Ex-smuggler describes Iraqi plot to blow up US warship

Saddam Hussein was allegedly planning nine terrorist operations.

Iraq planned clandestine attacks against American warships in the Persian Gulf in early 2001, according to an operative of Iranian nationality who says he was given the assignment by ranking members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle.

The alleged plan involved loading at least one trade ship with half a ton of explosives, and – sailing under an Iranian flag to disguise Iraq's role – using a crew of suicide bombers to blow up a US ship in the Gulf.

The operative, who says he smuggled weapons for Iraq through Iran for Al Qaeda during the late 1990s, says he was told that $16 million had already been set aside for the assignment – the first of "nine new operations" he says the Iraqis wanted him to carry out, which were to include missions in Kuwait.

The first plot, remarkably similar to the attack on the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, was never carried out. The status of the other nine operations remains unclear.

The smuggler, Mohamed Mansour Shahab, now in the custody of Kurdish opponents of Mr. Hussein in northern Iraq, says he was first told of the role he was to play in the plan in February 2000 – one month after an apparently unrelated attempt in Yemen to target a US destroyer, the USS The Sullivans, failed when the bombers' boat, overloaded with explosives, sank. Suicide bombers later succeeded in striking the USS Cole in Yemen, leaving 17 US sailors dead and a gaping 40-by-40 foot hole in the side of the warship.

Terror's footprints

If this Iranian smuggler is telling the truth, it would represent the first information in nearly a decade directly linking Baghdad to terrorist plans. No evidence has surfaced to date that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks or the bombing of the Cole. But President George W. Bush has declared Iraq part of an "axis of evil," and makes no secret of his determination to end the rule of Saddam Hussein as part of his "war on terrorism."

The last publicly known terrorism involvement by Baghdad was a failed assassination plot against Bush's father, former President George H. W. Bush, during a visit to Kuwait in 1993. The elder Bush orchestrated the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.

"The Iraqis may have been waging war against the US for 10 years without us even knowing about it," says Magnus Ranstorp, at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Iraq may have fought, using terrorism as the ultimate fifth column, to counter US sanctions and bombing. Plausible deniability is something Iraq ... would want to ensure, putting layer upon layer to hide their role."

Part of the justification for any future US strike against Iraq may be the kind of information provided by the young-faced, nervous Iranian smuggler, now held in the US-protected Kurdish "safe haven" of northern Iraq.

Mr. Shahab spoke last weekend in an intelligence complex run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two rival armed Kurdish factions that control northern Iraq. He did not appear coerced to speak, and bore no physical signs that he had been mistreated since his arrest on May 16, 2000.

Still, shaking nervously and swallowing repeatedly, he at first refused to answer questions, saying that he was concerned about his family's safety in Iran. Two days later – after learning that part of his smuggling history and role in several killings had already been made public in the New Yorker magazine – he agreed to describe information that he had previously withheld, about Iraq's plan to target US warships.

"If this information is true, it would be in the interest of the US, and of all the world, for the US to be here to find out," says a senior Kurdish security officer involved in the case. Kurdish investigators were initially skeptical of some parts of Shahab's story. But the investigators say they later independently confirmed precise descriptions of the senior Iraqi officials Shahab says he met, by cross-examining a veteran Iraqi intelligence officer in their custody, and checking other sources.

Wearing a pale-green military jacket, dark-blue sweat pants and worn plastic sandals, Shahab softly recounts how he smuggled arms and explosives for Al Qaeda and the Iraqis. He at times flashes a boyish smile – the same disarming grin he uses in images on a roll of film he was carrying when arrested. Shahab also claims to be an assassin. The photos – shown to the Monitor – show Shahab killing an unidentified man with a knife. He grins at the camera as he holds up the victim's severed ear.

During a two-and-a-half-hour interview, Shahab describes the origin of the plot to blow up US warships, while his hands work nervously. He received an urgent phone call early in 2000, from a longtime Afghan contact named Othman, who told him to go to a meeting in Iraq. In February 2000, Shahab says he was taken to the village of Ouija, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein near Hussein's clan base at Tikrit, in north central Iraq.

At the meeting, he says, were two influential Iraqis, fellow clansmen of Saddam Hussein: Ali Hassan al-Majid – Mr. Hussein's powerful cousin and former defense minister – and Luai Khairallah, a cousin and friend of Hussein's notoriously brutal son Uday. Mr. al-Majid is known among Iraqi Kurds as "Chemical Ali," for his key role in the genocidal gassing and destruction of villages in northern Iraq that killed more than 100,000 Kurds in 1987 and 1988.

