Cover Story

Osama's witnesses

As the United States prepares to battle Saddam Hussein, U.S. allies inside Iraq continue to hold terror suspects as evidence of Saddam's close involvement in the 9/11 attacks. WORLD visits a Kurd-controlled detention center and talks with a detainee

Issue: "Osama's witnesses," May 18, 2002

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq—To get to Sulaymaniyah requires a plane, an early morning truck ride through the oil wells and wheat fields of northern Syria, two checkpoints, a river crossing, a snaking road of seven hours to the next checkpoint, a demilitarized zone where guests are handed from one Kurdish zone of protection to another, and a final car ride of two hours. Thankfully this is Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, and the landscape is an ever-changing parade of rushing waters, green pasture, and hillsides giving way to distant snowcapped mountains. This is also Iraq, where most U.S. passports became invalid Feb. 8, 1991, after the United States defeated Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Kurdish authorities who control this region are careful to protect American reporters who turn up here, knowing there are spies from Baghdad and elsewhere. The escort into the detention center in downtown Sulaymaniyah includes three armed guards who are never more than a few feet away. The Gulf War may be over but a new war, many here suspect, is about to begin.

Haqi Ismail decided to shave. Just the day before, he wore the customary beard of Afghan mujahideen. Until a few weeks ago he went about in traditional Afghan clothing, tunic and sash with loose-fitting trousers. Now he wears the drawstring pants but has exchanged the rest for orange plastic sandals and an American T-shirt advertising a "Tri State Martial Arts Tournament."

When he enters the office of the security chief, the authorities chuckle at his new guise. One asks, "So now you have decided to leave al-Qaeda?" The young, prematurely balding mujahid is polite but refuses eye contact. He laughs nervously, and swallows several times.

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Charlie Manson might have been paroled if he'd tried this. But at the jailhouse in northern Iraq, where Kurdish parties reign in opposition to Saddam Hussein, no one is buying Mr. Ismail's tender face and neat sideburns.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan detained Mr. Ismail six months ago when he tried to cross the border from Iran near here.

Security officers who oversee this detention center told WORLD they believe he is a top operative in Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization. He is an Iraqi citizen with connections to the government of Saddam Hussein, whose territory begins just half an hour south of here. They believe his connections include ties to Saddam's powerful intelligence service, known as the Mukhabarat, which is the main security arm of the government. In southern Iraq, Mr. Ismail's uncle is the top officer in Mukhabarat. His father is retired from the Iraqi air force.

Kurdish officials realize that holding him indefinitely-along with at least four other detainees who have suspicious pasts in Afghanistan-is a powerful card with which to force the hand of the United States on Saddam Hussein. The detainees are evidence that Saddam Hussein played a role in the events of Sept. 11.

Intelligence officers shared with WORLD a substantial dossier compiled after months of interrogating Mr. Ismail. He is from Mosul, a city of 1.5 million controlled by Baghdad. In October 1994 he left school in Mosul and completed a mandatory tour of military duty. "I was released from military forces in 1995. I obtained my Iraqi passport, then I went to Jordan, to Amman," he said. He told investigators he was then dissatisfied with the shallow secular Islam of Saddam Hussein's regime.

From there he went to Afghanistan in 1999, according to the transcript. In Kabul he met a man named Ahmed who took him in a pickup truck to one of al-Qaeda's camps.

During a face-to-face interview at the Sulaymaniyah detention center, he told WORLD, "I went there looking for work, I was searching for religious schools. That was my ambition." He said Afghanistan was "the only country with an Islamic state that was freely helping anyone getting involved in religion." At first, he said, he was trying to get into one of Kabul's madrassas, religious schools run by the Taliban. But then he said he was "only learning in the mosques," until the "accident"-a reference to Sept. 11. "Then I left."

But according to the information he gave previously to investigators, he was by that time heavily involved in the activities of al-Qaeda and knew about impending attacks on the United States. "They were expecting such an accident," a transcript of his previous statements reads. "They told us, 'Soon you will hear good news.' Really the accident and explosion in Washington and New York happened right away."

Mr. Ismail repeatedly uses the word accident in reference to the events of Sept. 11. Questioned about the word choice, he told WORLD, "I didn't say that. I said 'problem.'"


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