By Richard Miniter, Pajamas Media Washington Editor
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq–With a purple scrunchie in his pony tail, a black cap, and a platoon of blazing white teeth, Abdullah Rahman al-Shamary looks like a failed rock star. And in a way, he is.
Under Saddam Hussein, al-Shamary could go anywhere and do anything. He was a “made man,” and was an officer in its feared Mukhabarat General, an intelligence service run by Saddam’s son, Qusay. And, Qusay oversaw the Mukhabarat’s relationship with Jund al-Islam, an al Qaeda wing operating in Northern Iraq before the 2003 American invasion.
For the past five years, al-Shamary has languished in a prison outside this provincial Kurdish city. Still he is relaxed and in high spirits today. It makes him feel good to talk about the old days; he smiles as he talks.
So far, he told me, he hasn’t talked to any Americans. No CIA officers, no military intelligence officials, no congressional investigators, no journalists. This is a strange omission because if al-Shamary’s information checks out, he was one of several human links between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda. He could be the missing link.
Abdullah Rahman al-Shamary grew up Mosul, a fading industrial melting pot–like Detroit. He was recruited into the intelligence service based on his grades and his size–he still moves with a athlete’s grace. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Mukhabarat General and worked as a security officer for Hussein Kamel, the director of the Special Security Apparatus. Not coincidentally, Kamel was also the son-in-law of Saddam Hussein. He first met Qusay, through Kamel, in 1987.
Kamel later defected, revealed that Saddam had violated the Gulf War I cease-fire agreements by restarting his WMD programs, and was subsequently lured back to Iraq with a offer of immunity. Saddam had him executed in 1996, forcing his sister (Kamel’s wife) to watch.
But, in the late 1980s, Kamel, Qusay and Al-Shamary were thick as thieves.
“Mullah Krekar’s relationship started with the Iraqi government in 2001,” al-Shamary said.
Mullah Krekar was the leader of an al Qaeda affiliate that has operated in many names: Jund al Islam, Ansar al Islam, Ansar al Sunnah, and today, Al Qaeda in Kurdistan.
Al-Shamary was emphatic that Saddam’s son ran the local al Qaeda operation. “He directed it, he ran it.” Qusay controlled Jund al Islam, he said, by supplying money, weapons,and providing diplomatic passports and by sending documents via “diplomatic pouches” to Iraq embassies world-wide. From there, the messages would be passed to local cells.
Al-Shamary told me what he saw. I insisted that I only wanted to know what he was an eyewitness to–no hearsay, office gossip or news accounts recirculated as inside information. He understood. That is how you are supposed to operate in intelligence, he told the translator.
“In 2001 I was an information officer, between the leadership of Jund al Islam (which
became Ansar al Islam) and our office. I was the liaison. Just an information officer. Abu Wail was the brigadier general in charge of funding” the group.
Abu Wail is the son-in-law of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s handpicked vice president and the highest-ranking Saddam-era official still at large. On very important missions, al-Shamary said, “Abu Wail would go alone.”
Abu Wail himself is still at large. Capturing him might reveal a good deal about Iraq’s pre-war relationship with al Qaeda.
In addition to Abu Wail, three other trusted Mukhabarat officers worked inside the al Qaeda camp, al-Shamary said. They were selected by Qusay, he said. And perhaps by Saddam himself.
Al-Shamary’s role was relatively minor. “I carried orders from Baghdad to Kurdistan” and back. “These were written orders, usually on a computer disc.”
He did not know the contents of the computer disks. It would have been against orders for him to read the disks and might have invited retribution. The disks were described to him as containing orders and reports and he has no reason to doubt that.
No matter what the contents of the disks, the fact that they moved back and forth between Saddam’s intelligence service and Krekar’s terrorist outfit speaks for itself. Intelligence analysts may debate whether it was truly an “operational relationship” (although it certainly looks like one), the fact al-Shamary regularly visited the camp to pick up and drop off computer disks indicates a relationship.
When al-Shamary was supposed to deliver money, he received cash from Qusay. “I gave it to Abu Wail, who was higher in rank,” he said. If any money went missing, he did not want to be faulted. Embezzling officers were often executed. Al-Shamary said that the money passed through Abu Wail to the Kurdish Democratic Party, which then gave it to Mullah Krekar’s al Qaeda offshoot.
“I was captured here in June 2002 in Biara, in Abu Wail’s base,” in Sulaimaniya province, by Kurdish forces.
As U.S. forces moved in 2003, the al Qaeda forces scattered. The able-bodied followed Abu Musab al Zarqawi south into central Iraq.
What about the wounded?
“Iran helped them. When they had injuries, they treated the injuries inside Haraman,” a border city in Iran.
Al-Shamary said that Iranian intelligence had long had officers inside the same terror camp. Sometimes Iraqi officers would see the Iranians at a distance. Iran was working al Qaeda for its own purposes. At the time, they were mostly interested in monitoring Iranian Kurds holed up in Iraqi Kurdistan. “They [Iran] facilitated their travel, they gave them weapons, helped wounded people. Iranian intelligence met with them. They had separate or different interests in the relationship. Yes they would be at the same camp.”
Iran had also facilitated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s flight from Afghanistan, across Iran, and guiding him to the al Qaeda camp in northern Iraq.
Why would avowedly secular Iraq help an affiliate of al Qaeda?
“These relations with al Qaeda started after the Kuwait invasion in 1991 because of special interests between Iraqi and al Qaeda organization.”
By “Kuwaiti invasion,” he does not mean Saddam’s illegal annexation in August 1990, but the American liberation of that oil kingdom in 1991.
His other phrase–“special interests”–lingers in the air. I wonder if it is simply an artifact of translation.
Special interests? I ask.
He smiles, then exhales smoke. “Fighting against Americans.”
How did Iraq help? “We helped them by building military camps in Salman Pak, in Khos, Khalis,
Yusafiya. Iraq is expert in chemical weapons. We trained them in chemical weapons. We trained them about ground fighting, too.”
Apparently, they learned well.
UPDATE: It turns out that the “missing link” has been spotted before, by Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writing for the Weekly Standard in March 2004. Here’s a link to a copy of the Standard piece: Saddam’s Ambassador to al-Qaeda
I relied on the word of Kurdish prison officials and the prisoner himself that he had not been previously interviewed by an American. And I also googled al-Shamary’s name. I should have tried variant spellings, as Arabic names can be rendered into English in various ways. Spell it “al-Shamari” and you can get plenty of hits.
Thanks to the awesome power of the Internet, the record could be checked and updated correctly. I stand by the rest of the article and, if anything, Schanzer’s piece supports mine. The bigger question: Why wasn’t al-Shamary’s story on the front pages of every major paper?