Intercepted call linked Saddam to al-Qa’ida terror cell
By Andrew Buncombe in Washington
07 February 2003
He was supposed to have been a professional. He should have known better, but in the end he could not resist. Using a satellite phone, the senior al-Qa’ida operative excitedly called two associates and congratulated them on their cold-blooded assassination of an American diplomat.
The call cost the man his liberty. It may yet cost him his life but, more importantly, it could have provided America with the “smoking gun” evidence it has long sought and which apparently links the Iraqi regime to an active al-Qa’ida cell committing terror killings and planning others across Europe and the Middle East. One thing is certain: it has left Iraq needing to do a lot of explaining.
The name of the man who made the telephone call as he drove through the rugged landscapes of northern Iraq towards the borders with Syria and Turkey has not been revealed. But his alleged position in the al-Qa’ida network was made clear. Information gathered by the intelligence services of the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan shows he is the deputy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of an Iraqi-based al-Qa’ida cell.
Though he would not have known it at the time, the deputy’s congratulatory telephone call to two men accused of murdering the US diplomat Laurence Foley last October – killed in the garden of his Amman home by a volley of eight shots – was an error of incalculable proportions. The call was intercepted by Western intelligence services, possibly America’s National Security Agency (NSA) or Britain’s electronic eavesdropping service at GCHQ, Cheltenham, and allowed coalition operatives to trace the man from Syria, then to Turkey.
When he arrived in Turkey, those intelligence operatives took the decision to pounce. The al-Qa’ida deputy was seized and taken to one of the interrogation centres covertly operated in the region by the US Central Intelligence Agency. In many cases, America prefers certain prisoners to be questioned by the intelligence services of countries where the rules governing the use of torture or psychological pressure are less strict. In this instance, it appears America led the interrogation, using, in the words of one official, “unspecified psychological pressure” to obtain information.
US officials quoted by The New York Times say the deputy revealed that Zarqawi was operating a cell out of Iraq, that he had been given medical assistance there and that he was planning and conducting attacks across Europe and the Middle East with up to 24 al-Qa’ida fighters. Mr Foley, 62, head of America’s Agency for International Development mission, was the first of the cell’s targets.
In his address to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, relied heavily on this information when he accused the Iraqi regime of having links with al-Qa’ida. “[The al-Qa’ida cell members] have been operating freely in the capital for more than eight months,” he said. “Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al-Qa’ida. These denials are simply not credible.”
General Powell said the cell also had links to the alleged ricin suspects arrested in London and Manchester. “The network is teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons … Zarqawi and his network have plotted terrorist actions against countries including France, Britain, Spain and Italy,” the Secretary of State said.
The interrogation of Zarqawi’s deputy also revealed other information, details that America has decided not to reveal formally and which underscore the problems the Bush administration faces in conducting its planned military assault against Iraq.
American officials say Zarqawi’s deputy also revealed that his superior had been regularly assisted and funded by a member of the Qatari royal family, Abdul Karim al-Thani, who provided passports and $1m (£600,000) in cash.
General Powell declined to reveal this information publicly because Qatar has emerged as an important ally for any American-led operation, allowing the US to set up its main air operations base there. Mr Thani is not a member of the Qatari government and officials from that country have described him as a deeply religious man who has donated large sums to charity.
This is not the first time high-profile Qataris have been linked to al-Qa’ida. Saudi intelligence officials have claimed that after the terror attacks of 11 September, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, believed to have been one of the senior al-Qa’ida planners of the attack on the World Trade Centre, spent two weeks in hiding in Qatar with the help of “prominent patrons”.
Although Western operatives have failed to capture Zarqawi, his identification by General Powell may have sealed his fate, because Baghdad has insisted it has no links with al-Qa’ida. One official said: “A half hour after Powell mentioned his name, I’ll wager he disappeared or was killed.”