Shadowland Flashbacks

At least until a glitch with the Newsweek archives is resolved, I will be publishing occasional articles here from my 27-year-stint with the magazine, and a few of my pieces from elsewhere as well. The texts are the original drafts.

Shadowland: The Dogs of War, 27 March 2003

By Christopher Dickey

            Dogs do not live happy lives in Iraq. Considered “unclean” by Muslims and rarely kept as pets, most of those that you see are feral curs slinking through the streets late at night. It’s normal practice for Iraqi soldiers to cull the packs with machine-guns. But the commandos of Saddam’s Fedayeen, terrorist shock troops organized in the mid-1990s, sometimes tear a dog limb from limb and sink their teeth in its flesh. Repulsive brutality, after all, is a badge of honor for these militias, and this particular rite of passage was proudly captured on a government video.
“The Fedayeen are animals!” said a young Iraqi woman who fled her country for Jordan a few months ago. “They are trained to be like animals! Everybody is frightened of them.” And even though there are only an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 of them, it would seem the Fedayeen – meaning “those who sacrifice” -- are everywhere in Iraq,  forcing others to put their lives on the line in the face of the American invasion. “Saddam has succeeded in establishing a strong structure that is loyal to him,” says Issam Chalabi, a former Iraqi oil minister now in exile. “These fedayeen are not only fighting the Americans, they are mainly against those who want to surrender or refuse to fight.”

“No one will accept the Americans’ presence there. And if you say anything about me, say this: I am against the war. I am against the occupation.”

And yet, neither the frightened young woman, nor Chalabi (who is no relation to a would-be exile leader with the same last name), nor any of the other Iraqis or Arabs I’ve talked to since the fighting began last week, believes that the Iraqis’ resistance to the United States invasion is solely a matter of intimidation and fear. That plays a part. The role of the Fedayeen is important. But the resistance to the United States “is a matter of Iraqi patriotism,” says Chalabi. “No one will accept the Americans’ presence there. And if you say anything about me, say this: I am against the war. I am against the occupation.”
The fundamental miscalculation of those administration officials and sympathetic pundits who promoted this war in Iraq was to believe, as some exiles told them, that because the Iraqi people hate Saddam, they would love their American “liberators.” “That’s where you went wrong,” a Lebanese friend told me, summing up sentiments I’ve heard all over the Arab world, “The Iraqis do hate Saddam – but they do not love you.”
The greatest disappointment concerns the largely Shia population of southern Iraq. There was a common assumption that, given the chance, the brutally oppressed people there would rise up against Saddam’s cronies and soldiers again just as they did in 1991 after the last gulf war. But what many of us forgot was the way in which the people there remembered that uprising, when US troops stood by and let them be massacred. It was thought in Washington that this time around, when the US was suddenly serious about eliminating Saddam (as it obviously was not 12 years ago), Iraqis would seize the day, and even the government. Not at all. Many who lost brothers, sons, wives, mothers in the savage reprisals of 1991 believe the American offensive is a dozen years too late and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives too short.
So those who are not actively fighting against the US troops are happy to let them do the job of ousting the dictator by themselves.  “We will accept the Americans to come liberate us from Saddam because,” says an architect from Baghdad, “it’s easier afterwards to fight the Americans than to fight Saddam. This is the way we feel. This is what ‘the silent majority’ are thinking, if you want to know.”
The fear that’s at play is more complex than a matter of Fedayeen seizing children to force fathers to fight, as coalition briefing officers claim. Through 35 years, first as head of the secret police and then as president, Saddam has programmed such terror into his people that at this stage few would believe that he is dead if they weren’t able to witness the event, see him killed, even dip their hands in his blood. (Many of his predecessors, after all, met just such grisly ends, either dragged through the streets or shown blown-away on live TV.) The Fedayeen, with their savagery, only reinforce the almost supernatural terror already inflicted by the dictator. Iraqis know he has staying power. They believe the Americans do not.
But pride, as Chalabi suggests, is what’s really essential to the resistance, and it infects the broader Arab and Muslim view of the showdown. Since the fighting started, Saddam has tried to turn the Iraqi battle into what his favorite role model, Josef Stalin, called “The Great Patriotic War.” Add to this the tribal character of much of Iraqi society. Saddam has armed almost everyone in the country, and now demands the tribes defend their honor against the foreign invaders. Many have heeded the call. “I don’t think there’s a single Iraqi family that has not suffered from Saddam,” says a senior Jordanian official with close ties to the US administration. “But they are fighting now for Iraq, for their dignity. They don’t think the Americans are fighting for their dignity.”
The refugee flow across the Iraq-Jordan border tells an important part of the story. There is none. The flow of traffic since the beginning of the war – more than 5,000 in the first week of fighting --  has been entirely eastward, into Iraq, as mostly  young day-laborers brave possible US air attacks on their to get back home to their families.
“I don’t hate the Americans,” said Mohamed Al-Alwani, 36, who was at the Iraqi embassy in Amman earlier this week to get the necessary papers to return. “When anyone comes to Iraq as a guest, we will receive him with flowers and dates and yogurt, and all the highest hospitality. But when he comes as an invader we will fight with the last of our blood.”
Another young man in the crowd at the embassy, who didn’t give his name, spoke more ferociously. “The first day of the war, Bush appeared on television playing with his dog,” he said. “We will turn Bush into a dog.” In Iraq, everybody knows what that implies. And many Iraqis – and not only the Fedayeen – mean it.

