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Iraq to 'outsource' counterattacks

Baghdad is using embassies to forge ties with extremist groups to attack US facilities, say Filipino officials.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2003


Starting in October of last year, Iraq began preparing for war with the US by instructing agents in its embassies worldwide to organize terrorist-type attacks on American and allied targets, Filipino and US intelligence officials say.

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Barzan Ibrahim El Hasan al Tikriti, a former head of Iraq's intelligence agency and senior adviser to Saddam Hussein, hatched a plan to dispatch a mole to Indonesia; suicide bombers to Amman, Jordan; and a woman agent to help with planned attacks in the Philippines, according to an Iraqi defector interviewed by US intelligence.

Iraqi officials also mulled suicide attacks on US ships in the Persian Gulf, according to the defector. If true, analysts say, the plans probably represent wishful thinking, since Iraq has rarely succeeded with such attempts in the past and has not been known to use suicide bombers.

But there is evidence that Iraq may be outsourcing. Intelligence officials are concerned that Iraq is seeking out Islamic militant groups that have little ideologically in common with Iraq's secular Baath regime, but find common cause against the US.

The Philippines government, which deported an Iraqi diplomat earlier this month, says the Iraqi embassy in Manila was building contacts with Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom group in the southern Philippines that US soldiers have been helping to fight for the past year.

"The Iraqis are dispatching agents around the globe and they're targeting assets of the US and its allies," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert and author. "It remains to be seen if they'll be successful, or fail as they did in 1991."

That year, at the height of the Gulf War, Iraq sought to lash out at the US with operations based out of its embassies in Asia and the Middle East, according to US and Asian officials. They say that the same pattern of behavior may be emerging again.

The clearest evidence is the case of the Iraqi diplomat Hisham Z Hussein, who also went under the alias of Hisham Al Hidith and Abu Geith, according to Philippines intelligence officials.

He was expelled from Manila on Feb. 13, after he was linked by Filipino police to two bombings, including one that killed a US soldier and two Filipinos. The potential threat has security officials in the US and abroad increasing their surveillance of potential Iraqi agents, particularly the country's diplomatic missions.

Last week, the FBI issued an intelligence bulletin to local US law enforcement agencies, warning them to be alert to "lone extremists," who may operate on the fringes of established terrorist organizations. And the FBI has for months been tracking Iraqis in the US. Some FBI offices, like the one in Boston, are working double-time to identify and "put a tail on" those living around that city.

Nationally, the INS says there are at least 1,000 Iraqis in the US illegally - and the FBI is trying to find them. "Operating strictly within the confines of the Constitution, the FBI will be conducting voluntary interviews," says Bill Carter, spokesman for the FBI. The purpose, says Mr. Carter, is to gather intelligence about possible attacks, and to inform all citizens of their civil rights should they be subject to violence because of their origins.

During the Gulf War, Iraqi agents in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines attempted to bomb US embassy properties with the assistance of Iraq's embassies after Saddam Hussein threatened to bring the war to Americans wherever they lived, say Southeast Asian law enforcement officials.

In Indonesia, an Iraqi, posing as a member of a crew renovating then-US Ambassador John Monjo's home, planted a bomb in a flower pot outside his sitting room. It was found and defused before it went off, according to a diplomat posted to the US embassy at the time. A member of Iraq's embassy was then quietly asked by Jakarta to leave the country.

In Thailand, two Iraqi diplomats were deported after they were accused of smuggling explosives into the country.