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.