Gone With the WMD, 20 March 2003
Many people believe Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, but invading Iraq may increase the risks of proliferation, not diminish them. 

By Christopher Dickey

            “Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war,” said an Iranian lady at a cocktail party in Paris earlier this week. She was among friends from Algeria and Lebanon, France, Canada and the United States – everybody sipping Champagne, nibbling crab canapés, talking about the imminent storm in Iraq. And suddenly it struck her, she said, “this is like the barbecue scene in ‘Gone With the Wind.’” We were all enjoying ourselves, but all of us were haunted by a sense the world was about to change forever. “Fiddle-dee-dee,” said the Persian Scarlett. “This war talk is spoiling all the fun.” She shook her head and smiled with solemn regret.
This Scarlett and several of the other guests that night had seen their worlds change before, in revolutions and in civil wars, and they’d emerged sadder and wiser for the experience.  We Americans feel something of the sort when we think back on 11 September 2001. But with this new war, we may learn that was only the beginning.

Experts in high-tech slaughter will be accountable to no one, and looking to fatten their bank accounts.

Consider this chilling little passage in testimony by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month: “With regard to proliferation, sir, I will quickly summarize by saying we have entered a new world of proliferation. In the vanguard of this new world, are knowledgeable non-state purveyors of WMD materials and technology.” That is, the ultimate merchants of death, who are “increasingly capable of providing technology and equipment that previously could only be supplied by countries with established capabilities. Demand creates the market.”
According to Roland Jacquard, a respected French expert on terrorism who’ll publish a new book about the spread of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in May, the market makers have been Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, both of whom have offered enormous sums for contraband  components of mass destruction over the last few years. “They’ve used drug traffickers, arms merchants and all the parallel markets.” Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, most of the action has been in former components of the Evil Empire. But as the technology and weapons have spread in secret, “this market has escaped all controls, creating little proliferating states within proliferating states,” says Jacquard. One country where that has happened already is North Korea. Another is Iraq.
            So now the war has begun. Will it make us safer? More secure? Once Saddam Hussein goes and the internal order of Iraq breaks down, “there is a significant danger that some in the weapons complex will simply ‘privatize’ technology or systems under their control,” warned a recent report by the Council of Foreign Relations co-authored by former Secretary of State James Baker. These experts in high-tech slaughter will be accountable to no one, and looking to fatten their bank accounts.
            Of course the American forces will be hunting frantically for such men and women. But in the fog of war and the aftermath of shock and awe, soldiers may have even more trouble than the UN inspectors did tracking them down. As those who escape put their expertise and their wares on the market, it’s hard to imagine how any of us will ever feel completely safe again.
            The good news: Osama and Saddam won’t be pumping up the market much longer. But somebody else probably will be. As Tenet told the Senate, “The desire for nuclear weapons is on the upsurge. Additional countries may seek nuclear weapons as it becomes clear their neighbors and regional rivals are already doing so. The domino theory of the 21st century may well be nuclear.” Or biological. Or chemical.
            It’s been less than a week since the crab canapés and Champagne. I’m in Jordan now, looking to cross into Iraq with mineral water and crackers when the storm clears. The world has changed. Gone with the WMD.

