There is more to the siege of Yasser Arafat in his trashed Ramallah compound than meets the eye. On the face of it, the White House’s rare criticism of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s chokehold on Arafat and his headquarters is a damage control exercise to keep Middle East tensions from boiling over in the run-up to the US war against Iraq. (See also related item in HOT POINTS below.) Beneath this surface, an undercover battle is raging, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, to wrest the long-standing grip of Iraqi military intelligence from Arafat’s intelligence agencies.
Israel’s furious demand of Arafat to surrender his top 20 security-cum-terror chiefs and Arafat’s equally furious refusal to hand them over, intersect with the bitter duel fought by the CIA, its director, George Tenet and the agency’s operations section against the Palestinian leader and the heads of his undercover services: Colonel Tawfik Tirawi, head of Palestinian General Security in the West Bank, and his sidekick, Mohammad al-Abbas, or Abu al-Abbas, the Baghdad-based leader of the Arab Liberation Front.
Where Israeli and American interests converge is in the burning need to loosen Baghdad’s fingers from Palestinian intelligence. The outcome of the Ramallah standoff may bear significantly on the US campaign against Iraq and its post-Saddam aftermath. Failure would leave Palestinian intelligence services free to act as an Iraqi fifth column behind US lines. Their commanders, who have polished their terror techniques in the two years of confronting Israel, would have no trouble organizing strikes against US strategic targets in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain and America’s Middle East allies, notably Israel and Jordan, or targeting for sabotage regional oil fields, pipelines, main roads, ports, airports and fuel and supply depots.
Five Iraq-trained Palestinian terrorist-saboteur units have already been captured on the West Bank. They comprised no more than three to five men each, all especially instructed by Iraqi intelligence in the use of explosives and anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades. Some were also assigned destabilization missions in Jordan. They were taught how incite the Palestinian populace, especially in the kingdom’s main cities, and organize paramilitary militias to seize control of urban districts from which to shake the throne’s foundations.
The ensuing unrest is intended to be exploited by the estimated 200 Iraqi intelligence agents planted in Amman for a move to overthrow King Abdullah.
After the war, should Saddam be defeated by the Americans, he has cast Palestinian intelligence in a key role in his fallback plan that would hinge on a full-time resort to terror. (See separate article on Saddam’s post-war operational plans).
His plan is to disperse the Palestinian undercover agencies among the intelligence and terror arms of Iraqi military intelligence, al- Qaeda, its associated Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah. The Palestinians would be absorbed into those groups’ cells and take part in their operations in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, while still obeying Arafat or his top gun, Col. Tirawi.
This eventuality depends of course on the showdown in Ramallah, which is why Arafat and his 20 men are hanging on so tight.
Unlike battlefield engagements, intelligence wars tend to be protracted and are invariably pursued in deep hush. The contest for control of the Palestinians’ clandestine arms is no different; it has been going on for eleven years.
It began with an assassination. The victim was Salah Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, chief of Palestinian Surveillance Service (the equivalent of the CIA), who was murdered in Tunis
on January 14, 1991, fourteen hours before the start of Operation Desert Storm.
At the time, Arafat, his PLO and his military and intelligence staff lived in exile in the Tunisian capital, there from the time of their expulsion from Beirut in 1982.
In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait with the Palestinian leader’s enthusiastic support. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from the oil emirate to Jordan, whose monarch, King Hussein, also took Saddam’s part.
In secret, however, Abu Iyad maintained close contact with the CIA, bringing Arafat into disfavor in Baghdad. When Palestinian emissaries called on Saddam just before the war, he grumbled that he could not trust Arafat when his right hand intelligence aide was a US intelligence stooge. Arafat decided to rid himself of his liability.
Unaware of his peril, Abu Iyad paid a visit to his operations chief Abu al-Hul at his seaside villa in Tunis, accompanied by three bodyguards. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report one of Abu al-Hul’s three minders, Hamza Abu Zayad, burst into the guest room. Using a silenced pistol, he shot his service director dead and made a getaway.
The gangland-style hit was set up by Col. Tirawi and Mohammad al-Abbas.
Tirawi is the terrorist kingpin holed up in Arafat’s compound with 19 other wanted terrorist chiefs. Then, he was head of the Iraqi desk of Palestinian intelligence, while Abu al-Abbas was commander of the Arab Liberation Front and resident in Baghdad – which he still is. Now, as then, the ALF is funded by Iraqi military intelligence and stands ready at Saddam’s behest. Childhood friends from the West Bank village of Tira, northwest of Ramallah, Tirawi and al-Abbas are close friends and collaborators to this day.
Al-Abbas proposed the liquidation plan to Tirawi, which he would never have done without the approval of Iraqi military intelligence. Saddam and his intelligence chiefs had nothing to lose by robbing the CIA of one of its top sources in the Arab world and much to gain: the slot at the top of the Palestinian Surveillance Service became available for the pro-Iraqi Tirawi.
From then on, Abu al-Abbas’s best friend has made sure that Palestinian intelligence is wholly committed to Baghdad’s service and they are allowed to perform many of their feats together. The latest instance was the joint operation last month to liquidate another of Arafat’s former allies, the arch terrorist, Abu Nidal. (More details on this conspiracy in HOT POINTS below)
But the Abu Iyad murder affair did not end there. It had a revealing epilogue uncovered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and Palestinian sources.
For six months after the crime, the assassin, Abu Zayad, was moved round the Middle East by Iraqi intelligence and Tirawi’s operatives, looking nervously over his shoulder all the time. But then, Arafat, Tirawi and al-Abbas realized that, as long as he was free and not classified a wanted man, they would be suspected of complicity in Abu Iyad’s killing.
In late 1991, they arranged for Abu Zayad’s arrest. A Palestinian military court in Yemen convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death. As guests in Yemen, the Palestinians had no right to carry out the sentence in the country. So they put the condemned killer aboard a ship belonging to the tiny Palestinian navy. After the vessel steamed out to the Red Sea, an official Palestinian communique announced he had been executed after being found guilty of treason and the murder of Abu Iyad. The assassin was accused of working for the Israelis.
That was the story given out. What really happened was that the Palestinian ship did indeed set out from Yemen manned entirely by Tirawi’s men. But, instead of killing Abu Zayad, they transferred him to another ship in the Red Sea crewed by al-Abbas’s men and Iraqi agents.
Since then, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources have discovered that Abu Zayad, Abu Iyad’s murderer, lives happily ever after in Baghdad as the well protected guest of Abu al-Abbas and his strong-arm men.
From Abu Iyad’s death until the day that Arafat and his top intelligence operatives came under Israeli siege on September 18, 2002, Col. Tirawi and his hard core aides have been fully in control of Palestinian intelligence. After the Oslo framework peace accords were signed in 1993 and Arafat was allowed to establish the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Surveillance Service was legitimized and renamed the Palestinian General Security service for the West Bank.
But behind the organization’s nameplate, nothing changed. Col. Tirawi stayed on as its chief, built up Arafat’s terror machine in readiness for the “Intifada” of 2000 and scrupulously kept the Palestinian security machinery operating in unison with Baghdad. The 19 Palestinian terrorist-intelligence agents of whom Israel is demanding custody along with Tirawi, as the price for lifting the stranglehold on Arafat’s Ramallah compound, are the selfsame pro-Iraqi operatives who took over Palestinian intelligence 11 years ago and have spearheaded Arafat’s brand of suicidal terrorism in the last two years.
Their presence is the reason why Israel continues to besiege the Ramallah government complex in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution and President Bush’s characterization of the Israeli operation as unhelpful for reforming the Palestinian Authority. He knows as well as anyone that Arafat and those 20 wanted men are if anything the barriers to genuine reforms. Without admitting as much, Washington is aware that the handover of Tirawi and his gang will write finis to eleven years of Baghdad’s domination of Arafat’s most trusted intelligence apparatus and its exploitation in the service of Saddam’s ends in Jordan and the West Bank. Bush’s team accepts that Israeli must act now. The last thing they want is for a defeated Saddam to retain his grip on the strings of the West Bank Palestinian intelligence arms still loyal to his legacy and backed by Iraqi terrorist elements that have gone underground.
Some factions of Arafat’s own Fatah are equally dismayed. A group led by Abu Mazen, his designated successor and potential nominee as Palestinian prime minister of a reformed Palestinian administration, has been holding meeting after meeting since the siege crisis erupted. Its members are twisting and turning in a desperate effort to disencumber their movement from the Iraqi albatross. They recall that the Palestinians scarcely survived their open support for Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I, and fear that a repetition of that error will do forever for the Palestinians’ national aspirations.