THE WASHINGTON POST reported yesterday morning that an Iraqi present at a key al Qaeda summit may not be the same Iraqi listed on lists of officers of the Saddam Fedayeen captured in postwar Iraq.
In Al Qaeda Link to Iraq May be Confusion Over Names, the Post broke very little new ground. Both the Wall Street Journal (which broke the story) and this magazine (which confirmed it) openly acknowledged that possibility. And John Lehman, the September 11 Commissioner who raised the issue on Meet the Press on Sunday, allowed that "still has to be confirmed."
The Post added to the debate in one interesting way when it reported that U.S. intelligence officials have "discounted" reports in this magazine that Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, the Iraqi at the al Qaeda meeting, was "under Iraqi intelligence control." That the Post has finally acknowledged the existence of Shakir might be considered a promising development, since his name has never previously graced its pages. But having whetted our appetite for substance, the Post account simply ends.
Here is the Shakir chronology as reported in this week's WEEKLY STANDARD:
Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Shakir, as WEEKLY STANDARD readers may recall, is an Iraqi who was present at the January 2000 al Qaeda planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. U.S. intelligence officials do not know whether Shakir was an active participant in the meeting, but there is little doubt he was there.
In August 1999, Shakir began working as a VIP greeter for Malaysian Airlines. He told associates he had gotten the job through a contact at the Iraqi embassy. In fact, Shakir's embassy contact controlled his schedule--told him when to report to work and when to take a day off. The contact apparently told Shakir to report to work on January 5, 2000, the same day September 11 hijacker Khalid al Mihdhar arrived in Kuala Lumpur. Shakir escorted al Mihdhar to a waiting car and then, rather than bid his guest farewell, jumped in the car with him. The meeting lasted from January 5 to January 8. Shakir reported to work twice after the meeting broke up and then disappeared.
He was arrested in Doha, Qatar, on September 17, 2001. Authorities found both on his body and in his apartment contact information for a number of high-ranking al Qaeda terrorists. They included the brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Hajer al Iraqi, described by one detainee as Osama bin Laden's "best friend." Despite this, Shakir was released from custody. He was detained again on October 21, 2001, in Amman, Jordan, where he was to have caught a flight to Baghdad. The Jordanians held Shakir for three months. The Iraqi regime contacted the Jordanian government and either requested or demanded--depending on who you ask--his release. The Jordanians, with the apparent acquiescence of the CIA, set him free in late January 2002, at which point he returned to Baghdad. Then earlier this spring, Shakir's name was found on three lists of the officers of Saddam's Fedayeen.
It's possible, of course, that there is more than one Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. And even if the Shakir listed as an officer of the Saddam Fedayeen is the same Shakir who was present at the 9/11 planning meeting, it does not mean that the Iraqi regime helped plan or even had foreknowledge of those attacks.
The Post article mentions none of this; we learn only that these reports have been discounted by intelligence officials who talked to the Post, but never why. Here is one possible explanation, from a WEEKLY STANDARD article on Shakir last October:
Some intelligence officials believe that the Iraqi embassy employee who got Shakir his airport job may have been an agent of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, and that high-ranking elements of the government, perhaps including Saddam, knew about his activities. After all, the intelligence service placed its agents liberally in Iraqi embassies throughout the world. In some cases, intelligence agents made up more than 50 percent of the employees in an Iraqi embassy. This doesn't mean that Saddam or anyone in his government necessarily had foreknowledge of September 11; only that his intelligence service may have provided logistical support to the men who gave us September 11--again, perhaps without precise knowledge of their plans.
Others, primarily at the CIA, are more skeptical. They point out that the Iraqi embassy employee who got Shakir his job and managed his schedule was a lower-ranking embassy official. That, they argue, does not fit the profile of a Mukhabarat foreign agent. There are alternative explanations for some of the details, too. Shakir may have accompanied the September 11 hijackers to the Kuala Lumpur Hotel because they gave him a big tip or, some have suggested, because he knew the way. It's possible that Shakir was an Iraqi who had joined al Qaeda and, apart from his contact with the Iraqi embassy employee, had nothing to do with the Iraqi regime. The Iraqi regime, for its part, may have simply requested Shakir's release from the Jordanian government as a routine matter.
So was Saddam Hussein involved in September 11? Evidence, at this point, is scarce . . .
There are two critical questions, then, about Ahmed Hikmat Shakir. Was the Shakir in Kuala Lumpur the same man listed as an officer of the Saddam Fedayeen? And more important, what was the relationship, if any, between the Ahmed Hikmat Shakir who is known to have been at the Kuala Lumpur meeting and the Iraqi government?
I don't have the answer to either one. (In fact, that uncertainty is why the first chapter in my book is not a declarative statement, but a question: "Case Open: Who is Ahmed Hikmat Shakir?")
JONATHAN LANDAY, a reporter for Knight Ridder, also spoke to intelligence officials who doubt that the Shakir in Kuala Lumpur is the same one on the captured lists. "But U.S. officials told Knight Ridder on Monday that U.S. intelligence experts were highly skeptical that the Iraqi officer had any connection to al-Qaida."
But in contrast to the Post's report, Landay attempted to answer the second of the two main questions about Shakir: Here is how Landay reported that question (with a slightly different name spelling):
Ahmad Hikmat Shakir was employed with the aid of an Iraqi intelligence officer as a "greeter" or "facilitator" for Arabic-speaking visitors at the airport at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
In January 2000, he accompanied two Sept. 11 hijackers from the airport to a hotel where the pair met with Ramzi Binalshibh, a key planner of the attacks, and Tawfiz al Atash, who masterminded al-Qaida's strike on the USS Cole in October 2000.
There's no evidence that Ahmad Hikmat Shakir attended the meeting. Four days after it ended, he left Kuala Lumpur.
Several days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ahmad Hikmat Shakir was arrested in Qatar in possession of highly suspicious materials that appeared to link him with al-Qaida.
The Qataris inexplicably released him, and he flew to Amman, Jordan, where he was arrested again. The Jordanians freed him under pressure from Iraq and Amnesty International, and he went to Baghdad.
This account is reason enough for the September 11 Commission to take a good look at Shakir. According to Landay, Shakir was "employed with the aid of an Iraqi intelligence officer" and later "accompanied two Sept. 11 hijackers from the airport to a hotel where the pair met with Ramzi Binalshibh, a key planner of the attacks, and Tawfiz al Atash, who masterminded al Qaida's strike on the USS Cole in October 2000." After his capture in Jordan the Iraqi regime exerted "pressure" and, upon his release, he fled to Baghdad. Landay notes that no major al Qaeda operative has implicated Shakir in the 9/11 attacks and that U.S. intelligence analysts are "highly skeptical" that he played a role.
Landay may be right. There may be an innocent explanation for Shakir's activities in Kuala Lumpur. We may see that explanation in the September 11 Commission's final report later this summer. But that report will be incomplete if it does not attempt to answer the question: "Who is Ahmed Hikmat Shakir?"
Stephen F. Hayes, a staff writer at The Weekly Standard, is the author of The Connection: How al Qaeda's Collaboration with Saddam Hussein Has Endangered America.