Chaos Theory, 13 March 2003
Saddam will fall, but the chaos that follows in Iraq will defeat the designs of the United States

By Christopher Dickey

            “Shock and awe” is the phrase of the moment, along with “sweets and flowers.” They’re the buzzwords, from the Pentagon and from an exiled Iraqi intellectual respectively, that sum up the Bush administration’s vision of the coming war. It’s supposed to be an ultra-high-tech blitzkrieg that takes out the core of Saddam Hussein’s regime in a matter of days, followed by the ecstatic joy of liberated Iraqis who shower the arriving Americans with bouquets and baklava. And, personally, I think that’s just what’s going to happen – at first. Skeptics will be silenced. Even Jacques Chirac will be shamed. But that’s not all that’s going to happen. Because anarchy and atrocity are also a realistic part of the scenario, and Saddam may well be depending on pure chaos as part of his last-ditch strategy for salvation.
            Why is he passing out guns to every mustached thug from Mosul to the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab? Does he think they’re going to crawl out of their cellars after they’ve been shocked and awed and turn those guns on the American invaders? Few Iraq-watchers among the Middle East’s intelligence services believe Saddam can count on more than a few thousand of his diehard cousins, tribesmen and genocidal accomplices to defend him. And he probably knows that. So what’s he up to?

Iraqis will pick up their guns and turn them on each other, pillaging and lynching, settling scores and carrying out vendettas that were both encouraged and bottled up through 35 years of sinister, manipulative totalitarian rule.

These analysts expect that once the obsequious sweets and flowers have been dispensed to those awesome guys from the 101st Airborne, Iraqis will pick up their guns and turn them on each other, pillaging and lynching, settling scores and carrying out vendettas that were both encouraged and bottled up through 35 years of sinister, manipulative totalitarian rule. And that’s the point. As the dancing in the street gives way to neck-tie parties, the satellite-TV spectacle could be grim indeed. Pressure on Washington to stop what was already an unpopular war, to bring order at any cost, or to get out, could be enormous. Perhaps Saddam, in his dreams, even thinks the bad publicity will give him the room to survive in some sort of rump-state Iraq.
History would encourage him to think so. In Saddam’s lifetime the Middle East has seen many wars that started with a bang, but ended with a whimper. Great plans go horribly wrong. Good intentions lead to grotesque violence. Israel’s armed forces are state of the art. Nobody blitzes better than the Tsahal. Yet Israel’s triumphant siege of Beirut in 1982 was thwarted when its client forces massacred hundreds of old men, women and children in Sabra and Shatila. Israel’s 1996 “Grapes of Wrath” offensive in southern Lebanon was brought up short after its troops shelled a United Nations refugee camp, killing 107 people, including 24 children, aged three months to nine years, who were lining up for lunch. Such atrocities may or may not be provoked by enemy forces. Inevitably some voices rationalize them as unfortunate collateral damage, but they do have a way of ending offensives.
I don’t think there’s anything on earth that can keep Saddam from going down once US forces go in, whatever his delusions. But when the intramural bloodletting begins, anarchy could push the United States back out of Iraq more effectively than any Saddam-organized resistance. And that’s what many of Washington’s friends in the region both fear, and expect.
It doesn’t help that the Bush administration has been so shy about calculating the true costs of the coming occupation, or that the civilians at the Pentagon publicly repudiated the Chief of Staff of the Army’s estimate that hundreds of thousands of troops would be required in Iraq for many years. Fortunately for those who actually do want to be informed, a Council on Foreign Relations task force headed by former under-Secretary of  State Thomas Pickering and former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger has just done the number crunching for us. And the bottom line is daunting.

