Vol. 24 No. 18 · 19 September 2002

In Kurdistan

Jason Burke on the questionable link between Saddam and al-Qaida

3247 words

Since the British and Americans set up the no-fly zones that allowed the Kurds to establish their mini-state in northern Iraq, the Iraqis have stayed behind a row of fortifications on the high ground along the ceasefire line. From within Kurdistan, you can see a series of squat, square bunkers, on the hills three miles to the south, among the scruffy pines and burnt patches of grass. The Iraqi Army, I was told, occasionally take potshots at shepherds who venture into no man’s land in search of pasture. Except it isn’t really a no man’s land, because the Kurds, well aware that resisting Saddam’s tanks and helicopters would be impossible, haven’t bothered to fortify their frontline. In fact, the Kurds who live closest to the Iraqis are a group of senior citizens resettled by a Western aid organisation in some new breeze-block, three-room houses in the southern suburbs of the town of Chamchamal. They wouldn’t be much of a match for the Republican Guard.

As I write, we wait for Tony Blair to publish his ‘dossier’ – that is, to reveal the evidence for Saddam’s terrorist links and his non-conventional weapons capacity. No doubt we won’t have to wait much beyond that to see the B-52s back in action over the hills south of Chamchamal. He has previously spoken of ‘broad linkages’ between al-Qaida and Saddam. Last month I went to Kurdistan to see what I could find.

Sulaimaniya, forty miles from Chamchamal, is an open city surrounded by sandy hills, with parks and, in the summer, open-air kebab restaurants and watermelon sellers in the streets. Like all of Iraqi Kurdistan, it has changed a lot in the 11 years since I was last there. The two major Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), fought a short, vicious civil war, but now ‘tolerate each other’, a PUK official told me. Last month I stayed in the new Sulaimaniya Palace Hotel, which has a restaurant at the top where Iraqi Kurdistan’s nouveaux riches – smugglers, foreigners or UN employees, who are paid twice as much as government ministers – can get bad pasta and Turkish beer for $10.

I met Muhammad Mansour Shahab in the office of the Deputy Chief of Investigations of the PUK Intelligence Service. It was about ten o’clock in the morning, and already hot. The sun, reflecting from the whitewashed courtyard outside, glared through the window. The Deputy Chief himself, handgun jammed in the waist of his brown slacks, had gone to a meeting. Shahab, my translator and I sat and looked at one another.

Shahab had been brought out from the cells a few minutes earlier. The conditions, he told me, were fine. The prisoners could even watch television. Earlier I had seen the prison yard where about forty men paced up and down. They had looked healthy enough and so did Shahab. He was arrested early last year trying to cross from the Kurdish-controlled section of northern Iraq to Baghdad’s territory. He’d been on his way from Iran. He had confessed to being an Iraqi agent who’d been sent to kill someone in the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, the Baghdad-backed terrorist group operating within Iran. Quite who he had killed and why wasn’t immediately clear. His Kurdish captors were unsure why he had been given a seven-year prison sentence. Anyway, the contract killing was only part of his story.

For the first six months of his imprisonment he had kept the rest to himself. Then, last October, he told a fellow prisoner, who told the guards, who told the Deputy Chief of Investigations. When, in the early spring, a journalist from the New Yorker was in Sulaimaniya, Shahab told him, too. The resulting story, by Jeffrey Goldberg, was published in March under the headline ‘The Threat of Saddam’. It announced that ‘the Kurds may have evidence’ of Saddam’s ‘ties to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network’. The main link was Shahab. Hawks in Washington are keen to find such links. The joint FBI and CIA investigation into a report by Czech Intelligence that Mohammed Atta met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague has shown that Atta was almost certainly in the US at the time. The lack of evidence with which to inculpate Saddam has been a problem. The New Yorker’s story thus caused some excitement; Goldberg was interviewed by CNN.

