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US ships Al Qaeda suspects to Arab states

Egypt, Syria, and Jordan may extract information faster, but are their methods legal and reliable?

By Faye Bowers, Philip Smucker / July 26, 2002



WASHINGTON AND CAIRO

In the war on terror, the US is careful to show how fairly it's treating the hundreds of orange-suited Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters locked behind the razor-wire of the US base at Guantanamo, Cuba. But what the US isn't trumpeting is a quiet practice of shipping key Al Qaeda suspects to the Middle East for interrogation.

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One reason for this new approach, US officials privately say, is that in some cases these militants' home countries have a better understanding of Islamist groups, their contacts, customs, and language. But there's another reason, say US sources. These countries – Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, among them – use torture, which, some officials suggest, extracts information much more quickly than more benign interrogation methods.

In a post-Sept. 11 world, where terror threats are received nearly daily, the US faces difficult choices. Can US officials afford to wait for Al Qaeda fighters to spill the goods on their colleagues, or do they need to make them talk as quickly as possible in order to deter additional terrorist attacks? What's the quality of information disclosed through torture? And, what are the costs to US credibility of trading off moral and legal concerns in pursuit of safety?

"This is what you call liaison," says Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer with years of Middle East experience. "And it's not reliable. Before 9/11, the Germans failed us, the British failed us, and I don't think the Syrians will let us sit in on the interrogations." He adds that the US and its allies are so far behind in the intelligence war that "it's catch up ball for everyone."

Since 9/11, according to diplomats, US officials, and press reports, several suspects have quietly been detained and sent to the Middle East:

• Abu Zubaydah, a top Al Qaeda commander, was arrested in Pakistan in March, and moved to an "undisclosed location" by the US, possibly the Middle East.

• Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, a Pakistani arrested in Indonesia in January, was bundled aboard a CIA Gulfstream and flown from Jakarta to Egypt.

• Mahmoud bin Ahmad Assegaf, a Kuwaiti citizen and an alleged Al Qaeda financier, was arrested by the Indonesians, and then deported – also at the request of the CIA. The Kuwaiti embassy in Indonesia says it knows nothing about the case, and that it wasn't informed that a Kuwaiti citizen had been detained.

• Mohammad Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born German believed to have connections to the 9/11 hijackers, was detained in Morocco in June, and reportedly, the CIA arranged for him to be sent to Syria.

• In October, a Yemeni student, Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, wanted in connection with the bombing of the USS Cole was turned over to the US by Pakistan and was flown to Jordan on a US-registered Gulfstream jet.

• Jabarah Mohamed Mansur, allegedly involved in an attempt to bomb the US and Israeli Embassies in Singapore, is currently being held and interrogated in Oman.

Egypt, like the US, won't officially comment on the detainees. Perhaps because these deportations are not done through official channels or according to extradition treaties. But privately US officials confirm the practice. And Ahmed Moussa, an internal security correspondent for the state-supported Al-Ahram newspaper group in Cairo, also confirms the detentions.

"There have been more transfers of Al Qaeda suspects back [from South Asia], but there has been no official announcement of these transfers," says Mr. Moussa. "Just as the US does not divulge information on all its own captives in Cuba, we don't either and there is a benefit to this secrecy."

Moussa goes on to say that all the information obtained by Egypt is shared with both the CIA and the FBI.

Mr. Baer says that the Egyptians have better databases than the US does. "When somebody starts to talk, they will be able to know if he is telling the truth, because they've got all these referral points," he says. "And they have more experience in this than the CIA. But the Egyptians, and especially the Syrians use torture."

There is some debate within the US intelligence community over whether coercive interrogations are effective.

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