The Gay Terrorist By Aram Roston 3/17/10 1:14am
It’s been more than eight years since 9/11, but the fallout continues to reverberate throughout today’s New York. The Obama administration’s waffling over how to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the attack’s mastermind, and the continuous, embarrassing delay in rebuilding the towers downtown have kept 9/11 more in the headlines than usual.
Now, as those political battles roll on, a new story about the run-up to 9/11 has emerged—a previously undisclosed, covert C.I.A. effort to recruit a spy to penetrate Al Qaeda a year and a half before the planes crashed into the towers.
The development is intriguing in part because the informant they were after was thought to be secretly gay—a fact that gave intelligence agents leverage in their efforts to turn him against his conservative Islamist circle. But the case may also help answer one of the long-standing mysteries of the 9/11 narrative: why a terrorist known to one part of the U.S. government wasn’t captured by other parts before he boarded a plane and helped carry out the most devastating attacks on the country.
Intelligence officials tell The Observer that the character at the center of the intrigue was an enigmatic but jovial man named Ahmad Hikmat Shakir, or “Shakir el Iraqi.” “He was tall as a mushroom, fat and gay,” one source familiar with the case told The Observer, “and the idea was to exploit him as an agent against Al Qaeda.”
The C.I.A.’s pursuit of Mr. Shakir, and the role he could have played in stopping, or at least complicating, the 9/11 plot, is a story that’s never been told, adding yet another piece in the puzzle leading up to the attacks.
Mr. Shakir’s story began on Jan. 5, 2000, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He was there to meet a passenger on an incoming flight from Dubai—a Yemeni-born terrorist named Khalid al-Mihdhar. As it happens, the C.I.A. had its eyes on both of them.
Mr. Shakir didn’t have much, if any, of a file at the time. Few knew much about him, except that he was an Iraqi Arab, in his late 30s, with a dead-end job as a VIP greeter for Malaysian Airlines. But Mr. Mihdhar flashed big on the C.I.A.’s radar. At 25, he was already a deeply seasoned terrorist, with battlefield experience in Bosnia and time spent at various jihadi camps, and the agency knew that he’d come to Malaysia for some kind of special terror summit. The agency had one other key piece of intelligence: a U.S. visa had been stamped in Mr. Mihdhar’s green Saudi passport, meaning he almost certainly had been tapped for some kind of mission in America.
Indeed, it was this multiple-entry visa that would allow Mr. Mihdhar to come to America shortly after the C.I.A. started tracking him, and then, 18 months later, hijack an airliner as part of the 9/11 attacks.
Normally, the C.I.A. would have told the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the visa. That way he might have been arrested, or placed on a watch list, or at least questioned when he stepped into the U.S. Stopping him, some experts think, could well have stopped 9/11.
But the agency didn’t tell the F.B.I. about that visa, an act of omission that has baffled 9/11 buffs ever since.
As the C.I.A. watched, Messrs. Mihdhar and Shakir climbed into a taxi outside the airport and drove to an upscale apartment complex near a golf course. For the next three days, Mr. Mihdhar and about half a dozen other high-level terrorists planned future strikes against America, including the hijackings of 9/11, according to multiple intelligence experts. In anti-terrorism circles, Kuala Lumpur is seen as a critical stop on the road to the attacks.
It’s uncertain whether Mr. Shakir participated in the meetings. But clearly, he was connected. And as the terror summit went on, the C.I.A. became convinced that it had found the perfect mole to help the agency crack the jihadi circle. Mr. Shakir seemed to have excellent contacts among the radical jihadists, and, according to intelligence sources, he certainly didn’t look like a terrorist or a spy.
Another source described Mr. Shakir to The Observer as a potential “access agent,” espionage jargon for an informant whose function is to spot other potential spies and turncoats. Though he may not know secrets or terrorist plots himself, the access agent is likely to know people who do, and is expected to facilitate meetings. As this officer explained, the agency “looked to him as a social broker.”
Mr. Shakir was no James Bond. In fact, he was short and fat and sociable, and was surmised to be gay, which would have opened him up to being flipped. (Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker from Egypt, was also rumored to be gay.)
Islamic jihadists don’t take kindly to homosexuality, at least in public. Homosexuality is punishable by death in some Muslim traditions. And yet, of course, it exists throughout the Middle East, in secret. (Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, was laughed at in the West when he told a conference at Columbia University that there were no homosexuals at all in Iran.)