The Middle East has seen many wars that started with a bang, but ended with a whimper.

“The scale of American resources that will be required could amount to some $20 billion per year for several years,” says the task force’s report, “Iraq: The Day After.” “This figure assumes a deployment of 75,000 troops for post-conflict peace stabilization (at about $16.8 billion annually), as well as funding for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance … . If the troop requirements are much larger than 75,000 – a genuine possibility – the funding requirement would be much greater.” Indeed, those estimates are very conservative. NATO had to put 50,000 troops into Bosnia to stabilize it in1995, and eight years later there are still 12,000 there. Bosnia’s population is fewer than 5 million.
“Iraq is not a small country,” one spymaster in the region told me the other day. “There are 26 million people. Many are trained, and they have the tools to fight. When the Americans see there is a civil war, I don’t think they will put up with something worse than Vietnam. The first thing they will do is say, ‘We finished our job. Goodbye.’” Who will pick up the pieces? And the cost? The countries that warned this war was a bad idea in the first place? After the first Gulf War, when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf explained why Saddam wasn’t taken out and Iraq occupied, one of the reasons he gave is that the US would have had to bear the burden alone. The rest of the coalition would have backed away. That’s already happened in this war, and it hasn’t even begun.
            If the US doesn’t hang in there, at enormous cost and great risk, Iraq’s neighbors will try to defend their clients within the country and carve it up in the process. The Turks already are preparing to roll about 80,000 troops into northern Iraq to keep the Kurds from declaring independence and protect the Turkmen minority. That could lead to a face-off with Iran, not to mention revolt by the Kurds. If Iran gets aggressive, the Saudis will feel threatened. Very quickly, the chaos could spread north, south, east and west, with American troops in the middle, or the Middle East in utter chaos – or both.
The good news is that Saddam will be gone, and the weapons of mass destruction he had will have been eliminated … except, perhaps, for those spirited away in the chaos by the private entrepreneurs of terror. After the shock and awe, the sweets and flowers, the anarchy and atrocity, Iraq could well be disarmed and dangerous.


Rumors of War, 6 March 2003
A proliferation of dubious "facts" and willful blind spots about the approaching conflict in Iraq.

By Christopher Dickey

            “What doesn’t happen in a year happens in a day,” my proverb-prone mother-in-law likes to say, and the phrase came to mind a couple of weekends ago when my wife and I went to pick up a frozen soufflé at a Paris patisserie. As we waited in line, one of the most senior European officials in the war on terror walked in to buy a baguette. It takes weeks to get an appointment with this guy. I hadn’t seen him since late last year. And now here he was. Amid the bustle of bourgeois matrons buying éclairs and macarons, we chatted in low tones about the threat of war and terror.
            I was especially interested, as most of us are, in the question of when the war with Iraq is likely to begin. He’d need to know to prepare for counter-terror responses, I thought. And he said, with absolute assurance, “March 3 or 4.” As I write, it’s March 6. So much for that bit of information from this informed source. Was my baguette-buying friend just plain wrong? Or had he been misinformed? Was the date for war, if date there was, put off by diplomacy? Or because of logistical snafus in the military?
            If you expect definitive answers to any of these questions, read no further. Because the truth is that we're already deep in the fog of war.
If the continued uncertainty is part of some psychological operation to shake up the inner circle of hardened killers around Saddam Hussein, well, they're still looking pretty steady. These thugs have been in a war of nerves all their lives. Many have survived assassination attempts. Many have murdered rivals of the regime with their own hands. We can expect Saddam and his cronies to hang tough until, well, until they hang. But in the meantime a proliferation of dubious "facts" and willful blind spots about the approaching conflict, has a corrosive effect on international trust just when that's needed most.

