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General Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence – best known of late for his ceasefire efforts with Palestinian terrorist factions – arrived secretly in Tehran last Tuesday, July 22. There, he joined a group of his officers who have been cooling their heels in the Iranian capital since early July. (See earlier article: Tehran Plays Hide and Seek over al Qaeda Fugitives.)
According to debkafile‘s counter-terror sources, the Egyptian intelligence chief hopes to fulfill a long-cherished ambition: to lay hands on his most wanted quarry – Showqi al-Istambuli. This Egyptian Jihad Islami-al-Qaeda terrorist may not be the most notorious Islamic network fugitive held in Iran, or as celebrated a catch as al Qaeda commander Saif al-Adal, but he is the one the Egyptians want most.
Eight years ago, on June 22 1995, Suleiman was sitting beside Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak when, on their way from Addis Ababa international airport to an African summit in the town, when their armor-plated limousine came under deadly waves of fire from rocket-propelled grenades, armor-piercing machine-guns bullets and explosives. Many presidential bodyguards were killed or injured in escort vehicles. Mubarak and Suleiman were saved by the quick wits of the presidential chauffeur, who twisted the damaged limousine round and raced back to the airport where their plane, waiting with running engines, took off without delay.
The would-be assassins were a gang of fanatical Egyptian Jihad Islami and al Qaeda members led by Showqi al-Istambuli, who also happened to be the brother of President Anwar Sadat’s killer, Khalid al-Istambuli. Once in Egyptian hands, the only question is what form al-Istanbuli’s execution will take after his interrogation. In 1995, an Egyptian court sentenced him to death in absentia. In Tehran, the Egyptian intelligence chief also hopes to obtain custody of the man who gave al-Istambuli his assassination assignment, Dr. Ayman Zuwahiri, head of the Egyptian Jihad Islami and senior lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. However, there is no certainty that he is in Iran, only unconfirmed rumors.
Suleiman’s methods of interrogation are notorious in Egypt. A Western source familiar with those methods told debkafile: “Suleiman’s agents periodically round up regime opponents or religious extremists – naturally without arrest warrants – and subject them to the most brutal methods of interrogation before throwing them into jail for long periods, often years. In the end they are given three options. If they fail to cooperate, they will never again see the light of day. If they confess to wrongdoing and promise to mend their ways, they may be freed one day. Condemned prisoners are dumped on the Western desert without food or water and perish from the heat or thirst within a few days.”
In the eight years since the failed assassination attack, Omar Suleim has battled Islamic terrorists with gusto and inventiveness, according to debkafile‘s Middle East intelligence sources.
During the second half of the 1990s, his agency willingly aided American clandestine operations against al Qaeda and their extremist Muslim allies and branches in Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Yemen and even Chechnya. His was the brainwave to hire a Palestinian terrorist to fight Islamic extremist terror. Abu Nidal, then in Libya with his group, was imported to Egypt and instructed to penetrate al Qaeda Middle East and Persian Gulf cells and sabotage them from within. The device worked for a time then petered out. Abu Nidal was discovered later to have sold out to two parties, Saudis linked to al Qaeda and Iraqi military intelligence. The latter eventually granted him asylum in Baghdad where he died in a hail of bullets two years ago.
The depth of the Suleiman’s network’s penetration of the Islamic terrorist sub-world was acknowledged by President Mubarak in an interview to the New York Times on June 6, 2002 “Egyptian security services,” he claimed, “had warned the USA about an impending terrorist attack by Osama bin Laden-al Qaeda network one week before the attacks on September 11… after a member of the Egyptian security forces who has close contacts inside al Qaeda found out that a serious attack was being planned…” President Mubarak said, “All information was given to the Americans, but to no avail.”
Implacable animosity towards Islamic terrorists marks chapter one of General Suleiman’s career. Chapter two is glaringly inconsistent.