Shahab was born in Abadan in Iran in 1973. He never went to school and can barely read. In 1996 he started smuggling TVs and videos from the United Arab Emirates into Iran through the Iranian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas. It wasn’t long before another smuggling gang introduced him to a Pashtun Afghan from Kandahar called Uthman Salman Daoud, who asked Shahab for ‘all the weapons you can get’ and offered payment in drugs.

Shahab told his story fluently and coherently. It sounded plausible. In the summer of 1996 the Taliban were closing on Kabul, and needed weapons. The Taliban’s headquarters were in Kandahar, where several big smugglers were (and still are) based. The city is in the heart of Afghanistan’s opium-producing regions.

Shahab said he picked up 500 kalashnikovs from Ahvaz, a city in south-west Iran. Driving them to the border, he was stopped by an Iranian Army patrol and forced to shoot and kill two soldiers. When he delivered the weapons, Uthman suggested Shahab accompany him to Afghanistan to lie low. It took them, Shahab said, six or seven hours to drive from the border through the mountains and across the desert to Kandahar, where he spent ten days before returning to Iran with five tons of opium. He bought ammunition, kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and he took them back to Uthman’s men at the border.

In 1997, Shahab said, delivering a consignment of ammunition to Kandahar, he was told by Uthman that he would be introduced to a ‘big man’. At 10 p.m. he was driven out of the city and up into the mountains, where he met Osama bin Laden in a cave. Bin Laden asked if he was the man who had killed the Iranian soldiers. Shahab said he was, but gave a false Arabic name. Bin Laden, as a native Arabic speaker, realised he was lying, and Shahab spent 21 days in a lock-up in a nearby village before giving his real name. He was taken back to bin Laden, and after swearing loyalty to ‘the sheikh’ on a Koran he was sent back to Iran to buy more guns. Throughout 1997, he ferried guns from Iran to Uthman at the border. In early 1998, Shahab met bin Laden again in the same mountain cave. Bin Laden thanked him for being so helpful, and asked for more weapons ‘if he could get them’.

In mid-1998, Uthman asked Shahab to look into smuggling across the Iran-Iraq border. If Shahab could move the goods across the frontier, Uthman said, the rest would be taken care of. Shahab bought a herd of cows and goats as cover and hired two local men to help him. One day Uthman contacted Shahab from inside Iraq, and gave him a meeting place near Baghdad. Shahab crossed the marshes to an Iraqi town called Fao, where a car was waiting for him. He was driven to Baghdad and then on to al-Oja, the village of Saddam Hussein’s family, a hundred miles north of the capital. There he was taken to the house of Ustaz Luay Khairallah, Saddam’s brother-in-law, where Uthman was waiting. Uthman told him to take ten air-conditioning units with TNT concealed inside them across the border. Two men from the Mujahideen-e-Khalq would pick them up on the other side.

In February 1999, Shahab was summoned back to al-Oja, where he saw Luay Khairallah again. This time he was given three hundred 82mm mortars and four hundred RPGs, and told to take them across to Iran. With five others Shahab drove the munitions to the border in three trucks, transferred them onto four boats, crossed the marshes to Iran and put them back on three more trucks, which were driven to Kandahar by the men from the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, accompanied by Uthman. Shahab stayed in Iran until 2000.

In early 2000, Shahab said, he had accompanied Uthman on another trip to Iraq. Back in Ustaz Luay’s house, they had met Ali Hassan Majid, known to the Kurds and others as ‘Ali Chemical’, for the enthusiasm with which he carried out Saddam’s orders to use poison gas in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. Five thousand people were killed. Ali Chemical gave Shahab a series of tasks, which he was unwilling to tell me about. Once they were successfully completed, Ali Chemical asked him to smuggle thirty refrigerator motors into Iran. Shahab said their housings appeared to have been reinforced, and filled with some kind of fluid. When Shahab asked Uthman what they contained, he was told: ‘My life and your life.’ Once Shahab had got them into Iran, Uthman took them on to Kandahar.

And this is the link between Saddam and al-Qaida. Clear evidence, the hawks say, that one of the most notorious men in Saddam’s regime, with a proven history in chemical weapons, was sending secret fluid-filled containers to Osama bin Laden. Not conclusive, but good enough.