There’s very little confidence the United States can or will hold Iraq together once Saddam is gone. From chaos will spring inchoate terror.

            The problem is not limited to the United States. Sources close to the French intelligence services, for instance, say they have no doubt whatsoever that Saddam Hussein pursued an aggressive program to acquire weapons of mass destruction in the four years after United Nations inspectors were withdrawn in 1998. They’re sure he’s got hidden weapons now. But you wouldn’t know that from the way French diplomacy tried to weaken the impact of sanctions in years past, and continues undermining the hard line the UN took last fall with the passage of Security Council Resolution 1441.
The Americans, however, get credit for the most egregious smokescreens. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Power Point presentation before the Security Council a month ago is an especially sore point with European and Arab intelligence services. The intent was to tie Saddam Hussein to current terrorist activities, and thus bolster the case for war. But much of what Powell presented was deemed an exaggeration by friendly European and Arab intelligence analysts (and privately by some US officials). “It was garbage,” said one. “The thinnest thing I’ve ever seen,” said another.
Yes, a sometime Al-Qaeda operative named Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi got medical treatment in Baghdad last spring, but under an assumed name, according to several sources. And yes he allegedly dispatched and funded the assassins of USAID official Laurence Foley in Amman in October. But Zarqawi’s network operated from Iran and northern Iraq (out of Saddam’s control), and his agents traveled to Jordan through Syria.
“Fortunately,” said Mr. Baguette, “the technical cooperation with the CIA – even the cooperation with France – is still excellent.” But there are stories that US officials who deal with day-to-day coordination of counter-terror activities apologized to their European counterparts for the way Powell’s presentation clouded the intelligence needed for an effective war on terrorism: that is, against Osama bin Laden and his acolytes.
Indeed, in the counter-terror community there’s widespread recognition that the public push for war in Iraq is directly at odds with the secret war against terrorism, and the successes of late have come not because of Washington’s saber rattling, but in spite of it. Certainly the arrest of key Al Qaeda planner Khaled Shaikh Mohammed last week in Pakistan was a master stroke in a country almost unanimously hostile to US war plans. Soon, Osama himself may be in custody. (“What doesn’t happen in a year, happens in a day.”) Yet counter-terror officials are more worried than ever about a new wave of terror.
Once the fighting in Iraq begins, warns an Arab intelligence analyst with close ties to the CIA, “everybody will see everything on the spot and as it happens.” TV images of civilians killed in Iraq, inevitably, will run side by side with those of Israel’s tanks rolling through Palestinian refugee camps. “There will be a sense of hate, of a grudge, throughout the region,” says the analyst. Moreover, there’s very little confidence the United States can or will hold Iraq together once Saddam is gone. From chaos will spring inchoate terror. “There will be hundreds of organizations—the Islamic Front for This, Mohammed’s Army of That,” says the same official. “They will be one of Iraq’s main exports.”
So when will that war against Iraq actually begin? In the minds of many people in the trenches of the war on terror, never would be too soon.

Mail Call, 27 February 2003
A letter from the Alphabet Bomber and insights into Lone Wolf terrorists

By Christopher Dickey

            I got a letter from the Alphabet Bomber the other day. It looked like the usual  correspondence from paranoid schizophrenics, who tend to write in block letters and fatten the envelopes with copies of documents “proving” whatever delusional fantasy drives them. And, yes, there’s always the risk there will be a little talcum powder or something more sinister inside. The still-at-large anthrax terrorist wrote in block letters, too. But I figured this envelope was okay. The return address was Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s super-maximum-security facility near the Oregon border. Whatever else this guy was up to, he wasn’t making chemical or biological weapons. At least, not anymore.
            So I opened it. There were indeed copies of several papers, and scrawled on the back: “DEAR MR. DICKEY: YOU COULD ASCEND TO WORLD PROMINENCE BY BEING THE FIRST WHO UNDERSTOOD THIS LETTER. M. KURBEGOVICH.”
In lieu of a CV, there was a concise, straightforward 1985 “record of deportable alien.” It described Muharem Kurbegovic [sic] as tall, blond, blue-eyed and originally from Sarajevo, having immigrated to the United States in 1967: “Subject gained notoriety as the ‘Alphabet Bomber’ in 1974 by firebombing the houses of a judge and two police commissioners, firebombing one of the commissioner’s car[sic], burning down two Marina Del Rey apartment buildings and bombing the Pan Am Terminal of Los Angeles International Airport, killing three people and injuring eight.” Convicted in 1980 on “25 counts of Murder, Arson, Illegal Use of Explosives and related charges. Sentenced to life in prison, the subject has whiled away the hours in San Quentin [where he then was] by mailing death treats against U.S. presidents and other U.S. and foreign officials.”

