[Guest post by DRJ]
Yesterday’s UK Times Online published an article about Louai al-Sakka, described as an al Qaeda kingpin currently imprisoned in Turkey. Al-Sakka is a 34-year-old Syrian-born al Qaeda member who claims to have trained the 9/11 hijackers and to have been a close ally in Iraq of the insurgent, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
It’s not clear if al-Sakka is really, as he claims, a senior al Qaeda operative or if he has claimed to be one to enhance his value as a captive. (He was convicted last year of terrorist bomb plots and he may be trying to shield more senior al Qaeda members.) Al-Sakka’s lawyer claims he was the “number one networker for Al-Qaeda in Europe, Iran, Turkey and Syria.”
Whatever his status, there seems to be no doubt al-Sakka was involved in significant terrorist training and events stretching back many years:
“By his own account he is a senior Al-Qaeda operative who was at the forefront of the insurgency in Iraq, took part in the beheading of Briton Kenneth Bigley and helped train the 9/11 bombers. He has been jailed in connection with the bombing of the British consulate in Istanbul.”
Apart from the headline-grabbing claims, the article reveals several nuggets of information that are probably reliable. For instance, al-Sakka comes from a wealthy family:
“According to the documents provided by Karahan, Sakka grew up in the ancient city of Aleppo, Syria, the son of a wealthy factory owner, and followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming the general manager of a company that sold one of Syria’s most popular washing-up liquids. But he was drawn to the Islamic cause from a young age, according to his memoir.”
He was motivated to be a jihadi by Syrian politics and not by Western politics, actions or ideology:
“His politics were shaped by the conflict between President Hafez al-Assad, the former Syrian dictator, and the Muslim Brotherhood, an underground Islamic group. When Sakka was nine, Assad quelled an uprising by the brotherhood in the town of Hama by killing an estimated 10,000 people. “Like any other Muslim boy he was deeply affected by these events,” says his memoir.”
Al-Sakka’s quest to became a jihadi started during the Bosnian and Chechen conflicts:
“When the Bosnian war opened a new front for jihadists in the early 1990s, Sakka left his job and headed for the conflict. He stayed in Turkey initially and established the “mujaheddin service office”, which provided medical support for Bosnia and later the two Chechen wars.”
Even before 9/11, Turkey was and is a central hub for terrorist support such as the preparation of false passports and visas, and Turkish authorities knew about it:
“One of Sakka’s chief roles was to organise passports and visas for the volunteers to make their way to Afghanistan through Pakistan. His ability to keep providing high-quality forged papers made Turkey a main hub for Al-Qaeda movements, his lawyer says. The young men came to Turkey pretending to be on holiday and Sakka’s false papers allowed them to “disappear” overseas.
Turkish intelligence were aware of unusual militant Islamic activity in the Yalova mountains, where Sakka had set up his camps. But they posed no threat to Turkey at the time.”
For several of the hijackers, the path to 9/11 led from the terrorist training hub of Turkey to Chechnya. Afghanistan was an afterthought or back-up plan:
“But a bigger plot was developing. In late 1999, Karahan says, a group of four young Saudi students went to Turkey to prepare for fighting in Chechnya. “They wanted to be good Muslims and join the jihad during their holidays,” he said.
They had begun a path that was to end with the September 11 attacks on America in 2001. They were: Ahmed and Hamza al-Ghamdi who hijacked the plane that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center; their companion Saeed al-Ghamdi whose plane crashed in a Pennsylvanian field; and Nawaf al-Hazmi who died in the Pentagon crash.
They undertook Sakka’s physical training programme in the mountains and later were joined by two of the other would-be hijackers: Majed Moqed, who also perished in the Pentagon crash, and Satam al-Suqami, who was in the first plane that hit the north tower.
Moqed and Suqami had been hand-picked by Al-Qaeda leaders in Saudi Arabia specifically for the twin towers operation, Sakka says, and were en route to Afghanistan. Sakka persuaded the other four to go to Afghanistan after plans to travel to Chechnya were aborted because of problems crossing the border.“
Supporting al-Sakka’s claim, the 9/11 Commission Report found evidence that the hijackers al-Sakka says he trained “had initially intended to go to Chechnya from Turkey but the border into Georgia was closed.” Instead, they went to Afghanistan and Pakistan for further training. Al-Sakka even helped clean the hijackers’ Pakistani visas off their passports so they could more easily enter the US.
Al-Sakka’s account suggests the official 9/11 history may have incorrectly identified the pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon:
“According to Sakka, Nawaf al-Hazmi was a veteran operative who went on to pilot the plane that hit the Pentagon. Although this is at odds with the official account, which says the plane was flown by another hijacker, it is plausible and might answer one of the mysteries of 9/11.
The Pentagon plane performed a complex spiral dive into its target. Yet the pilot attributed with flying the plane “could not fly at all” according to his flight instructors in America. Hazmi, on the other hand, had mixed reviews from his instructors but they did remark on how “adept” he was on his first flight.
Paul Thompson, author and 9/11 researcher, said Sakka’s account was credible. “I think there is a lot more about the history of the hijackers that needs to be found out and Sakka’s claim may resume the debate about just how much was known about them before 9/11,” he said.”
During the invasion of Afghanistan, al-Sakka apparently left for Fallujah, Iraq, while Zarqawi may have fled to Iran. It was in Fallujah that al-Sakka claimed to have killed British hostage Kenneth Bigley, where he says Bigley was buried. The British were unable to find Bigley’s body based on a map al-Sakka provided. The Turks claim al-Sakka is insane or lying.
In summary, this article supports other reports that jihadis don’t fight because they are poor or uneducated, nor are they particularly motivated by anger at the West. In addition, it suggests Turkey is central to al Qaeda’s network and operations. It is repeatedly described as al Qaeda’s hub. Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s relationship with Muslim fundamentalists is complicated, and that relationship helps explain Turkey’s reluctance to publicly participate in the Iraq War and the war on terror.