But Shahab is a liar. He may well be a smuggler, and a murderer too, but substantial chunks of his story are not true. First, there are inconsistencies between what Shahab told the New Yorker and what he told me. He told Goldberg he had met bin Laden in a tent, not a cave, and said he himself had delivered the liquid-filled fridge motors to the Taliban, and killed the smugglers who had helped him. Then there are practical problems with what he told me. A Soviet-made 82mm mortar weighs sixty kilos with its bipod and baseplate. Even a lightweight Iraqi 60mm weighs nearly half that. An RPG, unloaded, weighs seven kilos. Four hundred of the former and three hundred of the latter would be a load of more than twenty tons. Could six men load and unload that weight (twice) in five hours? It also takes longer than six hours to drive from the Iranian border to Kandahar. Shahab’s mistake is understandable, though: he has never been to Kandahar. When I asked him to describe the city he said it was composed entirely of mud houses, which it isn’t. I spent several weeks in Kandahar during 1998 and 1999 (when Shahab said he was there), and there are many relatively substantial concrete houses. There are also (or were before the US bombing) several government buildings of three or more storeys, and a large mosque. Uthman’s house in the city was made of mud, too, he told me, which indicates a remarkably ascetic lifestyle for a successful smuggler.

So why was Shahab lying? Possibly because, as the Deputy Chief of Investigations admitted, his loquacity might get him a few years off his sentence. And where did he get the material for the lies from? Televisions were introduced into the cells in August last year.

At the end of our interview I told Shahab that I didn’t believe he had ever been to Kandahar or met bin Laden. He didn’t deny it. Instead he asked me who I was. Why was I in Afghanistan? Was I a spy? An American? Who? I showed him my British passport and press card. ‘You are a difficult man,’ he laughed.

Other prisoners held by the PUK say al-Qaida has links with Iraq – but not with Saddam. In the last ten years, a radical Islamic movement has grown in Kurdistan. The most extreme group has carved out a hundred square-mile fiefdom in the hills between Halabja and the Iranian border. There the Ansar-ul-Islam, a group of six hundred or so Kurdish Islamists bolstered by around seventy foreigners, most of them Arabs, have set up a miniaturised version of the Taliban’s Afghanistan – television is banned, ‘immodest behaviour’ by women is punished, and there are training camps for fighters and suicide bombers.

After speaking to Shahab, I interviewed a series of Ansar-ul-Islam activists. Many were talking to the press for the first time. For the most part, they spoke coherently and cogently about their organisation. At least three had left Ansar-ul-Islam and given themselves up to the PUK because they were unhappy at the growing influence of ‘foreigners’ (i.e. Arabs) in the group. They said that several of the leaders of Ansar-ul-Islam, most of them veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, visited bin Laden in Afghanistan last year and requested his assistance. They met with senior al-Qaida men such as Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, and received training in camps run by the group. After two of the three main extremist groups in Kurdistan had solicited his aid, bin Laden sent an emissary, a Jordanian Arab, to the third, offering them funding and facilities, too. The offer was accepted. Since the American war in Afghanistan, around thirty fighters from al-Qaida or associated groups have fled to the Ansar-ul-Islam enclave.

Though the group may recently have been radicalised under the influence of bin Laden and his agents, the roots of Ansar-ul-Islam lie far back in Cold War politics; in the failure of the West to fund reconstruction in Kurdistan or to deal with the Baghdad regime properly after 1991; in the massive influx of Saudi-backed Wahabi organisations that disbursed huge sums in Kurdistan in the early 1990s with the express intention of making converts and fostering internecine strife among the Kurds. Saddam may well have infiltrated the Ansar-ul-Islam (it would be odd if he had not), but that appears to be about as far as his involvement goes.