Since gays are forced deeper into the closet in the Middle East than in most other parts of the world, threats to expose someone’s sexual orientation could be a powerful motivator. It’s not hard to see how agents could use blackmail as a method to turn a suspect, though one ex–intelligence operative denied it was a common practice. “The gay issue?” he said. “Hostile recruitments almost never work. It is spy novel stuff.”
UNFORTUNATELY, THE C.I.A.’s ambitions to employ Mr. Shakir as its terror mole didn’t pan out. Agents reached out to him and one day even reportedly rifled through his house for anything that they thought might be of use; Mr. Shakir rebuffed them. And then Mr. Mihdhar and the other terrorists fled Malaysia. When a F.B.I. agent drafted a memo at the time about Mr. Mihdhar’s U.S. visa and the possibility of his heading stateside, the C.I.A. shut the agent down, convincing him not to alert his bosses or colleagues. “Please hold off for now,” an officer wrote.
Mr. Mihdhar disappeared altogether, as if he’d never existed, along with another known terrorist named Nawaf al-Hazmi. When the C.I.A. picked up their trail months later, it led to the U.S., where the men had traveled; in fact, the two were living in a bland apartment complex in San Diego, where, it turns out, they were advancing their September hijack plans.
Yet even then, the agency kept the F.B.I. in the dark about Mr. Mihdhar. As the 9/11 Commission later wrote, “None of this information—about Mihdhar’s U.S. visa or Hazmi’s travel to the United States—went to the FBI…”
When it finally did get to the F.B.I., in August 2001, just weeks before the attacks, it was too late. In the end, Messrs. Mihdhar and Hazmi boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
It was a dramatic oversight; the F.B.I. might have foiled the bombings if that information had been shared earlier on. Thomas Kean, the 9/11 Commission’s co-chairman, pointed out that Mr. Mihdhar “was using his own name, so once they were after him, once you were looking for him in the country, it wouldn’t have been that hard to find him.”
John Farmer, the former senior counsel at the commission, tended to agree. Had they found them—Messrs. Mihdhar and Hazmi—he said, “it is much more likely that the whole operation would have been compromised. Mission security was very important to Al Qaeda leaders, to the point that if they were that concerned, I think it is certainly possible that they would have called it off completely.”
So the question has always been quite simple: Why wasn’t the Mihdhar information shared with the F.B.I.? “That is one of the big mysteries. Why was the information not passed on?” Mr. Farmer told The Observer. Mr. Farmer is also the author of a recent book about the attacks, Ground Truth. “And the explanations aren’t good,” he added.
The 9/11 Commission, in its exhaustive report, never explained why such important intelligence disappeared into the C.I.A.’s black hole. (Complicating matters, the C.I.A. initially claimed it did tell the F.B.I.) One reason for the lapse, insiders have speculated, is that C.I.A. analysts concealed it out of spite—they simply hated the F.B.I. Cliques in national security agencies, of course, can rival those in high school.
But the C.I.A.’s antipathy for the F.B.I. as an explanation has never fully satisfied observers, and that is where Mr. Shakir plays into the story. Telling the F.B.I. about Mr. Mihdhar would have blown the lid on the Shakir gambit—and recruitments are the most sensitive operations in the spook world. The C.I.A., as one source put it, “did not want the bureau messing up the operation.” He added, “The bureau might have demanded everything: ‘Who is this guy? Let’s target him!’”
Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, said he couldn’t rule out the Shakir story and would like to hear more. “We looked at the issue very hard and with some care,” he told The Observer, “including the documentary record, but I would be glad to evaluate any new evidence that might surface.”
Mr. Kean, the commission co-chair, said, “It’s a great story.” But he pointed out that no one raised Mr. Shakir during the investigation. “I can’t say it is not true, but it would have been unusual if they withheld that information from the 9/11 Commission. I just have no way of knowing whether it is true, whether part of it is true or whether none of it is true.” The C.I.A. declined to comment.
In any case, it appears the recruitment of Mr. Shakir failed. Shortly after the Malaysian summit disbanded, he fled the country, which further raised the C.I.A.’s suspicions about him. The C.I.A. later explained in internal records that his “travel and past contacts linked him to a worldwide network of Sunni extremist groups and personalities,” including “senior al-Qaeda associates.” Weeks before the 9/11 attacks, the C.I.A. added him to its watch list, along with Messrs. Mihdhar and Hazmi. They also finally got around to briefing the F.B.I.
