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Context of 'April 6, 2003: Iraqi Training Camp Overrun by US Forces; Allegations Facility Was Used to Train Islamist Terrorists Is Found Baseless'

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Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, posing as Jamal al-Ghurairy for Frontline.Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, posing as Jamal al-Ghurairy for Frontline. [Source: PBS]An Iraqi defector identifying himself as Jamal al-Ghurairy, a former lieutenant general in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence corps, the Mukhabarat, tells two US reporters that he has witnessed foreign Islamic militants training to hijack airplanes at an alleged Iraqi terrorist training camp at Salman Pak, near Baghdad. Al-Ghurairy also claims to know of a secret compound at Salman Pak where Iraqi scientists, led by a German, are producing biological weapons. Al-Ghurairy is lying both about his experiences and even his identity, though the reporters, New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges and PBS’s Christopher Buchanan, do not know this. The meeting between al-Ghurairy and the reporters, which takes place on November 6, 2001, in a luxury suite in a Beirut hotel, was arranged by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC). Buchanan later recalls knowing little about al-Ghurairy, except that “[h]is life might be in danger. I didn’t know much else.” Hedges recalls the former general’s “fierce” appearance and “military bearing.… He looked the part.” Al-Ghurairy is accompanied by several other people, including the INC’s political liaison, Nabeel Musawi. “They were slick and well organized,” Buchanan recalls. Hedges confirms al-Ghurairy’s credibility with the US embassy in Turkey, where he is told that CIA and FBI agents had recently debriefed him. The interview is excerpted for an upcoming PBS Frontline episode, along with another interview with an INC-provided defector, former Iraqi sergeant Sabah Khodada, who echoes al-Ghurairy’s tale. While the excerpt of al-Ghurairy’s interview is relatively short, the interview itself takes over an hour. Al-Ghurairy does not allow his face to be shown on camera.
Times Reports Defectors' Tale - Two days later, on November 8, Hedges publishes a story about al-Ghurairy in the New York Times Times. The Frontline episode airs that same evening. [New York Times, 11/8/2001; Mother Jones, 4/2006] Hedges does not identify al-Ghurairy by name, but reports that he, Khodada, and a third unnamed Iraqi sergeant claim to have “worked for several years at a secret Iraqi government camp that had trained Islamic terrorists in rotations of five or six months since 1995. They said the training at the camp, south of Baghdad, was aimed at carrying out attacks against neighboring countries and possibly Europe and the United States.” Whether the militants being trained are linked to al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, the defectors cannot be sure, nor do they know of any specific attacks carried out by the militants. Hedges writes that the interviews were “set up by an Iraqi group that seeks the overthrow of… Hussein.” He quotes al-Ghurairy as saying, “There is a lot we do not know. We were forbidden to speak about our activities among each other, even off duty. But over the years, you see and hear things. These Islamic radicals were a scruffy lot. They needed a lot of training, especially physical training. But from speaking with them, it was clear they came from a variety of countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco. We were training these people to attack installations important to the United States. The Gulf War never ended for Saddam Hussein. He is at war with the United States. We were repeatedly told this.” He uses Khodada’s statements as support for al-Ghurairy’s, identifies Khodada by name, and says that Khodada “immigrated to Texas” in May 2001 “after working as an instructor for eight years at Salman Pak…” He quotes the sergeant as saying, “We could see them train around the fuselage. We could see them practice taking over the plane.” Al-Ghurairy adds that the militants were trained to take over a plane without using weapons. Hedges reports that Richard Sperzel, the former chief of the UN biological weapons inspection teams in Iraq, says that the Iraqis always claimed Salman Pak was an anti-terror training camp for Iraqi special forces. However, Sperzel says, “[M]any of us had our own private suspicions. We had nothing specific as evidence.” The US officials who debriefed al-Ghurairy, Hedges reports, do not believe that the Salman Pak training has any links to the 9/11 hijackings. Hedges asks about one of the militants, a clean-shaven Egyptian. “No, he was not Mohamed Atta.” Atta led the 9/11 hijackers. Hedges notes that stories such as this one will likely prompt “an intense debate in Washington over whether to extend the war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government of Afghanistan to include Iraq.” [New York Times, 11/8/2001; Columbia Journalism Review, 7/1/2004]
Heavy Press Coverage - The US media immediately reacts, with op-eds running in major newspapers throughout the country and cable-news pundits bringing the story to their audiences. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice says of the story, “I think it surprises no one that Saddam Hussein is engaged in all kinds of activities that are destabilizing.” The White House will use al-Ghurairy’s claims in its background paper, “Decade of Deception and Defiance,” prepared for President’s Bush September 12, 2002 speech to the UN General Assembly (see September 12, 2002). Though the tale lacks specifics, it helps bolster the White House’s attempts to link Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 hijackers, and helps promote Iraq as a legitimate target in the administration’s war on terror. (Five years later, the reporters involved in the story admit they were duped—see April 2006.)
