Al-Qaeda, Iraq and the Two Shakirs

A few words to the wary, the wily and the wise – always read the footnotes. For the truth, like the devil, is in the details.

A particularly telling example is the 9/11 Commission Report, which contains the following bit of intriguing information:

“CIA cable, ‘Efforts to Locate al-Mihdhar,’ Jan. 13, 2000. We know that two other al-Qaeda operatives flew to Bangkok to meet Khallad to pass him money. See Chapter 8. That was not known at the time. Mihdhar was met at the Kuala Lumpur airport by Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, an Iraqi national. Reports that he was a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Fedayeen have turned out to be incorrect. They were based on a confusion of Shakir’s identity with that of an Iraqi Fedayeen colonel with a similar name, who was later (in September 2001) in Iraq at the same time Shakir was in police custody in Qatar. See CIA briefing by CTC specialists (June 22, 2004); Walter Pincus and Dan Eggen, ‘Al Qaeda Link to Iraq May Be Confusion over Names,’ Washington Post, June 22, 2004, p.A13.”

That’s note 49 of Chapter 6, found on page 502. It refers to the activities of Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, the eventual hijackers of Flight 77 (which hit the Pentagon), who evaded American intelligence agents in Malaysia in January of 2000. They were there to meet with “Khallad,” a cover name being used by Tawfiq bin Attash, the later mastermind of the 2000 Al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole. And right in the middle of this meeting is Shakir, the “Iraqi national” who met Mihdhar and Hazmi at the airport.

The Commission’s treatment of Shakir is interesting, not least because it obscures rather more than it explains. Note 49 was capitalizing on what was then a new piece of information, and the source of a minor controversy – a document had been uncovered in Iraq listing Shakir as a lieutenant colonel in the Fedayeen Saddam, the Iraqi dictator’s personal religious jihadi force. The Commission dismissed claims made at the time that the Shakir of the Fedayeen and the Shakir in Malaysia were the same man, claims that had been used by some to imply a direct Iraqi role in the planning of the 9/11 attacks. Malaysia’s Mr. Shakir could not have been the same person, according to the Commission, because he was in police custody in Qatar in September 2001, while the Fedayeen’s Mr. Shakir was known to be in Iraq.

But, the Commission’s treatment of the two Shakirs raises more questions than it answers. Who was the Shakir in Malaysia? Why was he in Qatari police custody in September 2001? And what became of him?

These questions remain pertinent, especially in the wake of President Bush’s recent speech re-justifying the Iraq war. And the answers available lead to a potentially startling conclusion.

As noted, the initial confusion stemmed from the similar names of two different individuals – Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, the “Iraqi national” who met two al-Qaeda members at the airport in Malaysia; and Hikmat Shakir Ahmad, an officer in Saddam’s Fedayeen. We now know that they were not the same person. But that does not clear up the question of who Shakir Azzawi was, and what he was doing in Malaysia in January of 2000.

It turns out he was working at the airport there, in a job that was obtained for him in 1999 by one Ra’ad al-Mudaris, an Iraqi intelligence agent working out of the Iraqi embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Shakir’s work schedule at the airport was dictated by al-Mudaris, not the airport administration, indicating that Shakir was himself an Iraqi agent working under al-Mudaris.

As noted by the Commission, this Shakir met with al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi at the Kuala Lumpur airport in January of 2000, where he ferried them to a meeting with Tawfiq bin Attash. This meeting, which we now know to have been a key planning session for both the Cole attack and 9/11, lasted for three days. It is not clear whether Shakir participated in the meeting or simply facilitated it by helping two Al-Qaeda members avoid detection so they could meet a third. Either way, there’s a strong suggestion here that Shakir helped out two al-Qaeda plots at once, while working as an Iraqi intelligence agent.

And there’s more. Shakir left his job at the Kuala Lumpur airport, never to return to it, two days after this meeting occurred. Almost two years later, on 17 September 2001, he was detained in Qatar on his way back to Iraq. In Qatar, he was found in possession of contact information for several high-ranking Al-Qaeda members, including Zaid Sheikh Muhammad, the brother of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (the operational planner of 9/11); Musab Yasin, brother of Abdul Rahman Yasin, bomb-maker for the 1993 World Trade Center attack, who himself fled directly to Baghdad after that incident; and Mahmdouh Mahmud Salim, a close friend of Osama Bin Laden who was, according to a key accomplice in Al-Qaeda’s African embassy bombings, the liaison between Al-Qaeda and Iraq during the 1998 talks in which they sought to settle their differences and co-operate against the United States (as noted on page 66 of the 9/11 Commission Report).

Shakir was previously known to American intelligence because he had received a phone call in 1993 from the safe house in which planning for the first WTC attack took place.

For unknown reasons, Shakir was released from Qatari custody, and moved on to Amman, Jordan, where he was due to catch a plane back to Iraq. The Jordanian government detained him there, and held him for three months. They released him after consistent pleading by the Iraqi government and appeals from Amnesty International. The CIA interviewed Shakir while he was in Jordanian custody, and concluded that he had extensive counter-interrogation training, which made it hard to extract useful information from him.

After leaving Jordan, his movements are unknown, and the ultimate fate of Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi remains a mystery to this day.

At this point, few people will need it spelled out for them, but here it is anyway: on its face, this evidence indicates that an agent of Saddam Hussein’s government was directly involved in the 9/11 plot.

If it turns out to be true, it would mean not only that Iraq was directly tied to 9/11, but that its ties to that attack were stronger than those of the Taliban.

And yet, no one seems to be paying any attention to the case. The 9/11 Commission has left it fallow. The media has ignored it. The Bush Administration has kept oddly mum on the point. War opponents have taken everyone else’s silence as proof that there were no ties between Saddam and 9/11.

And of course, there might not be. It’s possible that the case of the two Shakirs will lead nowhere.

But it’s hard to imagine a prosecuting attorney who wouldn’t think this case warranted further investigation… and those who dismiss it need at least to explain why it doesn’t.

There are even some on the 9/11 Commission who’d like to know more. Commissioner John Lehman, who supports the Commission’s final report which found no direct operational ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, nonetheless said in an interview afterwards, “the Shakir in Kuala Lumpur has many interesting connections that are so multiple in their intersections with al Qaeda-related organizations and people as to suggest something more than random chance.”

Lehman may be right. Or, he may not. But the world will never know for sure if someone credible doesn’t dig deeper.

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