February 4, 2011
A Special Report by Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso in Skopje
Buried deep within a comprehensive history of the CIAs technical wizardry from the Cold War through to todays war on terrorism are some intriguing, but overlooked disclosures: previously unknown details regarding a sensitive CIA clandestine operation against Islamic terrorists in the Balkans.
Although the countrys name is not specified in the book, an analysis of available data within the larger historical context indicates beyond doubt that the operation occurred in Tirana, Albania in October 1998, in a joint effort with a CIA station in Western Europe, and probably the one in Rome.
The story becomes even more pertinent today considering the ongoing upheaval in Egypt against the longtime government of President Mubarak, and mass escapes of Islamists imprisoned by him. The prominent CIA role in some of those detainments could conceivably provide a motivating factor for future terrorism against American interests. In any case, the implosion of the Mubarak regime means that decades of sensitive intelligence cooperation could be undone, should the countrys security services be infiltrated by hostile parties.
During the 1990s, Albania became a safe-haven for members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. Their members some of them fugitives wanted by the Mubarak regime were drawn to Albania for its proximity to Europe, weak institutions, and the existing presence of a large Islamic charity network which could provide them with legitimate cover. Albania thus represented a place of perceived escape; however, the CIA also came to have concerns that American interests in the country were about to be targeted as well- hence the need for an urgent operation.
This CIA Balkan operation is recounted in a fascinating and highly-recommended recent book, Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIAs Spytechs, from Communism to Al Qaeda (Plume, 2009). It details for the first time how the obscure but effective Office of Technical Services evolved, becoming a vital part of the US intelligence apparatus, with its ever-expanding array of unorthodox spy gear, technology and reconnaissance teams. For the authors, former OTS director Robert Wallace and noted intelligence historian H. Keith Melton, it took several years and much administrative wrangling in order to get permission from the agency to publish this insiders account of what went on behind the scenes.
While the vast majority of Spycraft is devoted to other matters, the anecdotes concerning Albania make fascinating supplementary reading for those interested in the Balkans, counter-terrorism and understanding the covert tactics of terrorist organizations. The following analysis discusses the revelations that come from the book in both historical context and in terms of the value that can be derived, for pure intelligence understanding, from the episode. Finally, a chronology of key events happening before and after the CIA operation is provided.
Setting the Stage: Key Context for the Operation
The CIA anti-terrorism operation chronicled in Spycraft was just one among many others conducted in Albania since 1995, when several foreign terrorist suspects were arrested and secretly rendered out of the country. These actions had ultimately been necessitated by the reckless and opportunistic policy of the Albanian government in the early 1990s, when then-President Sali Berisha allowed foreign Islamic radicals to establish a foothold in the country, under the tacit support of the then-intelligence chief Bashkim Gazidede. (Following the March 1997 riots and the toppling of Berishas government, Gazidede fled to Syria and then Turkey; he returned to Albania several years later and died of natural causes in 2008).
The first round of joint operations occurred in 1995, however, when the Berisha administration was still in power. At the time, the CIA cooperation with a special branch of the SHIK that had been set up to deal with Islamic terrorists infiltrated into the country. A SHIK officer involved at the time, Astrit Nasufi, would years later tell the Chicago Tribune that the unit was essentially run by a US intelligence officer they knew simply as Mike.
Among several important developments was the detainment and (temporary) recruitment of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian living in Tirana. Commonly known as Abu Omar, this man would in 2003 be kidnapped off a street in Milan by a CIA team- an audacious abduction caused an outcry among the Italian public, legal threats and, possibly, ruined a surveillance operation that was being conducted by the Italians.
Before apparently leaving Albania and discontinuing his cooperation with the SHIK, Abu Omar provided a few precious bits of intelligence. These included information on Egyptian Islamic Jihad figures in Tirana, and terrorist branches in the UK, Germany, and Italy; in the latter, most significant was Milans Islamic Cultural Institute, at the time a base for mujahedin operations in Bosnia. (Soon after these revelations, Italian police raided the premises).
The second major round of CIA-SHIK operations occurred in 1998, a year after the country had descended into anarchy following the collapse of crooked pyramid schemes. The Berisha government was toppled and the rival Socialists took power in July 1997. At the same time, tensions between ethnic Albanians and the government in neighboring Yugoslavia were being felt, as a new militant group the Kosovo Liberation Army stepped up its operations. The Albanian diaspora in America and elsewhere intensified lobbying efforts, eventually winning the support of diplomatic figures such as Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, and diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
However, the intelligence community was more skeptical. For example, an October 1998 report from the Office of the DCI Interagency Balkan Task Force noted that
US mass media propaganda vociferously attacked Milosevic and Serbs
[is] so blatant that it evoked letters to the editor from uninvolved readers for the obviously slanted coverage.
For the CIA, politics was secondary to the business of providing security. In June and July 1998, several months before the operation documented in Spycraft, two raids on foreign extremists were conducted with the help of the SHIK and Albanian police. According to a subsequent Washington Post investigation of August 12, 1998, these raids netted
a bag of faked documents and official Albanian government stamps needed to get past customs and police checkpoints [and] certify legal documents at the home of a foreign religious scholar, Maged Mostafa. For the CIA, a prime security danger in Albania had always involved forgery and misappropriation of official identity documents, and these developments only reinforced this understanding.
The Post article noted that several suspects arrested in June and July 1998 were employed by Islamic charities associated under an umbrella network, bankrolled by the Kuwait Joint Relief Committee. Funded by private Kuwaiti citizens and interests through a Kuwaiti bank, the KJRC managed several charities including the Islamic Revival Foundation, which ostensibly aided poor Muslim families and orphans in Albania.
Headquartered in Tirana, it had established a strong presence in 1994. Since that year it had been led by Muhamed Hasan, one of the men arrested in the July 1998 operations. In late 1998, then-intelligence chief Fatos Klosi would attest for media that Osama bin Laden himself had visited Albania to organize his charity network in 1994.
Following the arrests, Muhammed Abdul-Kereem, director of the IRFs orphan assistance program, stated for the media that we are not taking advantage of the humanitarian assistance to make some other things. After Hasan was detained, he was replaced at the IRF by Sudanese national Ibrahim Meki, who had directed the [charitys] educational institute for several years. This institute was described in the August report as comprising four buildings
surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire, [with] a sign on its guardhouse stating that only five cars are allowed to pass the gate, including four listed as holding Kuwaiti diplomatic license plates.
In 2008, Meki (in his same job capacity) would be expelled from Albania, along with Egyptian national Abdulaziz Muhamed, director of a charity called Goodness of Kuwait, and Mamun Awad, director of the Islamic Vakf Society. Taken together, this would seem clear proof that together with bin Laden, Kuwaiti groups during the 1990s and at least until 2008 have directly sponsored extremist activities in Albania.
Further, for the Post report in August 1998, the institutes general secretary, Sulejman Kurani, attested that its teaching staff hailed from Sudan, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, adding that $80,000 had been donated by the charity to help refugees in the northern town of Tropoje- a town that also is a key locus of arms stockpiling and smuggling by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla group fighting to win Kosovos independence from Serbia, Yugoslavias dominant republic, according to the newspaper. This mountainous region was (and is) the stronghold of Sali Berisha, then leader of the opposition Democratic Party.
However, when in July euphoric SHIK agents told the local press that the CIA had been involved in the terrorist round-up, al-Qaeda and its supporters were enraged. Several of the men had been rendered to Egypt, where they were reportedly tortured by the authorities. On August 5, a statement co-signed by al-Qaeda promised retaliation for the Albania raids. Two days later, terrorists attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and injuring over 5,000.
On August 20, President Clinton launched symbolic missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. However, while those attacks had occurred in Africa and been masterminded from Azerbaijan, the Egyptian Islamic Jihads perceived desire to attack American and other embassies returned the CIAs attention to Albania, where after the attacks embassy staff had been relocated to a compound outside Tirana.
Soon thereafter, another SHIK operation resulted in the detention of one man believed to be planning an attack on the embassy; however, another one escaped. This is when the present story begins.
Planning the Operation: Ingenuity, Assessment and a Bit of Luck
Planning for a detailed operation to find and apprehend the second plotter began in the days immediately after the bombings, when a high-level CIA team visited Tirana to liaise with the SHIK. Despite the significant results achieved in previous operations, the CIA knew that the entire terrorist network established in Albania had not yet been uprooted, and that the operative at large could pose a future threat. However, to make sure nothing went wrong, and to limit further damaging exposure, they would have to come up with a foolproof plan that would disguise Agency involvement.
The exciting account given in Spycraft (pages 343-347) regarding how the CIA team planned its October 1998 Albania operation combines a little bit of everything: deception and stratagems, technical artistry, the use of covert devices, game-planning for various scenarios and so on. Almost ironically, in planning and the unexpected result, it is bookended by the use of two very different concealment devices.
Crucially, the narrative is enlivened with the first-hand testimony of the former OTS officer who led the technical preparations, Brian Mint. The testimony he provided to the authors indicates a combination of factors. First was a situational assessment, and analysis of the psychology and motivations of the at-large suspect, believed to be a primary al-Qaeda forger who specialized in altered travel documents. The OTS technical team became involved when wiretapped communications indicated contacts between the suspect and known terrorist cells in Western Europe.
The individual (who had apparently gone underground after the capture of his comrade) was married to a local woman, who claimed no knowledge of his whereabouts when asked by police. For the CIA, this man was a valuable target, as his capture
could produce a wealth of intelligence through the identification of the alias identities of other al-Qaeda operatives along with exemplars of their passports, drivers licenses, and other travel documents. Indeed, as the authors recount, finding the other terrorist became an obsession for the handful of case officers and techs.
Since the Tirana terrorist underground, and the charities that sustained it had been so severely damaged by police actions since 1995, the CIA officers knew that accessing cash would be a problem for the fugitive. The intercepted communications revealed that al-Qaeda was using a female cutout (that is, a courier or go-between). This woman was identified and, in order to find the suspect, the CIA team needed to find a way to follow her in order to locate him.
The idea of combining technology with concealment via public mail was a risky but potentially brilliant method of gaining access to the fugitive without arousing suspicion. According to Spycraft,
the concept involved implanting a tracking device as well as an audio transmitter in a package sent to the cutout who could reasonably be expected to deliver it to the target.
Brian Mint, overseeing the mission, was more skeptical that it could work than was the (unnamed) case officer, who enthused, we know [the suspect] needs money
hes gotten funds from Western Europe before and hes looking for more. You put money in some package with tracking and audio devices and we can get him.
Despite the inherent challenges, the case officers idea prevailed, and a team of technical experts was hastily assembled. While the CIA had long experience in creating myriad unique secret devices over the years, this one required a particularly ingenious design, in that it had to be a double concealment object. That is, the device sent through the mail would have to appear innocent enough to pass through the mail, and have not one but two secret cavities- one for the money that they hoped the terrorist would find, and the other for the electronic tracking equipment that they hoped he wouldnt.
Acquiring and Modifying the Device
The next step, according to the book account, came when a technical officer was dispatched to look for suitable concealment hosts. The CIA team believed that European tourist trinkets would offer the best option, since an inexpensive gift would not be alerting to customs officials or others handling the item during transit. Further, the intended recipient would likely assume the gift was more than it appeared based on its point of origin.
Thus, although it is not stated in the book, it seems clear that this phase of the operation involved dispatching the technical officer to the Western European city from where the item would need to be mailed- and to find something appropriately touristy to match that place.
The account given in Spycraft does not indicate how much time elapsed between the brain-storming sessions that planned the operation and this subsequent field research. It should not have required more than a few days however. The point of origin where the object was acquired can be deduced both by the 1995 revelations of Abu Omar, about the existence of affiliated terrorist cells in Italy, Germany and the UK, and by the description given of it in Spycraft: a wooden wall plaque with a metallic plate, engraved in outline with the image of an Italian cathedral and words reading Saint Susanna. Considering that the ancient Church of Santa Susanna is one of the most famous in Rome, it is highly likely that this plaque was acquired and mailed from that city to Tirana.
Yassin Kadi der Financier von Bin Laden, der Balkan, Albanien und die Partnerschaft mit Dick Cheney und dem Pentagon
Albania Takes Action Against Terrorist Suspect
The Albanian government has taken control of a construction project co-owned by a Saudi businessman suspected of funding the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Tirana has frozen Yassin Kadis accounts and charged him with money laundering.
(Radio Free Europe 25/01/02; UPI, Radio Free Europe 23/01/02; BBC Monitoring 22/01/02)
The Albanian prosecution has issued a warrant for the arrest of Saudi businessman Yassin Kadi, suspecting of having links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. The government has taken control of a construction project co-owned by Kadi and frozen his assets in local banks. The Saudi construction magnates name is on the list of individuals suspected of having terrorist links, issued by the US government on 12 October. Authorities believe Kadi has laundered about $10m of al-Qaeda money in their country.
The government has expressed its commitment to fighting terrorism, but Kadis case is the first admission of the presence of individuals linked to al-Qaeda in Albania, where dozens of Muslim charity, religious and business organisations have been operating since the fall of communism.
Addressing parliament on 22 January, Prime Minister Ilir Meta said that the government had identified companies operating in the country that are financially linked to the al-Qaeda network. An investigation is under way.
Eine der wichtigsten Bank Verbindungen war die Mafia und Geldwäsche Bank von Bin Laden und der Kadi Familie die American Bank of Albania
Yassin al-Qadi, a Saudi multimillionaire. He will invest $5 million of Ptechs start-up money. The US will declare him an al-Qaeda financier shortly after 9/11 (see October 12, 2001). In 1998, al-Qadi will come under investigation by FBI agent Robert Wright (see October 1998) for potential ties to the 1998 US embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Al-Qadi is also a major investor in BMI Inc., an investment firm with connections to a remarkable number of suspected terrorist financiers (see 1986-October 1999). Al-Qadi later will claims that he sold his investment in Ptech in 1999, but there will be evidence he may continue to hold a financial stake after that year, and even after the US will officially declare him a terrorism financier (see 1999-After October 12, 2001). [Wall Street Journal, 12/6/2002; Washington Post, 12/7/2002; Associated Press, 1/3/2003]
Gamel Ahmed, Ptechs comptroller in the mid-1990s. One al-Qadi loan Wright will investigate also involves Ahmed. [Associated Press, 1/3/2003]
Hussein Ibrahim, Ptech vice president and chief scientist. He also serves as vice president and then president of BMI from 1989 until 1995. He has no known direct terrorism finance connections, but it has been reported that al-Qadi brought Ibrahim into Ptech as his representative. [Wall Street Journal, 12/6/2002; WBZ 4 (Boston), 12/9/2002; Associated Press, 1/3/2003]
Die Firma wurde mit 20 Millionen $ Startkapital gegründet, 5 Millionen $ davon wurden von Yassin al-Qadi bereitgestellt, einem wohlhabenden saudischen Geschäftsmann mit guten Verbindungen welcher gerne mit seiner Vertrautheit mit Dick Cheney prahlte. Er hatte ebenfalls Verbindungen zu muslimischen Wohltätigkeits- organisationen die verdächtigt werden, internationalen Terrorismus finanziert zu haben. Nach 9/11 wurde er von der US-Regierung offiziell zum Special Designated Global Terrorist erklärt und seine Konten wurden eingefroren. Zu dieser Zeit verneinten die Eigentümer und das Management von Ptech, dass al-Qadi in irgendeiner Weise an der Firma beteiligt war, mit Ausnahme seines Anteils am Startkapital, aber das FBI beharrt darauf dass in Wirklichkeit Al-Qadi weitere Millionen durch diverse Fonds und Investments in die Firma investiert hätte. Firmeninsider sagten gegenüber FBI-Beamten, dass sie 1999 nach Saudi Arabien flogen um Ptech-Investoren zu treffen und Al-Qadi wurde ihnen als einer der Eigentümer vorgestellt. Es wurde ebenfalls berichtet dass Hussein Ibrahim, Chefwissenschaftler bei Ptech, al-Quadis Vertreter bei Ptech war und dass al-Quadis Anwälte zugaben, dass al-Quadis Vertreter möglicherweise auch nach 9/11 noch im Vorstand saß.
Ibrahim selbst ist ein ehemaliger Präsident von BMI, einer in New-Jersey gelegenen Immobilieninvestmentfirma, die auch eine der Startinvestoren von Ptech war und Finanzmittel für Ptechs Gründungskapital bereitstellte. Ptech mietete Büroraum und Computer-Ausrüstung von BMI und BMI teilte sich Büroraum mit Kadi International, besessen und gesteuert von niemand geringerem als Ptechs Lieblingsinvestoren und Specially Designated Global Terrorist, Yassin al-Qadi. 2003 sagte der Chefterrorfahnder Richard Clarke:
BMI gibt sich öffentlich als Finanzdienstleister für Muslime in den USA aus, doch die Investorenliste zeigt die Möglichkeit, dass diese Fassade nur dazu diente, Terrorunterstützung zu tarnen.
Suheil Laheir war Chefarchitekt von Ptech. Wenn er gerade keine Software programmierte, die Ptech detailierte Analysen der Operationsstrukturen der schützenswertesten Behörden der US- Regierung zur Verfügung stellt, schrieb er Artikel welche den heiligen Krieg des Islams (den Dschihad) preisen. Er zitierte auch Abdullah Azzam, Osama Bin Ladens Mentor und Kopf von Maktab al-Khidamat, einem Vorläufer von Al-Kaida.