The day after seeing Shahab I returned to the prison to interview Didar, a suicide bomber manqué. He was born in 1983 in the city of Arbil, the de facto capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. He had five brothers and three sisters. His father, who was not a religious man, was unemployed, but with two sons (illegally) in the UK, the family enjoyed a good standard of living. They owned their house and a car. Didar, the sixth child, studied until he was 15. His favourite subject was Arabic. He left school without getting a job, and began spending every evening at the mosque. He accepted an invitation to join a Koranic study group, where his teacher introduced him to the key thinkers of modern radical Islam, such as Syed Qutb and Abdullah Azzam. Through his teacher, Didar met other young men with similar ideas. One, Hisham, became a good friend. Soon they were talking about the new party they would form that would be part of al-Qaida.

In November 2001, Didar was told by his teacher that a group of militants had announced a jihad in Kurdistan. With Hisham he took a bus across the mountains to Sulaimaniya, and then another out towards Halabja. A taxi took them up to the group’s headquarters. The first man Didar met was another Kurd from Arbil, who had spent most of the 1990s in Afghanistan before returning to Kurdistan a few months previously. For the next three months Didar was instructed in basic infantry tactics, explosives, urban warfare and assassinations. Didar wasn’t interested in going abroad. ‘I believed we had to start first in our own region,’ he said.

The idea of ‘martyrdom operations’ was first raised by the Arab instructors, but it was Hisham who starting talking about suicide seriously.

Hisham said we should do it together. He quoted all the verses of the Koran and repeated the prophet’s teaching and every day we talked about it. When two of our group were martyred in an attack on the peshmerga in Halabja I decided that I wanted to do this too. I knew that PUK people were kufr [unbelievers] and our duty was to fight against them to free our nation. I told our leaders that I was ready and they called me on the radio and they showed me the jacket and demonstrated how it worked. Then we had lunch.

As Didar talked, one of the PUK security men went to a cupboard and pulled out the blue nylon jacket that had been taken off him when he had been arrested. It had a slab of TNT over the chest and another in the small of the back. A belt contained more explosives. There were two metal switches, one for the jacket and one for the belt.

‘What date was this?’ I asked.

‘It was 12 June,’ he said. ‘I know because it was the World Cup.’

‘You were watching the World Cup?’

‘There were no televisions because they are forbidden. But I was following it in the newspapers.’

‘What was your favourite team?’

‘England. Michael Owen, and I like McManaman and Seaman.’

‘England is your favourite team and you were about to blow yourself up in the jihad against kufr?’

‘Politics is one thing. Football is something else.’

On the day before his martyrdom, Didar was driven to a house on the outskirts of Halabja. He was told that when he heard shooting the next morning he was to make his way to the local PUK office and blow himself up. He ate dinner and then watched a Jackie Chan film with his host.

I woke up at 3 a.m. and put the jacket on. But there was no shooting so I took it off again and returned to the camp. I went to one of the leaders and spent three days with him. He spoke to me about self-martyrdom and faith and my duty. On the third day after morning prayer I went in a car back to Halabja again and went to the same house and I slept until lunchtime and then prayed and ate and then waited until after afternoon prayers and then put on my jacket and went to the bus stop. I was calm and not at all nervous. I got on the bus that went through the bazaar and I got down just before the PUK office and walked up to it with the switch in my pocket. I walked up to the peshmerga at the door and gave him the name of a man who I thought would be inside and said I had come to see him. When the man came out I was going to press the switch, but the peshmerga asked, ‘What is that underneath your shirt?’ I said, ‘Nothing,’ and he asked again and I did not think of anything, and I said, ‘It’s TNT,’ and then they arrested me. I was glad. I knew the men there were from Arbil and I did not want to kill people from my own town. I didn’t want to die.

A lot of Kurds have died in recent years. Tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands were killed in Saddam’s ‘al-Anfal’ campaigns of 1988-89, in the subsequent uprising and then the civil war. I traced the men I had been with in 1991. One had been killed in the civil war, another was dying of kidney failure, a third had died of leukaemia, a fourth was prematurely aged, a fifth had suffered a severe stroke and was semi-paralysed. Others remained illiterate peasant farmers with little prospect of a better life in the near future.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences