Global Policy Forum

Distorted Intelligence?


By Michael Isikoff

June 25, 2003

Secret German records cast doubt on the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection. Plus, why Qatar is footing the legal bills for an ‘enemy combatant' "Hundreds of pages of confidential German law-enforcement records raise new questions about the Bush administration's core evidence purporting to show solid links between Osama bin Laden's terror network and Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Voluminous German records, obtained by Newsweek, seem to undercut highly touted administration claims that Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi, a hardened Jordanian terrorist who once received medical treatment in Baghdad, was a key player in Al Qaeda.

In fact, the secret German records—compiled during interrogations with a captured Zarqawi associate—suggest that the shadowy Zarqawi headed his own terrorist group, called Al Tawhid, with its own goals and may even have been a jealous rival of Al Qaeda.

The captured associate, Shadi Abdallah, who is now on trial in Germany, told his interrogators last year that Zarqawi's Al Tawid organization was one of several Islamist groups that acted "in opposition" to bin Laden's Al Qaeda. At one point, Abdallah described how Zarqawi even vetoed the idea of splitting charity funds collected in Germany between Al Tawhid and Al Qaeda.

While the internal machinations between Al Tawhid and Al Qaeda may seem obscure, they cut to the heart of one of the most politically sensitive issues in Washington at the moment: whether the Bush White House exaggerated and distorted U.S. intelligence to justify the war on Iraq.

Much of the debate revolves around claims that Saddam had large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons—stockpiles that so far have not been found. But an equally fierce debate has been taking place behind the scenes about the handling of sketchy, and at times, contradictory evidence relating to Saddam's supposed connections with Al Qaeda.

Zarqawi was at the center of those claims. In a Cincinnati speech delivered Oct. 7, on the eve of a congressional vote authorizing him to wage war on Iraq, President Bush asserted that "Iraq and Al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade." His chief example was that "one very senior Al Qaeda leader" had "received medical treatment in Baghdad"—an obvious reference to Zarqawi, who had his leg amputated there in 2002.

Zarqawi received even more prominence in secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5 presentation to the United Nations Security Council. In that address, Powell described Zarqawi as "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants." During his stay in Baghdad, Powell claimed that "nearly two dozen…al Qaeda affiliates" converged on the Iraqi capital and "established a base of operations there."

But the German interrogations of Shadi Abdallah present a more complex and somewhat different picture of Zarqawi's role in international terrorism. According to Abdullah, Zarqawi's Al Tawhid group focuses on installing an Islamic regime in Jordan and killing Jews. And although Al Tawhid maintained its own training camp near Herat, Afghanistan, Zarqawi competed with bin Laden for trainees and members, Abdallah claimed.

A Jordanian native who migrated to Europe in the mid l990s and became involved in militant Islamic activities in an effort to escape personal problems stemming from his acknowledged drug use and homosexuality. Shadi Abdallah is now on trial in Duesseldorf, Germany on charges of plotting with Zarqawi and other members of an alleged Al Tawhid cell in Germany to attack Jewish or Israeli targets inside Germany. Abdallah could get ten years if convicted on the charges, but is believed to have become a key German government informant and witness against other Al Tawhid operatives who will be tried later.

Transcripts of Abdallah's interrogations over several months last year by investigators from Germany's Federal Criminal Police are perhaps the most important hard evidence collected by any Western intelligence or law-enforcement agency about the terrorist activities and aims of Zarqawi and his associates.

The transcripts indicate that while there was certainly interaction between members of Zarqawi's Jordanian-focused terror group and Al Qaeda, the organizations largely operated separately and had different aims. Shadi Abdallah told investigators how he himself initially was recruited to go to an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan by one of Osama bin Laden's sons-in-law, whom he met while on a religious trip to Saudi Arabia. After sustaining a head injury in one of Al Qaeda's Afghan training camps, Shadi Abdallah says, he found himself recuperating in a compound where bin Laden lived.