The Iraqis said they considered Shahab to be Arab, and not Persian, and could trust him because he was from Ahvaz, a river city in southwest Iran rich with smugglers and close to the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Kuwait. It is known as "Arabistan" because of the number of Arabs living there.

Nine missions

Al-Majid and Mr. Khairallah spoke of the nine operations: "We've allocated $16 million already for you," Shahab remembers them telling him. "We start with the first one: We need you to buy boats, pack them with 500 kilograms of explosives each, and explode US ships in Kuwait and the Gulf."

The plan was "long term," Shahab says, and meant to be carried out a year or so later, in early 2001, after he had carried out another mission to take refrigerator motors to the Taliban. Each motor had a container attached holding an apparently important liquid unknown to Shahab. He says he doesn't know if all nine operations mentioned were similar to the boat plan, or completely different. Some were to take place in Kuwait.

The attack against a US vessel, Shahab recounts al-Majid and Khairallah explaining, was to be "a kind of revenge because [the Americans] were killing Iraqis, and women and children were dying" because of stringent UN sanctions, which the US backed most strongly. "They said: 'This is the Arab Gulf, not the American Gulf,' " Shahab recalls, referring to the large US naval presence in the area.

The Iraqis knew that Shahab, with his legitimate Iranian passport and wealth of smuggler contacts, would have little trouble purchasing the common 400-ton wooden trading boats. He would have raised few eyebrows sailing under an Iranian flag – the only ships in the area, since UN sanctions prohibit such Iraqi trade.

Shahab was to rent or buy a date farm along the water at Qasba, on the marshy Shatt al-Arab waterway that narrowly divides Iraq and Iran, just a few hundred yards from the Iraqi port city of Fao. Using a powerful small smuggling boat, he says he would have been able to reach Kuwaiti waters from Qasba in just 10 minutes.

Iraqi agents were to provide the explosives and suicide squad; Shahab was to handle the boats and the regular crew. "The group that worked with me would sail the ship, and not know about the explosives," Shahab says. "When we crossed out of Iranian waters, we were to kill the crew, hand over the ship to the suicide bombers, and then leave by a smuggler's way."

The job, Shahab said, "was easy for me, I could start at any time." Shahab said the Iraqis told him they "had a lot of suicide bombers in Baghdad" ready to take part in such an operation.

But the plans were never finalized for Shahab, and after delivering the refrigerator motors to the Taliban, he was arrested in northern Iraq in May 2000, with his roll of film, as he tried to avoid Iranian military exercises going on along the border to the south. Though carrying a false Kurdish identity card, his accent gave him away at the last PUK checkpoint.

Iraqi experts say that such a plot is plausible, since Saddam Hussein's multiple intelligence services are sophisticated and smart.

"Anything is possible," says Sean Boyne, an Ireland-based Iraq specialist, who writes regularly for Jane's Intelligence Review in London. "Certainly Saddam has gone to great trouble to shoot down [US and British] aircraft" patrolling no-fly zones in northern and south Iraq, Mr. Boyne says. "He has invested heavily in his antiaircraft system. He is eager to have a crack at the Americans."

That impulse may also help explain the presence of a training camp at Salman Pak, a former biological-weapons facility south of Baghdad. It includes a mock-up Boeing 707 fuselage, which Western intelligence agencies believe has been used for several years to train Islamic militants from across the region in the art of hijacking. A senior Iraqi officer who defected told The New York Times last November that the regime was increasingly getting into the terrorism business. "We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States," an unnamed lieutenant general said. "The Gulf War never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this."

Still, the political situation Saddam Hussein finds himself in today – in light of the example of decisive US military action in Afghanistan – may not be as conducive to a strike at the US as it was when Shahab says he first heard of the plan to blow up a US warship. In recent months, Boyne notes,

Iraq has engaged in a region-wide charm offensive to portray itself as a victim, and to build Arab and European support against any US attack. Baghdad is even pursuing warmer ties with Kuwait (at the Arab League summit last week) and with Iran, in an attempt to gain mileage from Iran's anger at being listed as part of Washington's "axis of evil."

While the Bush administration focuses on Iraq's apparent pursuit of weapons of mass destruction – in the absence of UN weapons inspectors, who were kicked out in 1998 – clues to Iraq's true role may lie in the credibility of the 29-year-old smuggler from Ahvaz.

Why is he talking now? "Afghanistan is finished, so now I feel free to speak," says Shahab, who was given the name Mohamed Jawad by accomplices in Afghanistan. Asked if he fears the wrath of senior members of the regime in Baghdad, who still hold power, Shahab replies: "I lost everything. For many years I worked with assassinations and killing – it doesn't make a difference to me."

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