Complete Fiction - The story, as it turns out, is, in the later words of Mother Jones reporter Jack Fairweather, “an elaborate scam.” Not only did US agents in Turkey dismiss the purported lieutenant general’s claims out of hand—a fact they did not pass on to Hedges—but the man who speaks with Hedges and Buchanan is not even Jamal al-Ghurairy. The man they interviewed is actually a former Iraqi sergeant living in Turkey under the pseudonym Abu Zainab. (His real name is later ascertained to be Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, and is a former Iraqi general and senior officer in the Mukhabarat.) The real al-Ghurairy has never left Iraq. In 2006, he will be interviewed by Fairweather, and will confirm that he was not the man interviewed in 2001 (see October 2005). [Columbia Journalism Review, 7/1/2004; Mother Jones, 4/2006] Hedges and Buchanan were not the first reporters to be approached for the story. The INC’s Francis Brooke tried to interest Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff in interviewing Khodada to discuss Salman Pak. Isikoff will recall in 2004 that “he didn’t know what to make of the whole thing or have any way to evaluate the story so I didn’t write about it.” [Columbia Journalism Review, 7/1/2004]
"The Perfect Hoax" - The interview was set up by Chalabi, the leader of the INC, and former CBS producer Lowell Bergman. Bergman had interviewed Khodada previously, but was unable to journey to Beirut, so he and Chalabi briefed Hedges in London before sending him to meet with the defector. Chalabi and Bergman have a long relationship; Chalabi has been a source for Bergman since 1991. The CIA withdrew funding from the group in 1996 (see January 1996) due to its poor intelligence and attempts at deception. For years, the INC combed the large Iraqi exile communities in Damascus and Amman for those who would trade information—real or fabricated—in return for the INC’s assistance in obtaining asylum to the West. Helping run that network was Mohammed al-Zubaidi, who after 9/11 began actively coaching defectors, according to an ex-INC official involved in the INC’s media operations (see December 17, 2001 and July 9, 2004). The ex-INC official, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, did everything from help defectors brush up and polish their stories, to concocting scripts that defectors with little or no knowledge could recite: “They learned the words, and then we handed them over to the American agencies and journalists.” After 9/11, the INC wanted to come up with a big story that would fix the public perception of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Al-Zubaidi was given the task. He came up with al-Ghurairy. He chose Zainab for his knowledge of the Iraqi military, brought him to Beirut, paid him, and began prepping him. In the process, al-Zainab made himself known to American and Turkish intelligence officials as al-Ghurairy. “It was the perfect hoax,” al-Haideri will recall in 2006. “The man was a born liar and knew enough about the military to get by, whilst Saddam’s regime could hardly produce the real Ghurairy without revealing at least some of the truth of the story.” Al-Haideri will say that the reality of the Salman Pak story was much as the Iraqis claimed—Iraqi special forces were trained in hostage and hijack scenarios. Al-Zubaidi, who in 2004 will admit to his propaganda activities, calls Al-Zainab “an opportunist, cheap and manipulative. He has poetic interests and has a vivid imagination in making up stories.” [Mother Jones, 4/2006]
Stories Strain Credulity - Knight Ridder reporter Jonathan Landay later says of al-Qurairy, “As you track their stories, they become ever more fantastic, and they’re the same people who are telling these stories, until you get to the most fantastic tales of all, which appeared in Vanity Fair magazine.” Perhaps al-Qurairy’s most fabulous story is that of a training exercise to blow up a full-size mockup of a US destroyer in a lake in central Iraq. Landay adds, “Or, jumping into pits of fouled water and having to kill a dog with your bare teeth. I mean, and this was coming from people, who are appearing in all of these stories, and sometimes their rank would change.… And, you’re saying, ‘Wait a minute. There’s something wrong here, because in this story he was a major, but in this story the guy’s a colonel. And, in this story this was his function, but now he says in this story he was doing something else.’” Landay’s bureau chief, John Walcott, says of al-Qurairy, “What he did was reasonably clever but fairly obvious, which is he gave the same stuff to some reporters that, for one reason or another, he felt would simply report it. And then he gave the same stuff to people in the Vice President’s office [Dick Cheney] and in the Secretary of Defense’s office [Donald Rumsfeld]. And so, if the reporter called the Department of Defense or the Vice President’s office to check, they would’ve said, ‘Oh, I think that’s… you can go with that. We have that, too.’ So, you create the appearance, or Chalabi created the appearance, that there were two sources, and that the information had been independently confirmed, when, in fact, there was only one source. And it hadn’t been confirmed by anybody.” Landay adds, “[L]et’s not forget how close these people were to this administration, which raises the question, was there coordination? I can’t tell you that there was, but it sure looked like it.” [PBS, 4/25/2007]
No Evidence Found - On April 6, 2003, US forces will overrun the Salman Pak facility. They will find nothing to indicate that the base was ever used to train terrorists (see April 6, 2003).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Richard Sperzel, Newsweek, Saddam Hussein, Taliban, New York Times, Sabah Khodada, Washington Post, United Nations, Vanity Fair, Nabeel Musawi, Public Broadcasting System, Mother Jones, Ahmed Chalabi, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, Abu Zeinab al-Qurairy, Chris Hedges, Al-Qaeda, CBS News, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Mukhabarat, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Francis Brooke, Lowell Bergman, Michael Isikoff, Mohammed al-Zubaidi, Jonathan Landay, John Walcott, Jamal al-Ghurairy, Jack Fairweather, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Christopher Buchanan, Iraqi National Congress

