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Secrets of the ‘terrorist’ underworld

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

When the situation in Egypt stabilizes for the benefit of a government that is totally “different” from the former regime’s, some dirty laundry may be exposed involving the country’s former intelligence service.

They are dirty affairs in every sense of the word. Egypt has been host to a totalitarian regime dating back to half a century or more, since the days of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was fond of security issues and spying, and wanted to know everything happening inside and outside Egypt.

Did intelligence services pay for Islamists or for al-Qaeda later on, through undercover agents, to carry out terrorist attacks that serve larger political objectives?

Jamal Khashoggi

He contributed, therefore to the formation of a strong external intelligence service which was not only against Israel, but against all the Egyptians and Arabs who threaten the regime and the leader.

Enemies and friends change as time and rulers change: from Abdel Nasser to Egyptian former presidents Sadat and Mubarak. Nevertheless, the Egyptian intelligence service remained resilient and powerful, since the clash between Abdel Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The service was strengthened by the assassination of Sadat by extremist Islamist groups. The spread of Islamist members around the world, has led this Egyptian intelligence agency to cooperate with international and regional bodies to persecute and fight Islamists; in the secret world of intelligence services, even the enemies cooperate together if they have a common enemy.

Back then, Israel was targeting Hamas, Egypt was persecuting Islamic groups, Tunisia was trying to besiege the Ennahda movement, Libya was involved in an open war against the Libyan armed forces, and Algeria was at the beginning of its black decade worried about the increased activity of the Islamic Salvation Front in Europe and the United States. It was a whole different world back then.

One topic I wish to examine is the story of American federal police agent and Egyptian national Emad Salem, and whether he was a double agent “serving his country,” or just another greedy man?

In February 1993, the first terrorist attempt to blow up the World Trade Center was undertaken by an “Islamic” group formed by young Arab immigrants. I traveled to cover the event for al-Hayat newspaper. All the attention was headed towards a modest mosque in the suburb of Brooklyn managed by the blind Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, who got his visa to the United States from the U.S. embassy in Khartoum. At that time, Emad Salem’s role was not disclosed yet, so I met him by chance in the mosque after the evening prayers. I do not remember why we talked, but I remember that he had a bag with gold forgings on it that included, Islamic inscriptions, some crosses and Pharaonic designs. The man seemed to be a moderate Muslim, but I noticed that he was acting as if he was an administrator at the mosque: everyone knows him, and he dealt with some of the damaged facilities in the mosque saying he would fix them.

In the summer of that same year, Emad Salem completely disappeared, and everyone including us journalists, discovered that he was a “secret agent” collaborating with the “FBI”, and he was close to Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, to whom some media sources were referring to, especially after unveiling a second plot that included another group of Muslim immigrants, mostly Sudanese, who planned to blow up the United Nations building and the New York City tunnels.

I later on retrieved several documents indicating that Emad Salem was not just a secret agent, but also an “instigator;” a man named Ahmed Abdul Sattar confirmed that to me; I do not know where he is now, but he used to work with Salem and presented himself as the legal advisor of the blind Sheikh when he was arrested. He said: “Emad Salem was not a normal Muslim who regularly attends the sheikh’s lectures and prays in the mosque, but he always used to urge us to work on Islamic victories.” I met Ahmed Abdul Sattar before the bombing events when I was writing a report about “Sayed Nosseir,” a young Egyptian who assassinated the extremist Jewish Rabbi Meir Kahane. I also met other people who were involved later on in the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center.

The events of Bosnia were provoking rage at the time: Serbs were leading a fierce and dirty war against the Muslims there, fully broadcasted to the world on CNN, which was very active in airing such tragedies. The events of Bosnia were maybe the first massacres and abuses to be immediately publicized to the world.

Infiltrating Islamists

That was before the emergence of al-Qaeda; young people were excited about the jihad’s idea: they were not professional terrorists, but they were willing to do anything. In this same period of time, a mysterious young man named Ramzi Youssef entered their lives.

We knew later on that he grew up in Kuwait, and his mother was Palestinian. He spent some time in Afghanistan, where he met Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whom I believe is even more dangerous than Osama bin Laden.

I got lost in these countless details but the “theory” that I am searching for is: Did the intelligence services pay for such young men or for al-Qaeda later on, through undercover agents, to carry out terrorist attacks that serve larger political objectives?

Let us get back to Emad Salem. The second operation was the plots to blow up the United Nations building: he provided bomb-making materials, and before the completion of the bomb making, the police arrested the young men who claimed that Salem has encouraged and directed them. I interviewed some of them in prison, but I noticed that Emad Salem was keen on implicating Sudanese diplomats in this operation.

At that time, the Egyptian-Sudanese ties were at their lowest levels. It was clear that Mubarak could no longer tolerate the presence of Islamists in power in Khartoum, especially after his assassination attempt in Addis Ababa; it was convenient for him to see Khartoum’s government getting involved in a terrorist attack especially that the international community will get the government over a barrel, but this did not happen. The accusations were covering the newspapers, but there were no formal American accusation against Khartoum.

In the underworld, contradictions cross over as I mentioned earlier, not just in the world of Egypt’s former intelligence service but even in Iran, which is using its archenemy al-Qaeda, and allowing its members to move freely and live in secret homes. This also includes Saudi jihadist Salafis who is affiliated to al-Qaeda and who does not mind dealing with Hezbollah. Also, the Syrian Baathist who arrested three Saudis searching for jihad in Iraq, so he hands over one to his country and another one to the United States to prove his good intentions, and then leaves the third to easily make his way to al-Qaeda in Iraq to blow himself up, consequently infuriating Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki so he starts threatening Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. These are stories that should be written in a book, not an article.

What led me to recall all of this? An Armenian called Misha, whose real name is Mikhail Allakhverdov, and who did not only convert to Islam, but became a Salafist Jihadist Muslim. Misha met the Tsarnaev brothers, suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings last month, and was blamed for radicalizing the older brother! Is it a coincidence or more than that?

This article was first published in al-Hayat on May 4, 2013.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.