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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Phone Call Betrayed Al-Qaida

UNITED NATIONS -- An intelligence breakthrough in the last several weeks made it possible for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to set forth the first evidence of what he said was a well-developed al-Qaida cell operating out of Baghdad that was responsible for the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley last October.

The breakthrough was the work of a coalition of intelligence services from the United States, Britain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, according to a senior official from one of the countries.

The al-Qaida network based in Iraq has operated for the last eight months under the supervision of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin who is also a veteran of the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union, Powell said.

Critical information about the network emerged from interrogations of captured cell members conducted under unspecified circumstances of psychological pressure, the official said. But a lucky break also figured prominently -- a satellite phone conversation gave away the location of an al-Qaida operative, Zarqawi's deputy, driving out of Iraq.

Until about three weeks ago, Powell was said to be reluctant to go before the Security Council with a case connecting al-Qaida with the Iraqi leadership. "Colin did not want to be accused of fabricating or stretching the truth," a coalition official said.

That all changed, the official said, when the interrogation of Zarqawi's deputy began to yield the first detailed account of the network's operations in Iraq, the Middle East and Europe.

The unraveling of the al-Qaida story in Iraq, still under way, took on some of the drama of an espionage thriller when, following the murder of Foley, the al-Qaida deputy to Zarqawi suffered a lapse of communications discipline, a coalition official said. As he drove across northern Iraq, he could not resist using his satellite phone to call Foley's murderers to congratulate them and tell them he was on his way to meet them.

"The captured assassin says his cell received money and weapons from Zarqawi for that murder," Powell said. In December, Jordan said it had two men in custody who had confessed to killing Foley on the instructions of Zarqawi.

Western intelligence is withholding the name of the captured Zarqawi deputy. However, they swiftly detected the satellite phone signal and tracked the operative to Syria and then into Turkey, where he was arrested.

Powell said that after Zarqawi fought against the Soviets, he returned to Afghanistan at the peak of bin Laden's influence in 2000 and ran a training camp. His leg injury during the allied military campaign in 2001 may have been serious enough for amputation by the time he reached Baghdad.

Soon after Zarqawi arrived, Powell said, "nearly two dozen extremists converged on Baghdad and established a base of operations there. These al-Qaida affiliates, based in Baghdad, now coordinate the movement of people, money and supplies into and throughout Iraq for his network, and they are now operating freely in the capital for more than eight months," he said.

Coalition officials said no group could operate in this manner without deep engagement with Iraq's ubiquitous intelligence services.

Powell withheld some critical details, like the discovery by the intelligence agencies that a member of the royal family in Qatar, an important ally providing air bases and a command headquarters for the American military, operated a safe house for Zarqawi when he visited the country.

The Qatari royal family member was Abdul Karim al-Thani, the coalition official said, adding that al-Thani provided Qatari passports and more than $1 million in a special bank account to finance the network.

But with Qatar providing the United States military with its most significant air operations center for action against Iraq, the Pentagon has cautioned against a strong diplomatic response from Washington, U.S. and coalition officials say.

The issue of whether al-Qaida's terror network is linked with Iraq had been a contentious part of the debate over the justification for war. Some experts have sought to undermine the Bush administration's rationale for war by asking how a war against Iraq relates to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The administration's theory is that the threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction could merge with the large-scale terror tactics of al-Qaida to pose an unacceptable threat.