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter casts doubt on Salman Pak’s characterization as a terrorist training facility (see April 6, 2003), in an August 2002 interview later included in his book War on Iraq. Ritter says in part, “Iraqi defectors have been talking lately about the training camp at Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. They say there’s a Boeing aircraft there. That’s not true. There’s an Antonov aircraft of Russian manufacture. They say there are railroad mock-ups, bus mock-ups, buildings, and so on. These are all things you’d find in a hostage rescue training camp, which is what this camp was when it was built in the mid-1980s with British intelligence supervision. In fact, British SAS special operations forces were sent to help train the Iraqis in hostage rescue techniques. Any nation with a national airline and that is under attack from terrorists—and Iraq was, from Iran and Syria at the time would need this capability. Iraq operated Salman Pak as a hostage rescue training facility up until 1992. In 1992, because Iraq no longer had a functioning airline, and because their railroad system was inoperative, Iraq turned the facility over to the Iraqi Intelligence service, particularly the Department of External Threats. These are documented facts coming out of multiple sources from a variety of different countries. The Department of External Threats was created to deal with Kurdistan, in particular, the infusion of Islamic fundamentalist elements from Iran into Kurdistan. So, rather than being a camp dedicated to train Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, it was a camp dedicated to train Iraq to deal with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. And they did so. Their number one target was the Islamic Kurdish party, which later grew into [Ansar al-Islam]. Now, Jeff Goldberg claimed in the New Yorker that [Ansar al-Islam] is funded by the Iraqi Intelligence service. But that’s exactly the opposite of reality: the Iraqis have been fighting Ansar for years now. Ansar comes out of Iran and is supported by Iranians. Iraq, as part of their ongoing war against Islamic fundamentalism, created a unit specifically designed to destroy these people. It would be ludicrous for Iraq to support al-Qaeda, either conventionally, as many have claimed, or even worse, to give it weapons of mass destruction…” [Ritter and Pitt, 9/25/2002]

Entity Tags: Department of External Threats (Iraq), Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, Scott Ritter, Special Air Service, Jeffrey Goldberg

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The CIA reports to the White House that it has serious doubts about reports that the Iraqi military base at Salman Pak was ever used to train Islamist terrorists (see April 6, 2003). The agency reports in part, “The probability that the training provided at such centers, e.g. Salman Pak, was similar to that al-Qaeda could offer at its own camps in Afghanistan, combined with the sourcing difficulties, leads us to conclude that we need additional corroboration before we can validate that this low level basic terrorist training for al-Qaeda occurred in Iraq.” [Knight Ridder, 6/17/2004]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

President George Bush sends a “formal determination” on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to Congress in the form of a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and Senate President Robert Byrd (D-WV). Congress had required, in its October 2002 authorization of military force (see October 10, 2002), that Bush affirm that diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iraq WMD crisis were no longer possible, and that Iraq had tangible ties to the 9/11 attackers or similar terrorists. The letter provides neither. Instead, it merely reiterates the language of the statute itself, using that language as the determination. The determination says that Congress itself had found evidence of Iraq’s diplomatic intransigence and of Iraq’s connections to the 9/11 terrorists, when Congress has found neither. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will comment: “Bush, like a dog chasing his tail who gets ahold of it, relied on information the White House provided Congress for its draft resolution; then he turned around and claimed that this information (his information) came from Congress. From this bit of sophistry, he next stated that these congressional findings were the basis of his ‘determination.’” The only additional information Bush provides is a citation from Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations (see February 5, 2003), where Powell noted the supposed existence of a terrorist training camp in the Salman Pak military facility (see April 6, 2003), a training camp that does not exist. Bush also cites “public reports” indicating that Iraq is harboring al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (see October 2, 2002), and that Iraq has “provided training in document forgery and explosives to [al-Qaeda].” Bush provides no evidence of his claims. Dean writes that the law has stringent requirements for such “presidential determinations,” mandating solid evidence, legal citations, and so forth, but Bush’s “determination” contains none of this. “If there is a precedent for Bush’s slick trick to involve America in a bloody commitment, where the Congress requires as a condition for action that the president make a determination, and the president in turn relies on a whereas clause… and a dubious public report… I am not aware of it and could not find anything even close.” [Dean, 2004, pp. 148-152]