RECENTLY, THERE WAS A strange twist in the story. Years after 9/11, and after the Bush administration sought to link Saddam Hussein to the attacks, Mr. Shakir briefly grew quite famous in neoconservative circles.
The C.I.A.’s attempt to recruit him in Malaysia was never disclosed, nor was his alleged homosexuality. But word did leak out among intelligence officials that he was tied to the Kuala Lumpur summit, and neocons were intrigued by the fact that he was an Iraqi. Hawks eager to retroactively justify the Iraq invasion thought he might be the one to do it since he had met Mr. Mihdhar. And there seemed to be an Iraqi fedayeen officer with a name similar to Mr. Shakir’s.
In 2004, the story broke on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, positing that Mr. Shakir could constitute “a direct link between Iraq and the al Qaeda operatives who planned 9/11.” Such a link was the Holy Grail for neoconservatives, especially after it became clear that Iraq had no WMD.
It was a desperate push to tie the Iraqi dictator to 9/11 and it failed, notably because whatever Mr. Shakir was, he was no Iraqi agent and he was no fedayeen officer.
The last anyone saw of Mr. Shakir was right after the 9/11 attacks. Briefly in 2001, he was picked up in the Middle East, first by the Qatari authorities, and then in Amman, Jordan. But he was quickly released. No public pictures of him exist. Today, his whereabouts are unknown.
Aram Roston is an Emmy Award–winning investigative reporter and author of The Man Who Pushed America to War, a biography of Ahmad Chalabi.
Case Not Dismissed
1st July 2005 - National Review Online
Predictably, many Iraq/Qaeda naysayers are responding to my post-Bush-Iraq-speech piece by citing 9/11 Commission conventional wisdom: that the commission found there was no connection between Saddam’s regime and the terror network. There will be more to say in the coming week about that misimpression, and about the commission’s back-of-the-hand treatment of Iraq/Qaeda ties.
For now, let's deal with a single point which has been brought up by several readers: The Iraqi intelligence operative to who has been referred as Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, who was present at the infamous January 2000 meeting in Malaysia that kicked off the 9/11 plot (and perhaps furthered the then-ongoing conspiracy to bomb a U.S. naval vessel which succeeded with the Cole bombing ten months later).
The man's full name has been reported as Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, which is significant for reasons that will become clear momentarily.
Typical is the following from one of my correspondents:
You may want to read the 9/11 Commission report in order to clear up some misconceptions that you promoted in your article, "Its All about 9/11" The 9/11 Commission found no operational link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, and no evidence of any involvement on the part of Iraq in the 9/11 attacks
You mentioned "Ahmed Hikmat Shakir"
He's mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report. According to the CIA , the Iraqi Intelligence Agent and the man at the Kuala Lampur terrorist summit were not the same man.
Its sad to see such a strongly worded article based on misinformation
(Lack of punctuation in original.) This is a misreading of the commission's final report, albeit an entirely understandable one given the studied denseness of what the commission said about Shakir. The relevant passage is Footnote 49 (of Chapter 6) on page 502:
... [Hijacker Khalid al-]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. This is shameful misdirection. If I were a cynic, I might speculate that the commission had a guilty conscience about Shakir. The staff report it put out a month before the final report, which was embarrassingly shoddy regarding Iraq/Qaeda ties, failed even to mention this critical person. The commission was roundly criticized for this here and elsewhere. Did the final report set about to degrade the importance of this glaring omission rather than to get to the bottom of Shakir's participation in the 9/11 plot by suggesting that Shakir was not that significant a person after all? You be the judge.
The footnote capitalized on what was then a new piece of information: a document had been recovered in Iraq which showed a man named Hikmat Shakir Ahmad listed as a Lieutenant Colonel in Saddam's Fedayeen. Initially, there was excitement that this person might be the same person as the Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi the intelligence operative of Malaysian infamy. The intelligence community, however, seems to have put that suspicion to rest since Lt. Col. Hikmat Shakir Ahmad is reported to have been in Iraq in September 2001 a time when we know Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi was in custody in Qatar (more on that in a moment).
Plainly, the commission's footnote suggests that since the guy who was in Malaysia is not the guy who was in the Fedayeen, it's case-closed as far as an Iraq/Qaeda tie is concerned. That's ridiculous. The Malaysia Shakir was important long before anyone ever suspected (probably incorrectly) Fedayeen membership. Thus, that there turns out to be a Fedayeen officer with a similar name does not change a wit fact that Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi was an Iraqi intelligence operative. All it means is that he was not, in addition, an officer in Saddam's Fedayeen.