The Alphabet Bomber was a terrorist ahead of his time. Other lone extremists looking for lunatic vengeance, apocalyptic glory, will carry on the work.

Kurbegovich, as he now spells his name, was in fact more dangerous than the Unabomber of the 1990s, and a great deal more frightening than the laconic prose of the immigration report would suggest. Just last Thursday, as The Washington Post reported, the FBI warned its field offices to be on the lookout for “lone extremists” who “represent an ongoing terrorist threat in the United States.” Kurbegovich, now pushing 60, could be the poster boy  for the kind of malevolent lunatic the Feds have in mind. At the time he was arrested in August 1974, this one-man horror show had acquired almost all the components he needed to make sarin nerve gas.
Kurbegovich, an engineer who worked for aerospace industries and pretended to be a deaf mute to evade the Vietnam-era draft, was a denizen of public libraries in that pre-Internet age. From them he pulled together what were then just-declassified cookbooks for weapons of mass destruction. A quarter century before Osama bin Laden’s training camps taught holy warriors how to generate poisonous cyanide gas near the air conditioning intakes of high-rise buildings, Kurbegovich bought 25 pounds of potassium cyanide and nitric acid to do just that. He hid it so effectively in his Los Angeles apartment that the police didn’t find the chemical stockpile until he told them about it – more than two years after his arrest.
Yet what made Kurbegovich’s reign of terror in the summer of 1974 so intense and, for a few weeks, so successful was his ability to integrate conventional bombs and the threat of chemical weapons into a strategy that today’s US military would call “information warfare.” He even had a grim sense of humor that played to the media. His first chemical attack was by postcard. On July 7, 1974, he left a tape cassette in a planter at the Los Angeles Times  claiming he put nerve gas on tiny lead disks hidden under the 11-cent stamps on postcards and mailed them on June 15 to all nine Supreme Court justices of the United States. As he explained on the tape, “Each postcard shows the Palm Springs home of entertainer Bob Hope and reads as follows: ‘It is justices of your greatness that made this nation so great. Respectfully, Bob Hope.’” As it turned out, nine such postcards had indeed been intercepted at the Palm Springs post office on June 16, where the canceling machines had broken the tiny vials under the stamps. The foreman thought they were toy caps.
Kurbegovich admitted a few weeks later, in another threatening tape, that the postcards were a hoax and the liquid in the vials innocuous. But he knew it was the idea that sowed terror as much as the reality. “A reasonable man will pause to think if someone points a gun at him,” he said, “whether the gun is loaded or empty.” Thus on a much more horrendous scale Osama bin Laden and his acolytes, having carried out the 9-11 attacks, and having let it be known they are looking to acquire radiological, biological and chemical weapons, can keep the whole world on edge with much less potent technologies. So, too, for Saddam, who wants to sustain the horrific threat of his weapons of mass destruction whether he has the devices or not.
Kurbegovich was “a terrorist ahead of his time,” writes Jeffrey Simon in the Monterey Institute’s 2002 volume on “Toxic Terror,” which is the most thorough analytical account I’ve seen. Though Kurbegovich had no organization and no outside support, he claimed to be Isak Rasim, military commander of a group he called Aliens of America. He was dubbed “The Alphabet Bomber” after he dropped off an audio tape at a CBS affiliate in the aftermath of the gory LAX attack. “The first bomb was marked with the letter A, which stands for airport,” he said. “The second bomb will be associated with the letter L, etc., until our name has been written on the face of this nation in blood.” After a grim panic seized the city, he sent a warning about the next device, planted in a Greyhound bus station, in a locker. Thus: L.  When it was found and eventually defused, it was the most powerful explosive device the bomb squad had ever handled. “He had credibility,” the state prosecutor told Simon later. “He had the city of L.A. in fear.”
The Alphabet Bomber was caught, at last, because his targets were too personal. His apocalyptic terrorism had grown out of a private vendetta against a judge and commissioners he blamed for preventing him from opening a hall for “taxi dancers,” where women were paid to slow-dance with lonely men like him. He’d been caught in a lewd situation in one such hall, and that compromised his chances to start his business, even threatened his chances of becoming an American citizen. So the central demands of his terrorist campaign were an end to immigration and naturalization laws, and any laws about sex. CIA voice analysis of a his tapes pinpointed Kurbegovich’s Yugoslav origins. Court records of the cases handled by his first targets – the judge and the police commissioners --  triangulated his identity. He was tailed for a while, then picked up after dropping off yet another threatening tape in the bathroom of a family restaurant.
Now, almost 30 years later, having spent just about half his life in mental institutions and high security prisons, he sends me this envelope. Why me? He doesn’t explain. Perhaps because he spends a lot of time reading thrillers and one I published in 1997, “Innocent Blood,”  was about a blond, blue-eyed terrorist of Bosnian descent name Kurtovic who tries to bring the apocalypse to American shores. But I suspect the real reason is that from Block 8, cell 115 in Pelican Bay, Muharem Kurbegovic wants a piece of the terrorist action in the post-Osama world. He’s the one who wants to “ascend to world prominence.” Last year he filed a writ in the Superior Court of California claiming “he has been a member of the Al-Qaida terrorist organization since 1963,” when Bin Laden was barely in elementary school. But all Kurbegovich can do now is send threats in block letters. It’s other lone extremists looking for lunatic vengeance, apocalyptic glory, who will carry on the work. And they remain a danger to us all.


