On January 14, 2003, British police and security forces raided a terrorist safe house in Manchester, ending a several-month-long investigation. A Scotland Yard detective was killed in this raid, which recovered a quantity of ricin – an extremely potent poison. The investigation, begun in the fall 2002 in Israel, involved at its peak the intelligence services of more than six countries.
The investigators’ findings provided the “smoking gun” supporting the
administration’s insistence on Iraq’s centrality to global terrorism, the
availability of operational weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and proof of the close cooperation between Iraqi military intelligence and al-Qaeda.
The data accumulated during this investigation could have provided the casus belli – the justification for war – and urgent imperative to take on Saddam Hussein. Yet in the first of several indecisive and self-contradicting political maneuvers, the Bush administration preferred to accommodate Blair’s pressure to keep Israel at arm’s length, not implicate Arafat, and placate Blair’s fellow West European leaders rather than go public with the findings of the investigation.
Despite mounting international criticism and skepticism in the media, the American public was not presented with one of the strongest and most explicit justifications for the war with Iraq.
On the night of September 13, 2002, Israeli Special Forces intercepted and captured a three-man squad attempting to cross the Jordan River and enter the Palestinian territories on their way to Arafat’s compound in Ramallah.
The interrogation revealed that they were highly trained members of the Baghdad-based Arab Liberation Front (ALF), sent to conduct spectacular strikes under the banner of Arafat’s Fatah. Specifically, they were dispatched by ALF Chief Muhammad Zaida Abbas, better known as Abu-al-Abbas, to operate directly under the control of Tawfiq Tirawi, chief of the Palestinian Authority’s General Intelligence Service and Arafat’s closest confidant.
Abbas and Tirawi were extremely close childhood friends, having grown up together in a village just north of Ramallah and ultimately joining Arafat’s fledgling terrorist organization together in the early 1960s.
The three ALF terrorists were trained for several missions, including
an operation that involved using shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down civilian airliners as they approached Ben-Gurion Airport and using anti-tank rockets and missiles to ambush convoys – including American groupings on their way to Iraq.
They were also there to organize and train Palestinian terrorists – all
trusted operatives of Tirawi’s – to assist with operations and intelligence collection inside Israel. The three had been briefed in Baghdad that they would get the missiles, heavy weapons, and explosives they might need from Fatah via Tirawi.
The Israeli interrogators were most interested in what the three had to
say about their training: During the summer, they had been trained along with other squads of ALF terrorists at Salman Pak – a major base near Baghdad – by members of Unit 999 of Iraqi military intelligence. They recounted that in an adjacent part of the camp, other teams of Unit 999 were preparing a select group of Islamist terrorists specifically identified as members of al-Qaeda.
Although the training was separate, and individuals used code names
exclusively, they were able to learn a great deal about the missions of their Islamist colleagues.
The three ALF terrorists told the Israelis that in addition to the
myriad special operations techniques taught at Salman Pak, the Islamists also received elaborate training in chemical weapons and poisons, specifically ricin.
Moreover, on their way to their operational deployment zones, the Islamists were taken to a derelict complex of houses near Halabja, in Kurdistan, where they conducted experiments with chemical weapons and poisons. The area where the training took place was nominally under the control of Ansar-al-Islam, Osama bin Laden’s Kurdish offshoot.
From there, the ALF terrorists recounted, Islamist detachments traveled to Turkey, where they were to strike American bases with chemical weapons once the war [with Iraq] started, and to Pakinsy Gore in northern Georgia (on the border with Chechnya) in order to assist Chechen terrorists as they launched major terrorists operations against Russia. Others were dispatched to train Islamist teams arriving from Western Europe via Turkey in sophisticated terrorism
techniques, including the use of chemical weapons and ricin.
Within a week of the capture of the ALF trio, a delegation of senior
Israeli military intelligence officers traveled to Washington to brief the White House about their findings. By then, there had already been independent corroborations of the Israeli reports: Turkish security forces, acting on tips provided by Israel, arrested two al-Qaeda operatives studying plans to attack the U.S. air base in Incerlick with chemical weapons, and American intelligence also learned from its own sources about the activities of foreign mujahedein in Georgia’s Pakinsky Gore.
Then, on October 23, a group of Chechen and Arab terrorists captured a
Moscow theater in the middle of a performance, taking over seven hundred people hostage, rigging the theater with bombs, and threatening to kill everyone in the building. When negotiations failed and the terrorists shot at least one hostage to demonstrate their determination, Russian antiterrorist forces broke into the
theater after using a special knockout gas to neutralize the Chechens before they were able to detonate their bombs.
The Russian operation was considered a great success, as all the terrorists were killed before they could blow themselves up; however, close to two hundred hostages died from secondary effects caused by the gas, including heart attacks and choking on their own vomit. In any case, the mere occurrence of a spectacular strike in Moscow meant that there could no longer be any doubt about the accuracy of the material provided by the three Palestinians in Israel’s custody.
Still, the White House was reluctant to advertise this evidence because it demonstrated Israeli intelligence’s major contribution to the war on terrorism.
When ricin was discovered in Manchester and all the dots connected, the intelligence Israel had extracted from the terrorists in its custody was proved wholly accurate. Israel had in fact demonstrated to the Europeans why Saddam Hussein has to be toppled, and soon.