As Steve Hayes summarized the matter in an important Weekly Standard article after the Commission's final report came out, the Shakir who was an airport facilitator got his job through one Raad al-Mudaris, an Iraqi Embassy employee who intelligence indicates was like many Iraqi diplomats part of Saddam's Intelligence Service. The CIA which, it bears noting, has been strikingly wrong over the years in many of its assessments appears to have surmised that even though al-Mudaris was an intelligence officer, the insertion of Shakir as a facilitator at an airport in Malaysia was not necessarily Iraqi intelligence business notwithstanding that al-Mudaris, rather than airport personnel in Malaysia, controlled Shakir's airport work schedule.
This is all the more curious because Shakir left the airport job, never to return to it, only two days after the Malaysia meeting with two of the 9/11 hijackers and other al Qaeda plotters.
As Hayes relates, a Senate Intelligence Committee report later concluded that "CIA's reluctance to draw a conclusion with regard to Shakir was reasonable based on the limited intelligence available and the analyst familiarity with the IIS." Translation: in dismissing the relevance of Shakir to potential Iraqi involvement with al Qaeda, we are banking on a combination of virtually no information plus a CIA assessment that the al-Mudaris/Shakir tie does not fit whatever pattern the CIA believed had to exist before it could find meaningful ties between Iraqi intelligence officers and their operatives. That's not very comforting.
Meanwhile, as Hayes further detailed, this Iraqi whose work schedule was controlled by Iraqi intelligence, was arrested in Qatar six days after 9/11
in possession of contact information for several high-ranking al Qaeda terrorists. These contacts included Zaid Sheikh Mohammed, the brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational planner of the 9/11 attacks, and Musab Yasin, an Iraqi and the brother of Abdul Rahman Yasin, who mixed the chemicals for the first World Trade Center attacks. Shakir was known to U.S. intelligence because he had received a phone call in 1993 from the safehouse where planning for the first WTC bombing took place. As Hayes concludes:
Had the lieutenant colonel been the same Shakir as the one in Kuala Lumpur, the intrigue surrounding his activities would have certainly been heightened. But the fact that there appear to have been two different Shakirs, while interesting, does nothing to explain the activities of the Shakir described in the Senate report. (The sourcing of the 9/11 Commission report on the two Shakirs inspires little confidence. The commission cites a report in the Washington Post co-bylined by Walter Pincus, whose unbridled cynicism on the Iraq-al Qaeda connection is well known.) [That report, by Pincus and Dan Eggen, can be found here. Thus did 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman acknowledge to Hayes, in an interview after the Commission's Final Report was released, that 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" with respect to both al Qaeda and Iraq.
Palpably, who Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi is, and what to make of his ties to both Iraq and al Qaeda, would be matters of urgency to any serious, objective investigator probing the nature of the connection between the regime and the terror network. Why did the CIA, when it got to interview Shakir in Jordan, think he had counter-intelligence training? Why did Saddam's government go to the trouble of pressing Jordan to return him to Iraq? As with much of the now-murky corpus of knowledge on the intersection between Iraq and al Qaeda, we don't know whether these questions are even being asked in the right places, much less what the answers are.
But one thing is certain, just because Shakir may not have been in the Fedayeen does not mean he was not an Iraqi intelligence operative whose connections to al Qaeda terrorists are extremely intriguing.
Oh, and one more thing. Let's say we "connection" people have it wrong. Let's say it somehow turns out that Shakir's ties to Iraqi intelligence are insubstantial and that the circumstantial evidence he seems to provide of a purposeful Iraqi role in a critical 9/11 planning session has been overstated. Why was the commission, and why is the media, so stubbornly uncurious about Shakir?
This is a man who, undeniably, was called from a 1993 World Trade Center bombing safehouse, got a 9/11 hijacker through Malaysian customs, apparently attended a foundational 9/11 gathering, disappeared from sight (as did the hijackers and their co-conspirators) right after the Malaysia meeting, and turns up in Qatar a few days after 9/11 with contact information for the brother Khalid Sheik Mohammed (the 9/11 mastermind) and other terrorists. What is the good reason not to be curious about this apparent co-conspirator (whom the CIA once thought important enough to travel to Jordan to interview)?
Why didn't the 9/11 Commission bore into this guy regardless of whether he had Iraqi connections? It's one thing to say you don't think there's a connection. It's quite another thing to avert your eyes from anything that might suggest one.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.