Evil Genius (The first Shadowland column, 19 February 2003)

By Christopher Dickey

            “Box cutters.” When talk of terrorist nukes and germs and chemicals gets absolutely out of control, I repeat those two words to myself: “box cutters.” They’re a reminder that the greatest weapon of mass destruction used by Al Qaeda so far had nothing to do with fissile material from renegade Russians or toxic spores from Iraq. It relied entirely on much more dangerous binary components: imagination and tradecraft. If you mix those together effectively, you can use box cutters to turn four airliners into enormous flying bombs and hit the world’s only superpower on its home turf.            
             Fortunately for all of us, you have to be a genius (yes, an evil genius) to get that mix of conception and execution just right. And while Al Qaeda has a few brilliant minds, its ranks are full of dim-witted losers with thousand-mile stares. “Happily, these geniuses, themselves, they don’t take the lead,” an Arab intelligence chief told me a few weeks ago. “They send out the imbeciles.”

While Al Qaeda has a few brilliant minds, its ranks are full of dim-witted losers with thousand-mile stares.

          The classic case of an operation that failed because the plan was too grand and the challenges of execution too complicated was the fifth attack scheduled on Sept. 11, 2001. That’s right: as if the destruction of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and a fourth potential target in the Washington D.C. area was not enough, there was supposed to be another attack half a world away in the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It was supposed to show the true global reach of Al Qaeda.
            As described by foreign officials who work closely with the Central Intelligence Agency, the aim was to sink a US warship with everyone aboard, and the scenario was every bit as grand and complicated as something out of an old James Bond movie. Through a front company, Al Qaeda actually bought a 400,000-ton freighter equipped with a heavy-duty crane. It also bought several small speedboats from a manufacturer in the United Arab Emirates. The plan was to carry the smaller craft on the mother ship, fill them with explosives, lower them into the water and send them on their way toward the warship as, in effect, suicide torpedoes. If those failed – and they would have been vulnerable to defensive fire if the ship’s crew was alert – the freighter itself was filled with explosives, making it the biggest conventional bomb ever built. It wouldn’t have to ram the warship to sink it, just explode nearby. According to these officials, most of the crew on the Al Qaeda freighter didn’t even know what was going on. Some were from Pakistan, others from India. A few were Christians.           
            The head of this operation was Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who played a key operational role putting together the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and blowing an enormous hole in the side of the American destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, killing 17 American sailors. “Nashiri does his job very patiently,” says an Arab intelligence officer with intimate knowledge of the case. “Nairobi was three years in the planning.”