Beginning last year, Cairo has become the Mecca of Palestinian extremist terrorists from all corners of the Arab world. Plunging into the task of brokering an internal ceasefire in the Palestinian movement, Suleiman extended a warm welcome to the heads of the radical Hamas, Jihad Islami, Arabic Liberation Front and the Popular Front-General Command, from the Palestinian areas, Syria, Lebanon – and even top-notch terror masters like Khaled Mashal, Mussa Abu Marzuk, Ramadan Shalah from Damascus and Abul Abbas from Baghdad. Senior Egyptian intelligence officers spend time in the Gaza Strip and are photographed warmly embracing two men who have dedicated their lives to terrorist violence, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Aziz Rantisi of Hamas.
In the last week or two, Egypt has become the loudest champion of the demand to free Hamas and Jihad Islami terrorists from Israeli jails, including convicted killers.
In the wake of questions raised in US government circles by this radical change of posture, debkafile‘s Washington sources reveal that a group of CIA and Pentagon officials together with think tank analysts put their heads together and came up with a new paper. Our sources have discovered the paper’s five main conclusions to be:
1. Arafat’s regime is drawing to a close.
2. The Abu-Mazen-Dahlan regime will be short-lived and transitional.
3. The rising Palestinian forces are the Hamas and other extremist groups, notably Arafat’s Fatah and its suicide arm, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. No Palestinian authority seriously proposes disarming any of these groups or breaking up their military structures.
4. Egypt believes that its influence over the Palestinian leadership depends on its acceptance by these groups as a broker biased in their favor between Palestinians, Americans and the Israelis.
5. To keep in with Palestinian extremists, Egypt has decided to secretly keep their illicit arms and money supply lines running.
This is the rationale offered in the Washington paper for General Suleiman’s heavy expenditure of time and effort in pulling the Palestinian groups into a common “hudna” – not for the sake of staunching Palestinian-Israeli bloodletting, but to re-establish Egyptian influence in the Fatah hierarchy of the West Bank and the top Hamas and Jihad Islami ranks of the Gaza Strip. Encouraged by pulling the truce out of its hat, Cairo is now collecting more points by leaning hard on Israel in the matter of prisoner release, including and especially the men “with blood on their hands”. The Mubarak government believes that success on this front will restore Egypt as the dominant influence in the conduct of Palestinian affairs, a role it lost after the September 2000 confrontation.
To this end the Egyptians, according to the American analysts, are applying three large levers:
A. An artful disinformation campaign. One example, an Arabic paper appearing in London claimed Egypt had offered to set the Israeli Azam Azam free in exchange for 3,000 Palestinian detainees and prisoners. The offer was never made, but the report put the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on the spot at home, suggesting he was denying Azam’s chances of freedom.
B. General Suleiman’s security teams are helping the Palestinians in the complicated technical project of widening and strengthening the smuggling tunnels running illegal arms between Egyptian Sinai and the southern Gaza Strip. Until the ceasefire, Israeli troops systematically blew them up. Now, work is advancing apace under cover of the truce and Israeli’s handover of the territory to Palestinian control. The authors assert that Egyptian intelligence could in no time block up the Sinai end of the tunnel and halt the smuggling if they so wished.
B. Cairo maintains contact with factions in the State Department who are always open to new ideas for reaching extremist Muslim groups, including those operating among Palestinian radicals.
The American analysts conclude in their summation that, while this may not be intended by Egypt’s policy-makers and their head of intelligence, a grim outcome may well result from Cairo allowing itself to become a prime venue for Middle East Palestinian terrorists to converge, plot and infiltrate the Gaza Strip and West Bank under cover of the ceasefire. This freedom of movement and access, the authors warn, will smooth the path for the radicals to bring to fruition their ambition to establish a radical Islamic Palestinian terrorist state on the shore of the Mediterranean, as the twin of the ousted Taliban regime in Kabul.
The findings of this group of Washington analysts cooled the reception George W. Bush gave Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and his internal security minister Mohamed Dahlan on their first visit to the White House last Friday, July 25. They prompted him to voice understanding for Israel declining to set “cold blooded killers” loose, notwithstanding Cairo’s efforts to soften up the administration in advance of the visit.
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