Focus on key operative who visited Baghdad




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in London

Financial Times, 6 February 2003

Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council offered new details of alleged ties between al-Qaeda affiliates and the Iraqi government. However, the US secretary of state stopped short of saying al-Qaeda’s central command was operationally tied to Iraq.

Mr Powell’s evidence centred on the presence in Baghdad of Abu Musaab al-Zarkawi, an al-Qaeda poisons expert. Mr al-Zarkawi is known to have worked on al-Qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction programme in Afghanistan, and has also been implicated in the murder last October of a US diplomat in Jordan.

During Mr al-Zarkawi’s visit to Baghdad for medical treatment last May, he was accompanied by up to 24 other “al-Qaeda affiliates”, Mr Powell claimed, adding that those still there “are now operating freely in the [Iraqi] capital”.

Mr al-Zarkawi is known to have spent extensive periods in a part of northern Iraq not under Baghdad’s control, in which the Ansar al-Islam group linked to al-Qaeda is known to be experimenting with chemical weapons. Iraq twice refused US requests for Mr al-Zarkawi to be extradited.

European and US intelligence officials say Mr al-Zarkawi is a key figure in al-Qaeda’s European terrorist operations. Mr Powell said it was these operations that had led to the recent killing of a police officer in the northern UK city of Manchester during a round-up of alleged terrorists.

Mr Powell also yesterday strengthened US claims that Ansar al-Islam – and, by extension, al-Qaeda itself – has direct links to Baghdad. He said the Iraqi intelligence service had an officer whose task was to liaise directly with the “most senior levels of the al-Ansar”.

In response to Mr Powell’s revelation, a senior non-US intelligence official, who confirmed the existence of this official liaison, said yesterday: “What it adds up to is that Iraq knows officially of an al-Qaeda affiliated group that is developing chemical weapons.”

Mr Powell said this liaison was the latest in a series of contacts between al-Qaeda and Iraq. While at least four such communications had been known, he said there had been at least eight high-level meetings. In addition, Mr Powell said, Osama bin Laden had met an Iraqi intelligence officer while al-Qaeda was based in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in 1996. He also said an al-Qaeda operative, Abu Abdallah al-Iraqi, visited Baghdad several times in 1999-2000, with a mission to develop co-operation on weapons of mass destruction.

Until now UK and US intelligence officials have remained unconvinced by the allegations made by senior US politicians of a link between Baghdad and the terrorist network. A senior US official said yesterday that Mr Powell’s testimony was “their best effort”.

But intelligence officials are now looking carefully at new evidence which gives strong signs that the secular outlook of Saddam Hussein’s regime does not exclude the possibility of an alliance with the strongly religious al-Qaeda. The new evidence centres on the importance within al-Qaeda of former members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom have been arrested in Spain since September 11.

Several key members of the Syrian group who joined al-Qaeda received military training, finance and other assistance at the al-Rashdiya camp outside Baghdad until 1986. Mr Powell did not refer specifically to this strong evidence of a readiness within the Iraqi regime to work with Islamic groups, but said that he was not “comfortable” with the view that such ties could be discounted on ideological or religious grounds.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.