SULAIMANIYA, Iraq–When I first see Osman Ali Mustafa, he is sitting on a small plastic chair in the watch office of an Iraqi police station with his hands cuffed behind his back. He is wearing tan Lee Rider corduroys and a purple shirt with a cigarette-pack bulge in the pocket. Sullen and unshaved and 21, he is trying to look tough. He doesn’t need to. He was an Iranian intelligence operative recruited to spy on American bases and murder an Iraqi police chief with 26.4 pounds of TNT.
His story, which he tells through a Kurdish translator I brought along, takes us inside the secret world of the Iraqi insurgency. It does not fit what we think we know about the enemy in Iraq. It is not a saga of religious zealotry.
Mustafa smirks when he tells me he is a “secularist” who does not pray and boasts about enjoying whiskey, drugs and prostitutes. He is a Sunni who does not mind working for Shia, provided the pay is good. And far from being a patriot, he betrayed his country to work for Iran. Finally, his story shows that the terrorists are not supermen who are able to walk like ghosts through layers of security. At the street-level they are petty criminals who can be caught. What makes Mustafa’s story important is that it reveals the human side of the insurgency. It’s a tale of dirty cops, rivalry, revenge, recruitment and control that climaxes in a fireball in Halabja, Iraq in June 2005.
Although he had little choice in the matter, I asked him why he wants to talk to an American journalist. “I am very bored. I want to be executed now.” He has betrayed his country and everyone–his family, his girl friend, his former colleagues in the security service–who was ever close to him. He has no visitors and, as he says, “no hope.” The interview about his life is just a way to pass the time.
Born in Halabja, Mustafa was nearly two when Saddam Hussein carried out the infamous poisonous gas attacks there that killed tens of thousands in 1988. As a teenager, he worked as a police mole inside Ansar al-Islam, a terror group linked to al Qaeda chieftain Abu Musab Zarqawi and partly funded by Saddam Hussein. Before the 2003 U.S. invasion, the group spent its time killing Kurdish police chiefs in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan that Saddam did not control, owing to Kurdish Peshmerga ground forces and the U.S. aircraft patrolling the “no-fly zone.” The al Qaeda base was only a few miles from Mustafa’s hometown. Thanks to his experience as a police informant, Mustafa had a bright future in the security services.
When he has 17, Mustafa watched from afar as “Operation Viking Hammer,” a joint American-Kurdish effort, smashed the al Qaeda base in Biara and scattered the terrorists it did not kill. The survivors fled to Mariwan and other Iranian border towns. Ever since, Kurdish security services have been battling the surviving jihadis, who send suicide bombers into Iraq from their Iranian bases. More than 100 have been captured coming from Iran since “Operation Viking Hammer,” the Director of Security for the Sulaimaniya Governorate Serkawt Hassan told me.
The group, once known as Ansar al Islam and later Ansar al Sunnah, now calls itself “Al Qaeda in Kurdistan.”
Mustafa joined the Department of Security, the Kurdish equivalent of the FBI, in 2004. He did not last long. The unstructured life of an informant does not easily translate into the army-like culture of the Security department. He was usually late for work and refused to follow orders. When his boss, Anwar Haji Osman, reprimanded him, he decided to go over his head to Serkawt Hassan, the head of the province’s security department. He seemed surprised that this move did not sit well with his boss, who was summoned to Sulaimaniya.
Less than a day later, Mustafa was fired.
Mustafa has other grievances against Anwar Haji Osman, who is no relation to him. Mustafa claims that the he offered to make Mustafa’s girlfriend his secretary (a well-paying job), if she would leave Mustafa and marry another policeman.
His story was soon the talk of the neighborhood. One night, about a month later, Jamal Hama Sayed, a Kurd working in Iran stopped by Mustafa’s house. They had never met before. Sayed explained that he had friends in al Qaeda and was ordered “by Teheran” to pass on a phone number to Mustafa. “Call and introduce yourself,” he said. “They may have a job for you.”