Entity Tags: United Nations, Robert C. Byrd, Reagan administration, John Dean, H.L. Mencken, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda, Colin Powell, Dennis Hastert, George W. Bush, Lyndon B. Johnson

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Overhead photo of Salman Pak, with erroneous captioning.Overhead photo of Salman Pak, with erroneous captioning. [Source: The Beasley Firm]US forces overrun the Iraqi military training facility at Salman Pak, just south of Baghdad. The facility has been identified by several Iraqi National Congress defectors as a training facility for foreign terrorists, possibly aligned with al-Qaeda (see November 6-8, 2001). [New Yorker, 5/12/2003; Knight Ridder, 11/2/2005] The day of the raid, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks attempts to give the impression that US forces have found evidence that the camp was used to train terrorists, telling reporters that the camp was hit “in response to information that had been gained by coalition forces from some foreign fighters that we encountered from other country, not Iraq, and we believe that this camp had been used to train these foreign fighters in terror tactics…. The nature of the work being done by some of those people that we captured, their inferences to the type of training that they received, all of these things give us the impression that there was terrorist training that was conducted at Salman Pak.” Brooks says that tanks, armored personnel carriers, buildings used for “command and control and… morale and welfare” were destroyed. “All of that when you roll it together, the reports, where they’re from, why they might be here tell us there’s a linkage between this regime and terrorism and that’s something that we want to break…. There’s no indications of specific organizations that I’m aware of inside of that. We may still find it as with all operations that we conduct into a place, we look for more information after the operation is complete. We’ll pull documents out of it and see what the documents say, if there’s any links or indications. We’ll look and see if there’s any persons that are recovered that may not be Iraqi.” [CNN, 4/6/2003] However, US forces find no evidence whatsoever of any terrorists training activities at the camp. The story had a sensational effect in the media, and helped feed the public impression that the regime of Saddam Hussein was connected in some way with the 9/11 terrorists, but others, from Iraqi spokespersons to former US intelligence officials, asserted before the March 2003 invation that the Salman Pak facility was built, not for training terrorists, but for training Iraqi special forces to combat passenger jet hijackers. The facility formerly housed an old fuselage, generally identified as being from a Boeing 707, used in the training, and has been used in counter-terrorism training since the mid-1980s. A former CIA station chief says the agency assisted the Iraqis in their training: “We were helping our allies everywhere we had a liaison.” The former station chief adds that it is unlikely that the Iraqis, or anyone else, would train for terrorist strikes in an open facility easily spotted by satellite surveillance and human observers. “That’s Hollywood rinky-dink stuff,” he says. “They train in basements. You don’t need a real airplane to practice hijacking. The 9/11 terrorists went to gyms. But to take one back you have to practice on the real thing.” The US forces comb through Salman Pak, and find nothing to indicate that the facility was used for anything except counter-terrorism training. [New Yorker, 5/12/2003; Knight Ridder, 11/2/2005] In 2004, a senior US official will say of the claims about Salman Pak as a terrorist training facility, “We certainly have found nothing to substantiate that.” [Knight Ridder, 3/15/2004] In 2006, the Senate Intelligence Committee will report similar findings (see ISeptember 8, 2006). The CIA doubted reports of Salman Pak being used as a terrorist training camp as early as 2003 (see January 2003). And former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter was debunking those stories in 2002 (see August 2002).

Entity Tags: Senate Intelligence Committee, Saddam Hussein, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Iraqi National Congress, Vincent Brooks

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Iraq under US Occupation

The Senate Intelligence Committee, reporting on the pre-invasion intelligence on Iraq, finds that the US intelligence community had no evidence whatsoever of terrorist training facilities or activities at Iraq’s Salman Pak military base. The report says, “Postwar findings support the April 2002 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessment that there was no credible reporting on al-Qaeda training at Salman Pak or anywhere else in Iraq. There have been no credible reports since the war that Iraq trained al-Qaeda operatives at Salman Pak to conduct or support transnational terrorist operations.” The report will note testimony from both CIA and DIA officials that found “no indications that training of al-Qaeda linked individuals took place there.” The DIA told the committee in June 2006 that it has “no credible reports that non-Iraqis were trained to conduct or support transnational terrorist operations at Salman Pak after 1991.” [Senate Intelligence Committee, 9/8/2006 pdf file] The base was found to be just what the Iraqis said it was: a training camp for counterterrorism operations, focused on foiling terrorist hijackings of jetliners (see April 6, 2003).

Entity Tags: Defense Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Senate Intelligence Committee, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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