Al Qaeda's Man In Iraq?

In the weeks after the September 11 attacks, security officials around the world were on highest alert. So when a 37-year-old Iraqi national named Ahmad Hikmat Shakir stepped off a plane in Amman's Queen Alia airport on Oct. 21, Jordanian officials soon became suspicious. A quick review of his passport showed Shakir had recently traveled to Pakistan, Yemen and Malaysia--key stops on the terror trail. FBI agents were alerted. Within days they concluded that Shakir was no incidental traveler: he was, according to confidential U.S. intelligence reports, a suspected terrorist who had been in direct contact with some of the major operatives in the September 11 plot.

But hopes that the FBI had nabbed a potential Qaeda source were soon dashed. Three months after he was detained, Shakir was inexplicably released by Jordanian authorities--and promptly vanished. NEWSWEEK has learned that some U.S. intelligence officials believe Shakir is now back home in Iraq. The Bush administration has made no public comments about Shakir and officials acknowledge they know little about his current activities. But Shakir's case may be the most tantalizing evidence yet to support the administration's contention that there are ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

For more than a year the White House has strained to find a solid connection between Saddam and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network--an effort that has taken on new urgency as Congress prepares to debate a resolution authorizing a war with Iraq. Last week national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice told a TV interviewer that Iraq has provided Qaeda operatives with training in "chemical-weapons development." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described what he called "bulletproof" evidence that senior Qaeda leaders were being harbored in Baghdad. But the relationship between Baghdad and Al Qaeda is still far from clear, and even top administration officials acknowledge there are large gaps in what they actually know. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle," said one senior U.S. official familiar with the intelligence reports on Iraq. "You have a little fragment here and another fragment there. But you don't know whether you're looking at a face or a monkey's ass."

Some of the new information on Iraq's terror links, sources tell NEWSWEEK, has come from two high-level Qaeda detainees--Abu Zubaydah, bin Laden's former operations chief, and his onetime deputy Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a fierce Libyan operative who was once the military commander of Al Qaeda's Khalden training camp in eastern Afghanistan. Under interrogation, both men have separately described efforts by Qaeda operatives to seek out Iraqi assistance in assembling chemical weapons. But how much help the Iraqis actually provided is "really very fuzzy," said one knowledgeable source.

The case of Shakir may be the most intriguing. Was he a Qaeda terrorist who just happened to be Iraqi--or did Iraqi officials know about, or even approve, his Qaeda activities? "Shakir connects with both Iraq and 9-11," said one U.S. official. It's a startling claim--though far from proven. Last year Shakir was living in Doha, Qatar, working as a civil servant in the country's Ministry of Religious Endowment. Six days after September 11, Qatari authorities picked him up for questioning--but let him go. Yet a search of Shakir's apartment in Doha, the country's capital, yielded a treasure trove, including telephone records linking him to suspects in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Project Bojinka, a 1994 Manila plot to blow up civilian airlines over the Pacific Ocean. U.S. officials found an even more startling link, according to intelligence documents obtained by NEWSWEEK: Shakir had been present at a January 2000 Qaeda "summit" in Malaysia that was attended by two of the 9-11 hijackers. Authorities believe that the summit may have been a planning session for both the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole and 9-11.

Shakir quickly left Qatar. In October 2001, he hopped on a commercial flight to Amman, intending to switch planes to Baghdad. When Jordanian authorities questioned him, Shakir claimed he was going home to visit relatives. The Jordanians didn't buy it, and neither did U.S. officials. But much about the handling of the case has raised concerns. FBI agents were not permitted to directly question Shakir. Now law-enforcement officials are left to wonder how a suspected Qaeda operative went from a jail cell in Jordan to what may be safe haven in Iraq.