Broke and without prospects, the offer seemed appealing. Soon after Sayed left, Osman tried the number in Iran. No answer. That night, he tried again. A man answered, introducing himself as Ali Mujihed. In other words, “Ali the holy warrior.”
He knew Mustafa immediately. “You are Osman Bickol,” he asked, citing a neighborhood nickname that means “Osman the small.” Mustafa is maybe 5’5′ and slight. Ali said it with a friendly tone, but it had a psychic punch.
“We know all about you.” Most likely, Ali only knew gossip; in this part of the world no one has more than six degrees of separation from terrorists. But Ali’s pose of omniscience has Mustafa fooled even now, two years later, sitting in an Iraqi police station. It gave him confidence in Ali.
Ali immediately began asking him to meet him in Iran. It is a standard recruiting technique to build momentum by asking people take small steps. Climb high enough up the staircase and it seems strange to walk back down. It is simple psychology, but it often works.
Here is how Mustafa remembers the conversation:
“Come to see me in Mariwan,” an Iranian border town, Ali asked.
“I cannot. I am afraid because the police know me. They will not let me pass.”
“No, we know everything about you. Don’t worry. Please, believe me, you can come safely. And I will never betray you.” In other words, I won’t treat you like the police did.
Still, Mustafa was undecided. He had a choice to make. He needed money and hated his former boss. But could he fight against his country, his neighbors? What if they asked him to kill policemen that he liked?
He called Serkawt Hassan, the head of the province’s security department. Hassan was firm, in Mustafa’s memory. “Don’t go. Don’t be misled. Be patient. I will appoint you somewhere in Sulaimaniya soon.”
Mustafa still had a choice to make. Why did he go to Iran to see a man he knew was a terrorist who killed Mustafa’s own people? “I was very poor and very angry.” He claims the police had arrested him after he was fired, suspecting him of involvement in petty crimes. That was the tipping point.
He crossed into Iran using the secret mountain smuggling routes he once used as an informant. It wasn’t hard. The walk only took a few hours.
In the Iranian village of Banna, he phoned Ali. Mustafa was told to go to the parking lot near a bus terminal. Ali would meet him in a taxi.
They didn’t talk much until the taxi deposited them at the Zrebar river, a place with no onlookers or microphones.
Ali told him that he was a member of Ansar al Islam and had escaped the U.S. bombing during “Operation Viking Hammer.” He continued to work for that al Qaeda-affiliated group, but told Mustafa that they would not want to work with him. As a former member of the security service, they would suspect that he had been involved in torturing their brothers-in-arms. (Apparently Ali did not know that Mustafa had been a police informant against the organization.)
Before Mustafa could lose hope, Ali told him that he also had high-level contacts inside Iranian intelligence. He explained the benefits of working for Iranian intelligence. The pay was good. And, Ali added: “No one can touch you anywhere inside Iran.”
When he worked for an Iranian intelligence service, he would be given a document that would allow him to move freely through checkpoints and to avoid the official harassment that is a daily routine for Iraqi Kurds working inside the Islamic republic.
Higher-ranking terrorist leaders are given laminated cards that make them untouchable by all Iranian officials, aside from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Mustafa was told that these cards were issued on the personal orders of Ali Khamane’i, Iran’s ruler. The cards, which include a picture and other identifying details, simply say that the holder is a “political refugee”–or “Karti Panahandayi” in Persian–but everyone in Iran knows what it means. Ordinary refugees do not get these cards. The plastic cards, which he compared to a paid phone cards, are hard to forge, Mustafa insists.
Mustafa did not get one of these cards. He got a “non-objection letter,” a lesser version of the terrorist’s “get out of jail free” card.
The next day, Ali told Mustafa to lower his head below the dashboard. They were nearing the intelligence headquarters and he did not want Mustafa to know its exact location, at least not yet. “We are just starting,” Ali told him. “If you wish to work with us, we will be very pleased.”