Later, he was briefly assigned to be one of bin Laden's bodyguards. At the time, bin Laden's top advisors believed he was threatened with assassination, and recruited Abdallah as a bodyguard because he was almost as tall as the Al Qaeda leader. While a member of bin Laden's entourage, Abdallah says he had numerous conversations with Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni resident in Hamburg who later played a key role in the September 11 hijacking conspiracy.

But after "only about two weeks" as a bin Laden bodyguard, Abdallah told German investigators, he became disenchanted with bin Laden's hard-line ideology, which he found distasteful because of bin Laden's insistence that the Koran allowed the killing of women children and old people.

Abdallah said he made his way from bin Laden's hideout to Zarqawi's Al Tawhid training camp near Herat. There, he was informed that Al Tawhid's mission was explicitly to "fight the Jordanian regime and to overthrow the government of Jordan" as well as the "annihilation of Jews all over the world."

After training in Zarqawi's camp, Abdallah returned to Germany and hooked up with an alleged Al Tawhid cell there that was involved in raising funds and acquiring fake passports for the terror group. Abdallah says that after American forces drove him out of Afghanistan following the 9-11 attacks, Zarqawi for several months ran Al Tawhid out of Iran, using telephones and a network of couriers to pass messages and documents to the German cell and other operatives in Europe.

At the time of Abdallah's arrest by German authorities last spring, Zarqawi apparently was still running the group out of Iran; and the only Iraqi connection with Al Qaeda was access to phony Iraqi documents, Abdallah told authorities.

Several U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports that were used to craft Powell's Feb. 5 presentation to the Security Council told NEWSWEEK they were aware all along of the German information about Zarqawi. But the officials insist the CIA firmly stands behind what Powell said about Zarqawi's purported links to Al Qaeda. Even the German evidence, they said, indicates that there were some associations and links between the two organizations.

Despite the inflammatory language of Powell's U.N. presentation, Bush Administration officials also have acknowledged that their information about Zarqawi's stay in Baghdad is sketchy at best. According to U.S. officials, Zarqawi entered Iraq around May of last year to have an amputation performed on his leg, which was injured while he was fleeing American forces in Afghanistan. According to some reports, one reason that he might have gone to Baghdad for the operation was that the Iranian government, in one of its sporadic crackdowns on Al Qaeda, had expelled him.

Senior U.S. officials acknowledged to NEWSWEEK within days of Powell's speech that it was "unknown" whether Saddam's government helped arrange Zarqawi's hospital stay in Baghdad or whether Iraqi intelligence had any contacts with him while he was in Baghdad.

Since U.S. forces ousted Saddam two months ago, only one confirmed member of Zarqawi's group has been captured by American troops in Iraq. Little if any other information has surfaced to illuminate Zarqawi's Baghdad stay or the dealings between Saddam's government and Zarqawi or other alleged Islamic terrorist operatives, including bin Laden. U.S. officials acknowledge that some top captured Al Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, have told U.S. interrogators bin Laden vetoed a long-term relationship with Saddam because he did not want to be in the Iraqi leader's debt.

As for Zarqawi himself, his whereabouts remain unknown. By the time U.S. forces began massing on Iraqi borders in preparation for an attack, intelligence reports indicated that Zarqawi had already left Baghdad, possibly for Syria or Lebanon. When war broke out in March, U.S. intelligence believed that Zarqawi was probably hiding out in an Islamist enclave in Northern Iraq run by Ansar Al Islam, and extremist group which Powell also suggested had connections to both bin Laden and Saddam, even though it was in a part of Iraq not controlled by Saddam's government.

U.S. intelligence now believes that Zarqawi may have escaped to Iran once again when U.S. and Kurdish forces routed Ansar Al Islam from its base during the war. Officials say they do not know whether he is free to continue to operate Al Tawhid from Iran, or whether he is in Iranian custody. Officials also say that while considerable evidence has turned up to support Powell's claim that the Ansar Al Islam camp visited by Zarqawi was used as a refuge for Al Qaeda operatives fleeing Afghanistan, little evidence has surfaced to validate implications by Powell that before the Iraq war, an agent placed by Saddam inside the Islamist enclave had helped to arrange Al Qaeda's safe haven there.