             By one account, Nashiri had trouble getting the enormous quantity of explosives needed for the Hormuz plot. But this intelligence officer says no: “It was all to do with the timing and the moving of the elements. The problem was security procedures.” The more grandiose a plan, the more people who are involved, the greater the chance it will be compromised and some or all of the plotters caught. Nashiri knew he was already being hunted by the CIA. Jordan’s intelligence service had been tracking him since 1997. Rather than risk giving away the whole game – possibly the whole 9-11 plot -- the operation was called off.
            Even after Al Qaeda’s Afghan base was broken up by the US invasion in 2001, Nashiri – also known as Mullah Bilal – kept plotting sea-borne operations, training frogmen for underwater demolition and pilots for small kamikaze aircraft. A group of Saudis was dispatched to Morocco to prepare the logistics for an attack on US warships in the Strait of Gibraltar. Their mission was to rent a safe house and acquire Zodiac rubberized speedboats to use in a hit similar to the one against the Cole. But a tip from one of the Moroccans held at Guantanamo in early 2002 led to the arrest of the plotters by the Moroccan security services.
            Nashiri tried to change his strategy. Like other Al Qaeda planners, he scaled back the grand plans and focused on what he thought would be easier targets: attacks on American compounds in the northwest of Saudi Arabia and in Jeddah. But those plots were foiled. Too many people knew about him. Too many of the Arab services, as well as the Americans, were on his trail.
            Late last year, Nashiri was spotted in Yemen, but the Yemenis didn’t arrest him. He went to Dubai and was picked up there. Ever since, Nashiri has been in one of the secret CIA interrogation centers outside the United States, beyond the reach of American law or mercy. According to intelligence sources familiar with his dossier, he’s been quite talkative. By combining what Nashiri has told them with details from other captured masterminds like Abu Zubaidah, Abu Zubayr and Anas al-Liby (none of whose whereabouts are a matter of public record) the CIA can cross-check information, spot inconsistencies, and expand its web of coverage.
            So we’re all a lot safer? Yes, in fact.
Safer. But not safe.
            “The elements who worked with Nashiri, they have the same expertise,” says the counter-terror chief of a friendly country. “When Nashiri was arrested they became more determined than ever to take his place.” They are also more determined than ever to get  weapons of mass destruction. The acquisition is very risky from an operational point of view. The terrorists have to go outside their closed and secure networks if they want nukes, plutonium or sophisticated chemical and biological weapons, and that exposes them to capture. But there’s this great advantage: Once you’ve got the Bomb or its bio-chem equivalent, you don’t have to be a genius to use it. You just have to be evil.

POSTSCRIPT: From the NYT Guantanamo Docket:

“Abd al Rahim al Nashiri is a 48-year-old citizen of Saudi Arabia. He is one of 16 high-value detainees. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for prosecution. As of Oct. 29, 2013, he has been held at Guantánamo for seven years one months. He has been charged with war crimes.
“In February 2008, Central Intelligence Agency director Gen. Michael V. Hayden confirmed publicly that waterboarding was used on three Qaeda prisoners, Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.”

The document on this site confirms the outlines of the plot to blow up a ship that I wrote about in the column, but does not confirm that, at one point, the idea was to stage that explosion at the same time as the attacks on the United States.

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