After a long introduction by Ali, Mustafa was put on the payroll. Col. Mohammed Yaqubi, a senior officer in the Itilaat Sanandaj, a section of Iranian intelligence, interviewed him. A man who knew as Mr. Sardani, another Iranian intelligence officer, took three photographs of Mustafa. Then he was told his code name: “Sharuzur No. 4.” Sharuzur is a neighborhood in Mustafa’s hometown of Halabja.
Later, Osman was sent to Mr. Ibadi for processing and briefly met Mr. Amiri, the chief of sabotage for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. All of these names have checked out with an allied intelligence service and are bona fide names of Iranian intelligence officers, except for Mr. Ibadi, who may be too low-level to concern that service.
As Mustafa waited for his first mission, he began to learn more about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist attacks inside Iraq. “I was told that Ansar al Islam members met with [Iranian] Brigadier [General] Qasim Sulemani,” a high ranking member of Iran’s Quds Force, on April 4, 2005, Mustafa said. “The meeting was in Kermanshah, at the head office” of Iran’s intelligence service there. He said that the Itilaat service also briefed him on upcoming missions of the al Qaeda-linked terror group. Iran often has advance knowledge of these attacks and helps fund and plan them, he said.
He was paid $400 a month, but he was eager for the bonuses that came with missions inside Iraq. Those could pay as much as $1500. By contrast, his police salary in Iraq was $220 per month in 2005.
At last, after four months, the mission came. He was given a small digital camera and sent to the Iraqi city of Kirkuk to photograph U.S. bases. From the window of taxi, he shot movies and stills of American checkpoints and base perimeter security operations. Over the course of a long day he shot some 55 minutes of movies of guards, bomb-sniffing dogs, and base buildings vulnerable to attack.
When he returned with the “flash movies,” Iranian intelligence officers were very happy.
Next, they sent him to photograph Iranian opposition figures in Iraq, especially those connected to the Democratic Kormala party. Col. Yacubi also wanted Mustafa to discover their home addresses. These men, Mustafa was told, would be targeted for assassination. Later, I would speak to the head of that party at his secret base in the steep hills east of Sulaimaniya. A charming former communist and now self-proclaimed “neo-conservative” who advocates a federal democracy in Iran, Secretary General Abdullah Mohtadi confirmed that the Iranians have tried to kill him several times. (I will post an interview with Mohtadi when I return to the U.S. next week.)
Then, one day in the summer of 2005, the Iranians asked Mustafa to kill. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ chief of sabotage, Mr. Amiri, wanted Mustafa to go to the Iraqi Kurdish mountain town of Koya, a farming community of low-slung concrete homes that climb the hillsides above sharply graded sheep pastures, and murder the head of Kurdish Democratic Party with three blocks of TNT. He was told to put it in a trash can near the official’s office window.
Osman was taken to a bend in the Zreba river and taught to use a remote digital detonator to set off the three 4-kilo blocks of TNT. Mustafa described the TNT blocks in detail. They were light brown with flecks of green, smooth and 8.8 lbs each. On each block, written in Persian, was a seal: “Made in Iran.”
After he mastered the art of wiring the blocks together and detonating them, the conversation switched to payment. How much?
“If you are successful, whatever you want I give you,” he was told.
“No,” he said. “But if you change the program, I will do it for nothing. I want to kill the police chief in Halabja.”
Amiri was not ready to change the plan. Mustafa kept arguing.
“This other thing needs planning. I know the police chief, where he lives, what he drives. I can help you.”
Mustafa insisted, saying that allowing him to kill the Halabja police chief [Anwar Haji Osman] would be a personal favor.
After a while, Amiri agreed. “They’d also like to assassinate someone like that,” a police chief, Mustafa explained.
He was taken to an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base and shown the way to a mountain path. One Revolutionary Guards officer handed him a bag containing the TNT blocks. He was told to find a man in Halabja named “Shiwan Kung-Fu.” Really, these terrorists have names as wild as mafiosi.
