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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.)