The Magazine

Osama's Best Friend

From the November 3, 2003 issue: The further connections between al Qaeda and Saddam.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IN A LITTLE-NOTICED DECISION in a New York courtroom on September 25, 2003, a man described as Osama bin Laden's "best friend" got some good news. U.S. District Court Judge Deborah Batts ruled that Mahmdouh Mahmud Salim could not be sentenced to life in prison.

Salim--who was present at the founding of al Qaeda in 1989 and who was for years one of bin Laden's most trusted confidants--had been captured in Germany in 1998 and extradited to the United States for prosecution related to his role in the grand conspiracy that resulted in the 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The bombings killed 224 people and injured more than 5,000.

But the proceedings in September had little to do with those attacks. Salim was answering for a simpler crime. On November 1, 2000, he squirted hot sauce in the face of Louis Pepe, a guard at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City. Salim had sharpened one end of a plastic comb into a makeshift dagger that, after stunning Pepe with the fiery liquid, he thrust nearly three inches into the guard's eye socket. Pepe survived, barely, but today lives with severe brain damage and, obviously, without sight in that eye. Prosecutors tried to argue that Salim's attack was part of a larger plot that amounted to an act of terrorism. The judge was dubious. Salim will likely serve between 17 and 21 years in prison for the attack. And he may yet be tried for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings.

So who is Mahmdouh Mahmud Salim? He served al Qaeda in a wide variety of roles. He was a financier. He was a religious leader. He was a technology wizard. Most important, perhaps, was Salim's work as an emissary and a weapons procurer. Those last two responsibilities are the ones that most interest U.S. intelligence officials.

Salim, you see, is also known as Abu Hajer al Iraqi ("the Iraqi"). According to Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, two Clinton administration National Security Council appointees who wrote "The Sacred Age of Terror," Abu Hajer oversaw al Qaeda's efforts to produce and obtain weapons of mass destruction. Not coincidentally, say Bush administration officials familiar with intelligence reporting on Abu Hajer, he was one of the few deputies bin Laden trusted to maintain his relationship with Saddam Hussein throughout much of the 1990s.

Without naming him, CIA director George Tenet discussed intelligence on Abu Hajer in a letter to Senator Bob Graham dated October 7, 2002. "We have solid reporting of senior level contact between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade. Credible information exists that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression. . . . We have credible reporting that al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities." U.S. officials now believe that Abu Hajer al Iraqi helped bin Laden negotiate a nonaggression pact with Saddam in 1993.

Some of the intelligence on Abu Hajer al Iraqi's role in WMD procurement came from the trial of four other al Qaeda members who planned the embassy bombings. A former al Qaeda member testifying for the prosecution, Jamal Ahmed al Fadl, told the court how he met Abu Hajer and bin Laden in 1989, and that he accompanied Abu Hajer in 1993 and 1994 on trips to Khartoum, Sudan, where the Iraqi native took him to a facility used to produce chemical weapons. It was al Fadl who labeled Abu Hajer the "best friend" of bin Laden.

The Treasury Department, as it examines al Qaeda's financial network, has come across the name Abu Hajer al Iraqi on numerous occasions. Published reports claim that he shared a bank account in Hamburg, Germany, with a man thought to have provided financing to three of the September 11 hijackers. His name has also been found on documents obtained by U.S. officials investigating Islamic charities and phony businesses believed to be al Qaeda front groups.

The more authorities learn about the Iraqi al Qaeda leader, the more questions they have. Perhaps the first one they would ask, were Abu Hajer the kind of prisoner willing to talk rather than the kind of prisoner who gouges out his captors' eyes, is this: Who is Ahmad Hikmat Shakir? And the second: Why were your name and contact information found in his apartment shortly after the attacks on September 11, 2001?

Shakir is another native Iraqi. And he, too, has worked closely with numerous high-ranking al Qaeda terrorists, including two of the chief 9/11 hijackers. But despite being detained twice in the months after 9/11, Shakir is not in custody.

In August 1999, according to a classified CIA report, Shakir was offered a job as "a facilitator" at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as this magazine has reported before. A facilitator, or greeter, is someone who escorts VIPs through customs and immigration control checkpoints. At some point that fall, Shakir began working for Malaysian Airlines. If Malaysian Airlines issued his paychecks, it did not control his schedule. For instructions on when to report to work and when to take a day off, Shakir looked to the Iraqi Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. That made some sense. A contact at the Iraqi Embassy had gotten Shakir his airport job in the first place.

That Iraqi contact told Shakir to report to work on January 5, 2000. He did. There are pictures to prove it. On that day, Shakir facilitated for Khalid al Midhar and Nawaz al Hamzi. But then, after helping the men through the airport, he got into the waiting car with them and sped off to the Kuala Lumpur Hotel. U.S. intelligence officials don't know whether Shakir joined the two in their ensuing activities. They do know that airport facilitators don't typically leave with terrorists.