It would take Mustafa and Kung-Fu 17 days to plan the attack.
Just after 4 PM on June 20, 2005, the last day in Anwar Haji Osman’s life, he got a phone call from Mustafa. He had been watching the security chief’s house and saw him pull away in his Nissan Patrol sport-utility vehicle. “In less than half an hour, you will be killed,” Mustafa said.
The chief taunted him. “If you can kill me, god bless you.”
“I will be a terrorist just for you,” he said.
A few minutes later, at a traffic intersection, a Toyota Land Cruiser pulled alongside the chief’s vehicle.
Mustafa’s phone rang just after 5 PM. Kung-Fu told him that he saw that the suicide-bomber had succeeded.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” Mustafa told him.
He called Amiri in Iran to tell him the “good news.” He was ordered to bring Kung-Fu back to safety in Iran.
But Mustafa’s phone kept ringing, setting up an evidentiary record that would convict him.
His girlfriend, Bekhal, called to tell him that chief was killed. His friends in the security service also phoned, first to tell him that his job prospects had suddenly improved and later to entrap him in a confession. Naturally, he was suspect no. 1. He has been in prison ever since.
The other major suspect was the bodyguard of terrorist that the chief had killed in 2004; the bodyguard escaped to Iran, threatening revenge. So our tale might have had the same ending with a different protagonist.
What does this traitor’s tale tell us about the larger insurgency? One thing that is reveals is Iran’s large role in supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
Serkawt Hassan’s charm is his policeman’s bluntness. He doesn’t have a politician’s worries; he is paid to tell it like it is. As the Director of Security for the Sullimani governorate, he supervises a staff of more than 3,000.
Hassan knows something about insurgencies; he joined the Kurdish peshmerga in October 1981and became a guerilla fighter after the 1988 chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein killed almost 200,000 Kurds. He joined the uprisings against Saddam in 1991 and has worked in the security service ever since. Fighting terrorists, he says, is his top priority.
He is a busy man. Often the interview is interrupted by calls on one of his three landlines or two mobile phones. Sometimes, he is ignoring the chirping cell phone while he presses the landline firmly to his ear. Once in a while, he talks like a 1930s Hollywood mogul with a phone in each ear.
He has survived three suicide attacks aimed at him.
Most insurgents either come from Iran or are somehow tied to that Islamic Republic, he says. “Iran knows about these groups and their movements,” he says matter-of-factly. He cites a number of towns just over the border with Iran, which his investigators believe that safe houses for terrorists are maintained: Mariwan,
Pejwan, Bokan, Sina, and Serdai.
“Iran is the top in terror in all the world,” he says. “If you want peace in all of the world, you change the authority in Iran.”
Is Iran actually in control of these groups, as Osman Ali Mustafa would lead us to believe? He scoffs. “If they want to close the border, no one can cross.”
Like other members of Kurdish security forces that I have spoken with, he is frustrated with America’s catch-and-release program for terrorists. He no longer turns over suspects to the Americans, unless ordered by Baghdad.
He says that he has arrested more than 100 Ansar al Islam fighters, a group that now calls itself “Al Qaeda in Kurdistan,” from 2003 to 2007. Recently, a husband and wife team, named Tooba and Khasraw, were stopped on their back from Iran. They were setting up a safe house in Iraq for fighters from Iran. Another recent arrest: two boys with suicide-bombing vests on their way to an address in Baghdad.
His best asset, he says, is the Kurdish people. If you leave a strange car unattended, a neighbor will knock on doors asking about it. If no one claims it, he calls the police. Other times potential terrorists are spotted based on “gestures that seem strange to people” or men with tan lines indicating recently shaved beards.
Even if Mustafa had not telegraphed his intentions, he would have been caught sooner or later.
