the battalions numbers 300 commandos. The Arabian Battalion is trained for the sabotage of oil fields and installations in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states; the Palestinian Battalion, for terrorist operations in Israel; the Persian Battalion, for sabotage and murder in Iran, the Turkish Battalion for strikes against Turkish and American targets in southern and central Turkey; the Naval Commando Battalion is given similar training to that of the American Navy SEALS and designed for action in America and Great Britain.
All members of the 999 units are given cover identities and are fluent in the language and dialects of their target countries.
Is Iraq’s WMD cache in Lebanon available to Al Qaeda?
Three other key elements of Saddam’s terrorist army are al Qaeda, the fanatical Algerian Islamic Group – the GIA and the Palestinians, with whose leader Yasser Arafat, Iraqi military intelligence has a standing collaboration deal.
In his presentation to the UN Security Council on February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to senior al Qaeda commander Abu Musaab Al Zarqawi as the network’s contact man with Iraqi military intelligence. Some voices in the West, especially in Germany, immediately questioned this assertion.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources have identified Zarqawi as the al Qaeda officer in charge of moving terror operatives around the world and, as the network’s armourer, procuring their weapons – conventional and unconventional. He is also senior regional operations officer for Europe and the Middle East.
No one knows exactly where al Qaeda hides its weapons stores. Some speculate they are cached in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But, in the last two weeks, the military sources of DEBKA-Net-Weekly and DEBKAfile discovered that Iraq staged a major removal of its forbidden weapons systems, sending them overland by truck to Lebanon via Syria. Believed to be secreted in the Beqaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, these weapons are guarded by an hodgepodge of custodians, Syrian military intelligence units, Hizballah security operatives and the armed Lebanese militias who work for Lebanon’s drug barons.
Zarqawi is a regular visit to Damascus, whence he usually travels onward to destinations in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, 150 al Qaeda terrorists of the “Ansar Brigade” – members of the north Iraqi radical Kurdish Ansar al Islam, which is hand in glove with Iraqi military intelligence as well as al Qaeda – are known to be based in the south Lebanese port town of Sidon.
With both the manpower and the WMD stores available in Lebanon – and no more than 250 km apart – it is hard to believe that Zarqawi has not been given access to the hidden Iraqi stocks.
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported in the past, al Qaeda is structured according to similar regional battalion lines as the Iraqi 999 Special Units, calling them “mantiqas” – meaning regions, instead of battalions. Osama bin Laden’s organization has set up “mantiqas” for North America, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and Afghanistan-Pakistan. The “mantiqas” are subdivided into districts – five for Southeast Asia, but only one for the whole of Australia. The Arabian “mantiqa” covers the “Ansar Brigade” in Lebanon.
Zirqawi, in addition to his other tasks, acts as liaison officer between al Qaeda’s five “mantiqas” and Iraq’s 999 battalions.
This labyrinthine edifice brings together the organs of Iraqi and al Qaeda terror and places them within easy reach of Iraq’s hidden weapons of mass destruction – all under the auspices of Syrian President Bashar Assad, without whose willing aid they could not interlock.
No intelligence service on earth can produce incontrovertible proof that members of Iraq’s 999 Special Units have gone into Lebanon to pick up illegal weapons systems, or that Zarqawi’s men have accessed Saddam’s Lebanese cache and distributed weaponized chemical or biological agents to operational cells in other parts of the world. But the circumstantial data is strong and demands fast action; the fact that these weapons and their potential for the next stage of world history are under the protection of the paramilitary minders of drug gangs must raise a shudder.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources reveal here that, while the public is transfixed by the alarming anti-terror measures taken in the main cities of the United States, Britain and Israel, the undercover and special forces of all three countries are desperately hunting for Saddam’s forbidden weapons cache in Lebanon, while attempting to monitor attempts to smuggle them out to overseas terrorist cells.
On Friday, February 14, Dr. Hans Blix and Muhamed ElBaradai are due to submit their final report to the UN Security Council, winding up their arms inspection mission in Iraq. That report cannot be expected to reveal the presence of Iraq’s smuggled unconventional weapons store in Lebanon or Baghdad’s close ties with al Qaeda through Zarqawi.
The United States and Britain will declare Iraq in material breach of Security Council Resolution 1441. France or Russia will veto any motion authorizing military action against Iraq and demand a vote to extend the UN arms inspection mission. The United States will veto the European motion in its turn and the United Nations Security Council will break up without resolving anything, a deadlock that can only act as a road sign to its irrelevance.
Unless President Bush backs down at the last minute, he may be expected to issue the order for the American army to advance on Iraq. The war could therefore be a matter of days away. Only when the offensive begins, will it be possible to know whether the CIA, the Mossad and MI6 were able to lay hands on Saddam’s terror squads, the Mujahideen al-Khalq commandos, the 999 Special Units, al Qaeda’s terrorists and the spider at the heart of the web, Zarqawi, so as keep the cities of America, Britain and Israel safe from the most savage excesses of terror.