FBI agents search for clues to bomber’s identity




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in London

Financial Times, 20 August 2003

Evidence of the careful planning and bomb-making skills that experts say lay behind Tuesday’s devastating attack on the United Nations headquarters in Iraq has focused attention on both Islamic extremists and members of the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein as the possible culprits.

FBI investigators in Baghdad confirmed on Wednesday that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, after human remains were found in the bomb-laden cement truck that was driven in to the UN compound.

Thomas Fuentes, the top FBI agent in Iraq, said the bomb consisted of up to 1,500lb of explosive, which had detonated other munitions, including Soviet-era artillery and mortar shells.

Ahmed Chalabi, a member of Iraq’s 25-strong Governing Council, said: “We have no doubt that those who carried out this terrorist criminal act are the remnants of the regime and their friends.”

Mr Chalabi told a press conference at the heavily fortified former presidential palace used by the US-led administration in Baghdad that the Governing Council had passed on intelligence to the Americans about a meeting on August 14 of regime loyalists and Islamists planning to attack a “soft target, not the CPA [the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority], . . . using a truck to be detonated.”

Both Mr Chalabi and Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Iraq, on Wednesday named Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda-linked network whose base in northern Iraq was heavily bombarded by the US early in the war. Mr Bremer has linked Ansar al-Islam to the car bomb at the Jordanian embassy on August 7, in which 19 people died.

However, he also said he believed more than 100 foreign “terrorists” had entered Iraq, reinforcing the view that the country has become a focus for Islamists from neighbouring Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East.

“Iraq has become a major field for the Mujahideen [Muslim religious fighters],” said Mustafa Alani, a terrorism specialist at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He said Islamists from other countries had found Iraq’s increasingly angry and despondent population ready to assist them.

“The local Islamic groups in Iraq don’t have the capability to carry out bomb attacks like those on the Jordanian embassy and UN headquarters. And it would be a joke to say that it would be Saddam’s supporters,” Mr Alani, himself an Iraqi, said.

Some Iraq experts have dismissed the idea that there is an alliance between religious fundamentalists and diehards of Mr Hussein’s nominally secular Ba’ath party. They also stress that the suicidal nature of the attack, as well as the knowledge of explosives and the identification of a relatively weak point in the security arrangements of the UN compound, all pointed to experienced Islamic terrorists having been behind the attack.

But others see scope for co-operation. “There’s no coherent organisation linking Iraqis and non-Iraqis, but it’s hard to conceive of foreigners being able to operate independently in Iraq. So, they would be getting some local support,” said David Claridge of Janusian, a risk management company advising contractors now operating in Iraq.

The level of experience needed for Tuesday’s attack is widespread in the region, though it is most closely associated with the al-Qaeda terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden. However, few analysts see al-Qaeda playing a leading role in Iraq, due to the damage done to its global network by intelligence agencies in the past two years.

“There is al-Qaeda linked involvement in the jihadi cause in Iraq,” said a senior western counter-terrorism official, referring to the religious campaign against the coalition forces. “But there’s as much talk about other people doing things there, people with no clear link to al-Qaeda.”


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.