One of the things that sets the Kurdish apart from other Iraqi groups is the political maturity of their leaders, especially Talabani. The Kurdish leaders show an unusual willingness to compromise and to reach a goal by patient increments. This leads many ordinary Kurds to put photos of Iraq President Jalal Talabani every where, out of respect not command. This is like the Thai who put pictures of their king in restaurants in Los Angeles and London. Of course, Talabani does not get this treatment in Baghdad.
While nearly every office I have seen in Sulaimanyi has at least one photo of Talabani, a Kuridsh hero, the four-foot poster of Talabani that sits in the corner of Hassan’s office
is by far the largest I have seen indoors. I ask him if he has a bigger one somewhere.
He smiles. Some advertising agency gave it to me, he explains.
Does he like Talabani? “Of course.”
I tell him that I recently spoke to an Iranian Kurdish intellectual who said Talabani was the greatest Kurdish leader since Saladin, the nemesis of the Crusaders. He is not surprised that Iranian Kurds revere Talabani too. But he disagrees with the playful Saladin example.
“No, he is greater. Saladin only gave his life for Islam. Talabani has spent his whole life fighting for the Kurds.”
He is trying to tell me something. It won’t be as easy for al Qaeda or Iran to dissolve Iraqi Kurdistan into chaos as it was in central Iraq. “But I know that they are trying.”
But what are they trying to do?
Later, in a small police office, I chance into a man who I had trying to reach for days. He heads a special Kurdish counter-terrorism service that reports directly to Iraq’s president. He too sees a major role for Iran in the Iraqi insurgency. Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups have set up networks of safe houses in Iranian cities near the Iraqi frontier. “They have to run operations from apartments and houses near the border so that they can’t be targeted.They recruit people here to do their dirty work.”
He means that recruit low-lifes like Osman Ali Mustafa.
He explains that Iran tries to hide its involvements with “layers and layers of intermediaries.” While this might fool the CIA, the Kurds are not misled.
He too faults America’s catch and release program. After months of holding someone without evidence, the Americans inevitably release him. But they do not get the evidence because their interrogation methods make success virtually impossible, he says. He is very clear that the Kurds do not torture.
“Our facilities are up to international standards. The Red Cross visits our prisons. The prisoners get more than their required daily allowance in calories. We follow the Geneva Convention. We videotape all of our interrogations. Our judges are independent. They do not care about religious sects or the party line,” he says. Judges regularly set prisoners free. But the American rules are too restrictive for us, he insists.
“What is wrong with the American rules?”
He answers by telling a story. Once he went to an interrogation in Baghdad run by Americans. He was told that he could not yell at the prisoners or trick them by saying he had evidence he did not have. (The classic lie: Your accomplice confessed and told us what you did.) In other words, he could not act the way most big-city police departments do in the U.S. “If the prisoner says he has a headache [in Baghdad], the interrogation must stop and an ambulance is called. Here we just give him an aspirin” and keep questioning him. No wonder the U.S. releases people for “lack of evidence,” he said.
After that experience in Baghdad, he said: “I am never going back.” It was pointless.
Operations against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups coming from Iran are nightly event in this region, hard on the Persian border. He says he badly needs American help, especially M-4 rifles. “They are very good for clearing rooms,” occupied by the enemy, he explains. Instead, his team has to make do with old AK-47s, which often have poor accuracy during close encounters.
His chief intelligence analyst later adds a chilling postscript. He begins by explaining that they have interrogated a number of al Qaeda operatives from Saudi Arabia, who entered Iraq through Iran. He asked one: “What will you do if the U.S. leaves Iraq?”
“We will never leave,” the terrorist told him. “We will make this our base to fight America. It [Iraq] is very strategic for us. It is close to Turkey and Europe. Through Syria, we can reach the Levant [and Israel]. In the south, it is close to Saudi Arabia.”
And it shares a long, open border with Iran, the world’s largest financier of international terrorism.
Too bad we do not have the same strategic clarity.
Before he is lead away, I ask Mustafa if he thinks Iran and America could ever be friends. He laughs.