The Magazine

Saddam's Ambassador to al Qaeda

From the March 1, 2004 issue: An Iraqi prisoner details Saddam's links to Osama bin Laden's terror network.

Mar 1, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 24 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER
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A RECENTLY INTERCEPTED MESSAGE from Iraq-based terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi asking the al Qaeda leadership for reinforcements reignited the debate over al Qaeda ties with Saddam Hussein's fallen Baath regime. William Safire of the New York Times called the message a "smoking gun," while the University of Michigan's Juan Cole says that Safire "offers not even one document to prove" the Saddam-al Qaeda nexus. What you are about to read bears directly on that debate. It is based on a recent interview with Abdul Rahman al-Shamari, who served in Saddam's secret police, the Mukhabarat, from 1997 to 2002, and is currently sitting in a Kurdish prison. Al-Shamari says that he worked for a man who was Saddam's envoy to al Qaeda.

Before recounting details from my January 29 interview, some caution is necessary. Al-Shamari's account was compelling and filled with specific information that would either make him a skilled and detailed liar or a man with information that the U.S. public needs to hear. My Iraqi escort informed me that al-Shamari has been in prison since March 2002, that U.S. officials have visited him several times, and that his story has remained consistent. There was little language barrier; my Arabic skills allowed me to understand much of what al-Shamari said, even before translation. Finally, subsequent conversations with U.S. government officials in Washington and Baghdad, as well as several articles written well before this one, indicate that al-Shamari's claims have been echoed by other sources throughout Iraq.

When I walked into the tiny interrogation room, it was midmorning. I had just finished interviews with two other prisoners--both members of Ansar al Islam, the al Qaeda affiliate responsible for attacks against Kurdish and Western targets in northern Iraq. The group had been active in a small enclave near Halabja in the Kurdistan region from about September 2001 until the U.S. assault on Iraq last spring, when its Arab and Kurdish fighters fled over the Iranian border, only to return after the war. U.S. officials now suspect Ansar in some of the bloodier attacks against U.S. interests throughout Iraq.

My first question to al-Shamari was whether he was involved in the operations of Ansar al Islam. My translator asked him the question in Arabic, and al-Shamari nodded: "Yes." Al-Shamari, who appears to be in his late twenties, said that his division of the Mukhabarat provided weapons to Ansar, "mostly mortar rounds." This statement echoed an independent Kurdish report from July 2002 alleging that ordnance seized from Ansar al Islam was produced by Saddam's military and a Guardian article several weeks later alleging that truckloads of arms were shipped to Ansar from areas controlled by Saddam.

In addition to weapons, al-Shamari said, the Mukhabarat also helped finance Ansar al Islam. "On one occasion we gave them ten million Swiss dinars [$700,000]," al-Shamari said, referring to the pre-1990 Iraqi currency. On other occasions, the Mukhabarat provided more than that. The assistance, he added, was furnished "every month or two months."

I then picked up a picture of a man known as Abu Wael that I had acquired from Kurdish intelligence. In the course of my research, several sources had claimed that Abu Wael was on Saddam's payroll and was also an al Qaeda operative, but few had any facts to back up their claim. For example, one Arabic daily, al-Sharq al-Awsat, stated flatly before the Iraq war, "all information indicates [that Abu Wael] was the link between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime" but neglected to provide any such information. Agence France-Presse after the war cited a Kurdish security chief's description of Abu Wael as a "key link to Saddam's former Baath regime" and an "intelligence agent for the ousted president originally from Baghdad." Again, nothing was provided to substantiate this claim.

In my own analysis of this group, I could do little but weakly assert that Wael was "reportedly an al Qaeda operative on Saddam's payroll." The best reporting on Wael came from a March 2002 New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg, who had visited a Kurdish prison in northern Iraq and interviewed Ansar prisoners. He spoke with one Iraqi intelligence officer named Qassem Hussein Muhammed, whom Kurdish intelligence captured while he was on his way to the Ansar enclave. Muhammed told Goldberg that Abu Wael was "the actual decision-maker" for Ansar al Islam and "an employee of the Mukhabarat."