The German government evidence appears to demonstrate how the Zarqawi story told by Powell to the Security Council was partial at best and misleading at worst, in the sense that it took Zarqawi's tenuous relationship to Al Qaeda and his mysterious visit to Baghdad and lifted them out of context to imply evidence of a closer collaboration between Iraq and bin Laden than the facts demonstrated.

Missing entirely from Powell's speech was the qualifying and even contradictory information in the German files. Also missing was any reference to Zarqawi's sojourn in Iran, which knowledgeable officials concede might be as significant, if not more important, than any visit he paid to Baghdad.

One intelligence source says that as the Bush Administration cranked up the government to prepare for war, intelligence agencies were ordered to produce two critical papers that could be published to justify an attack on Saddam. One paper related to Weapons of Mass destruction, the other to Saddam's links to terrorism. Classified versions of both papers were written and the paper on WMD was eventually published by the Bush Administration as an official dossier. But an unclassified version of the paper on Saddam's links to terrorism was never published because intelligence agencies could not reach final agreement on what exactly it should say.

The Qatar Connection

What prompted President Bush's decision this week to declare a Qatari computer student living in Peoria, Ill. an "enemy combatant" in the war on terrorism? Administration officials insist it was new information showing that the Bradley University student, Ali Saleh Kahlah Al Marri, was an Al Qaeda "sleeper agent" who had been dispatched to the United States at the behest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks who was captured in Pakistan last March.

But administration officials took the step only after Marri began mounting an aggressive legal defense to criminal charges filed by the Justice Department—a legal defense effort that was engineered by a high powered New Jersey law firm that was being paid, NEWSWEEK has learned, by the Government of Qatar.

Marri's indictment appears to have been at least one factor in the administration's extraordinary decision to yank the Qatari citizen out of the criminal-justice system and dispatch him to a military brig in Charleston, S.C., where he will be held indefinitely—with no access to his lawyers or any opportunity to contest the government's charges against him in a trial.

At the time of Bush's decision Monday morning, Marri was facing a July 21 trial date in Peoria, Ill. on charges involving the use of bogus credit cards and lying to FBI agents about several phone calls he allegedly made to a phone number in the United Arab Emirates that had been used by Mustafa Ahmed Al Hawsawi—one of the suspected financiers of the September 11 attacks. (A calling card used by Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the hijackers, had called the same number.)

But court records in the case show that Marri's new lawyers, Larry Lustberg and Mark Berman of Newark, N. J., had filed a motion last month seeking to suppress key evidence in the case. They argued that federal agents had failed to read their client his Miranda rights and obtained his computer files through a warrantless- search of his apartment.

Standard defense lawyers tactics, perhaps, but in this case effective. In an apparent setback for the Justice Department, the federal judge overseeing the case on Friday ordered a hearing on the motion, giving Marri's lawyers the right to call their own witnesses and cross-examine federal agents.

It was only after that ruling that Justice Department officials, in consultation with White House lawyers, hastily pulled the plug on the entire proceeding and had Marri declared an enemy combatant on Monday. Was the Justice Department worried that much of the evidence against Marri might get tossed? Officials insist not. But Marri defense lawyer Berman insisted it's hard to draw any other conclusion that the looming evidentiary hearing ordered by the judge was "their true incentive."

Berman is less talkative about how he and his co-counsel, Lustberg, came to be brought into the case in the first place. Both are prominent defense lawyers in New Jersey who had previously been retained by the Saudi Embassy to represent Saudi students in New Jersey accused of hiring imposters to take English language proficiency tests needed to get into college or graduate schools.

The widespread practice of the Saudi Government, and now the Qatari government—another purported ally of the U.S. in the war on terror—of retaining U.S. lawyers for their own citizens being prosecuted by the Justice Department on terrorism-related charges has angered some Justice officials. It has led, sources tell NEWSWEEK, to recent talks between Justice and State Department officials about possibly requesting these allied governments to put a stop to the practice.

But that prospect drew sharp criticism from Berman, who said the very idea of such talks shows the Justice Department's hostility to having "people who assert their innocence being represented by defense counsel."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.