One of the classic images of a defeat in war is the burning of documents by the losing side. There are many secrets to be concealed, and those who survive the fall of the regime may want to get on with their lives and not face uncomfortable questions about their past activities. So seeing images of officials of the former Iraqi regime consigning large amounts of paper to flame makes sense. But why were they incinerating boxes of files at the Iraqi embassy in Brazil? It’s an out-of-the-way part of the world, what do they have to hide? One explanation: “All lies,” as was contended by consular official Abdu Saif, who said they were actually burning grass clippings. These diplomats must really be into lawn care to take time for mowing when their master’s dictatorship is collapsing. You’d think they’d be updating their resumes.
Saddam Hussein’s regime brought the same respect for law and sense of honor to its use of diplomatic privilege that it brought to fulfilling its obligations under the U.N. sanctions regime. Iraq used its embassies not only to conduct espionage operations, but also to foster and maintain links to international terrorist groups. Last month the United States urged 60 countries to expel Iraqi diplomats who abused their positions and engaged in illegal activities, and Iraqi officials in Britain, Sweden, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Germany, Bahrain, Egypt, Thailand, Greece, Jordan, Turkey, Italy, Canada, and Australia were asked to return to Baghdad. The last request prompted one expellee, Saad al-Samarai, the charge d’affaires at the Iraqi embassy in Canberra, to ask if he could go to New Zealand instead. Only joking, he later said, and left heading for Morocco.
Manila also took action against Iraqi diplomats. The Philippines is an important node in the global terror network and not coincidentally has seen some of the most blatant and significant misbehavior by the Iraqi embassy. It has long been suspected that one important link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda is through the Abu Sayyaf terror group, which is part of Osama bin Laden’s network of affiliates. One subtle clue in support of the link was a statement by Hamsiraji Sali, an Abu Sayyaf leader on the U.S. most-wanted terrorist list, that his gang received about one million pesos (around $20,000) each year from Iraq, “so we would have something to spend on chemicals for bomb-making.” The link was substantiated immediately after a bombing in Zamboanga City last October (in which three people were killed including an American Green Beret), when Abu Sayyaf leaders called up the deputy secretary of the Iraqi embassy in Manila, Husham Hussain. Six days later, the cell phone used to call Hussain was employed as the timer on a bomb set to go off near the Philippine military’s Southern Command headquarters. Fortunately, the bomb failed to detonate, and the phone yielded various contact numbers, including Hussain’s and Sali’s. This evidence, coupled with other intelligence the Philippine government would not release, led to Hussain’s expulsion in February 2003. In March, ten Iraqi nationals, some with direct links to al Qaeda, were rounded up in the Philippines and deported as undesirable aliens. In addition, two more consulate officials were expelled for spying. One can only conjecture what a thorough examination of the files of the Manila embassy would reveal, assuming there is anything more than ashes left to examine.
O.K., so why Brazil? There are no such publicly known links between Iraq and terrorists in that country, but the opportunities certainly existed. The Iquique duty free zone in the tri-border area of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina is a center for money laundering, illicit fundraising, and smuggling. The border town of Foz do Iguacu is home to a large Muslim population, and has also been the scene of recent arrests of drug traffickers with links to Assad Ahmad Barakat, a Hezbollah leader and financier of Islamic extremism currently in a Paraguayan prison. He was arrested in Brazil in October 2001 as he was fleeing Paraguay to avoid questioning in the investigation of the 9/11 attacks. Mohamad Soliman was also arrested in Foz do Iguacu, in April 2002. He was picked up at the request of the Egyptian government for participating in the 1997 Luxor massacre, in which over sixty people were killed. The massacre was one of the more gruesome undertakings of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the leader of which, Ayman al Zawahiri, is also the number two man in al Qaeda. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the al Qaeda treasurer who was arrested in Rawalpindi, Pakistan last month, spent time at the Foz do Iguacu mosque in December 1995, after a failed attack on an airplane in the Philippines he was said to have masterminded. Finally, it has been alleged that Osama bin Laden also spent time in the area in 1995, and that within the past year members of al Qaeda met there with representatives of other terror groups. Bin Laden’s appearance was reportedly captured on video, but the proof has not yet been produced.
Do any of these incidents have anything to do with the decision by the staff of the Iraqi embassy in Brasilia to have a bonfire? One wonders. There is enough direct and circumstantial evidence to reasonably hypothesize that the Iraqi embassies helped form a backbone for the international terror networks, providing channels for funding, using diplomatic immunity for cover and the pouch for secret movements of people and materiel. If true, that back has been broken, but the evidence remains to be collected. Exploitation teams should be seeking ways to get hold of the information inside of these embassies before it goes the way of the documents in Brazil. The status of the embassies is unclear. Some consular officials are awaiting orders from the new government, expatriates stormed the London office, and the embassy in Amman Jordan is locked down by the Jordanian government. Hopefully the Coalition is seeking ways of securing the property of the new Iraqi government against the destructive instincts of its former employees. Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri said the game is over, but in rolling up the terror networks the game is very much afoot.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst.