Iraq to 'outsource' counterattacks
Baghdad is using embassies to forge ties with extremist groups to attack US facilities, say Filipino officials.
SINGAPORE — 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.
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.
But it was in the Philippines that Iraq allegedly came closest to success, and it is in the Philippines today where the most concrete allegations of Iraqi links to terrorism are emerging. In 1991, Iraqi diplomat Muwafak al-Ani was deported from the Philippines after an embassy car dropped off two would-be bombers near the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center in Manila, their target. As the two Iraqis prepared to place their bomb, it exploded, killing one of them. Mr. al-Ani's card was found in the surviving bombers pocket, and he was soon deported, according to Philippine government reports of the incident seen by the Monitor.
This time, the Iraq Embassy's second secretary Husham Z Hussein was expelled from the Philippines after it was discovered that he was in phone contact with members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has historic ties to Al Qaeda. The group is accused of planting a bomb in Zamboanga City that killed a US soldier, two Filipinos and injured 23 others last October. Filipino investigators, who allege that Mr. Hussein was a member of the Iraqi Intelligence service, say they believe Mr. Hussein was building ties to the Abu Sayyaf to jointly pursue attacks against the US.
"What the Iraqis and the Abu Sayyaf have in common is an enemy - the United States,'' says a Filipino intelligence official. "We think it's pretty clear that the Iraqis wanted a relationship with the Abu Sayyaf because they have the terrorist infrastructure that Iraq lacks.''
The Iraqi Embassy in Manila didn't respond to phone calls or written requests for comment. The Iraqi foreign ministry dismissed the allegations in a statement earlier this month, saying they were part of a US campaign "to distort the position of Iraq and to fabricate false evidence by which the US administration could justify its colonial and Zionist campaign against Iraq."
In the past, Iraq's secular regime had little contact with Islamic militants, preferring to carry out operations on its own. But intelligence analysts say Iraq's bungled efforts in 1991 convinced it that terrorism wasn't its strong point, and that it's looking to use money - and Muslim solidarity - to build relationships with groups more capable of carrying out attacks.
"Iraq's efforts in 1991 were sort of an afterthought - they pursued the operations in a haphazard manner and didn't get results,'' says a former US diplomat who worked in Southeast Asia. "It would make sense for them to work with people that have a record of success."
Filipino officials stumbled onto Hussein's links to Abu Sayyaf on October 9, after a cellphone-activated bomb the group had planted at the San Roque Elementary School in Zamboanga failed to detonate. Filipino bomb experts traced the call that was to have detonated bomb back to a cellphone that made calls to Hussein, and frequent calls to the Abu Sayyaf leaders Abu Madja and Hamsiraji Sali.
Mr. Sali has a $1 million US government bounty on his head because of his alleged kidnapping of three Americans, and the death of two of them, last year. Sali claimed in a TV interview last November that Iraq was seeking his group's help in bringing bombers into the Philippines. At the time, Filipino officials doubted his claim; Abu Sayyaf leaders frequently make extravagant claims about their international contacts. But now officials in Manila say there is some truth to what he said.
Mr. Madja and Sali have been blamed for the October 2 bombing that killed the US soldier, and are close associates of Abu Sayyaf leader Khaddafy Janjalani. The same cellphone also called Hussein on October 3, Filipino officials say. "This isn't a smoking gun, but the links to Abu Sayyaf members are bad enough,'' says a Filipino intelligence official. "Given the past behavior of Iraqi intelligence here, it seems likely they're seeking to franchise out attacks to local groups in the event of war."
Hussein was also supporting anti-war protests within the Philippines. Filipino intelligence officials say he was "aggressively" pursuing intelligence about the US-Filipino military relationship and providing support to political parties opposed to the US military presence in the Philippines.
• Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Washington.