Al Midhar and al Hamzi were in Malaysia for an important meeting, an al Qaeda gathering U.S. officials now believe was one of the key planning sessions for both the USS Cole bombing and the September 11 attacks. Two of the masterminds of those plots--Tawfiz al Atash and Ramzi bin al Shibh, respectively--were present. The meeting ended on January 8, 2000. Shakir reported to work at the airport on January 9 and January 10. He never showed up again.

Khalid al Midhar and Nawaz al Hamzi flew from Bangkok, Thailand, to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000. On September 11, 2001, the two men were at the controls of American Airlines Flight 77 when it plunged into the outer ring of the Pentagon.

Six days after the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks, Ahmad Hikmat Shakir was detained in Doha, Qatar, where he had resurfaced as an employee of the Qatari government's Ministry of Religious Development. Authorities searched Shakir and his apartment and were stunned by what they found: The Iraqi had contact information for Islamic radicals involved in many of the most devastating terrorist attacks of the past decade. These contacts included:

* Musab Yasin and Ibrahim Suleiman from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. At the time of that attack, Yasin lived in New Jersey with his brother, Abdul Rahman Yasin. Abdul Rahman Yasin, who badly burned his leg while mixing the chemicals for the World Trade Center bomb, was interviewed by the FBI and, in a costly mistake, released. After it realized its error, the FBI placed him on the list of "Most Wanted" terrorists. But they were too late. Abdul Rahman Yasin had fled the United States for Iraq, where U.S. intelligence officials believe he remains today. Ibrahim Suleiman was a Kuwaiti native whose fingerprints were found on the bombmaking manuals authorities determined were used in planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

* Zahid Sheikh Mohammed, brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the September 11 mastermind. Zahid Sheikh Mohammed and his brother are both believed to have planned "Operation Bojinka," the 1995 al Qaeda plot to explode simultaneously 12 airplanes over the Pacific Ocean. U.S. intelligence officials believe that aborted plot may have morphed into the September 11 attacks.

* Ammar al Baluchi, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to a report in Time magazine, al Baluchi provided $120,000 to Mohammed Atta and his fellow hijackers. Intelligence officials believe al Baluchi may have had a role in planning the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.

* And, of course, Abu Hajer al Iraqi, the prison-guard gouger, who is suspected of involvement in several of these attacks as well as the 1998 embassy bombings. (The telephone number Shakir had for Abu Hajer was actually a number for Taba Investments, a well-known al Qaeda front.)

Despite this wealth of information, the Qataris released Shakir, the Iraqi airport facilitator, shortly after they detained him. He wasn't free for long. On October 21, 2001, Shakir flew from Doha to Amman, Jordan, where he was scheduled to transfer to a flight to Baghdad. He was arrested by Jordanian intelligence and held for three months without charge. CIA officials who questioned him concluded that Shakir was well-trained in counter-interrogation techniques. (One administration official points out that Shakir's counter-interrogation training appears to have been much more sophisticated than that of al Qaeda detainees being held at Guantanamo, a detail that, if true, may indicate that his instruction came from a government intelligence service.)

Not long after Shakir was detained, the Iraqi government began pressuring Jordanian intelligence for his release. Why exactly Shakir was discharged is unclear. In the period after the September 11 attacks, the Jordanian government was highly cooperative. It seems unlikely that they would release Shakir against the wishes of the U.S. government, especially at a time when the Bush administration was intensifying its rhetoric on Iraq. Nonetheless, Shakir was released on January 28, 2002, one day before President Bush focused world attention on Iraq as part of the "Axis of Evil" in his State of the Union address. U.S. intelligence officials believe Shakir quickly returned to Baghdad.

The evidence on Shakir, circumstantial at this point, seems to suggest a long relationship with senior al Qaeda operatives. What is less clear is Shakir's relationship--if any--to the deposed Iraqi regime. Many aspects of his story could be explained as mere coincidence. But three details make the most sense if one assumes the involvement of Iraqi intelligence: (1) the fact that an Iraqi embassy employee got him his airport job and controlled his schedule, (2) his extensive training in counter-interrogation, and (3) the fact that the Iraqi government was eager--by some accounts desperate--to get him out of Jordanian custody and back to Iraq.

There remain exponentially more questions than answers concerning Saddam Hussein's relationship to al Qaeda. Among them, it is a mere matter of detail to know why a native Iraqi, thanks to a contact in the Iraqi embassy, was in a position to escort two September 11 hijackers to a critical planning meeting, or why he possessed contact information for Osama bin Laden's "best friend." But the overarching fact--that Saddam and al Qaeda had a relationship--can no longer be seriously disputed.

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.