Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Egyptian ambassador alive? Sting in the tale...

Breaking news –

Naguib Sawiris, the head of Orascom Telecom (which runs the Iraqna network in Iraq), has told an Egyptian state-owned paper that he believes the Egyptian ambassador to Iraq, Ihab al-Sherif, is still alive.

From AP, July 20:

"We have information suggesting that the Egyptian ambassador is still alive and has not been killed," Sawiris told the pro-government al-Gomhouria newspaper, in remarks published Wednesday that were later confirmed by The Associated Press.

"I will not put his life at risk to give you news," said Sawiris in a telephone interview with The AP.

Ihab al-Sherif was abducted on July 2, and a video was released of him on July 7, wearing a blindfold. Al-Qa'eda in Mesopotamia claimed that it had killed the ambassador, though the video did not document this and no body has been produced.

The Egyptian government maintains that it has no reason to suspect that the claim is false, questioning why anyone would make such a statement falsely.

Why indeed?

I don't usually go in for conspiracy theories, but this is too big a deal to go uncommented. There are too many odd facts that seem to suggest something more complex afoot.

Egypt's official news agency, MENA, provides this snippet of information (courtesy of BBC Monitoring):

For unknown reasons, Al-Sharif refused during the day of abduction to be escorted by guards although he had six Egyptian well-trained guards and a number of Iraqi guards at his disposal, said [Egyptian Foreign Minister] Abu-al-Ghayt.

The video released on July 7, unlike other videos produced by Zarqawi's group, studiously avoids showing any background. Previous videos showed hooded men standing around the detainee, with a flag prominently displayed in the background: all this one shows is the head and upper torso of the ambassador as he speaks to the camera, and the voice of the questioner has been muted and replaced with captions.

The Egyptian government was unusually prescient in its comments on the death of the ambassador. Egyptian newspaper Nahdat Misr reported July 19 that, in a report sent by Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu-al-Ghayt to the Majlis (parliament), the government said:

It was not feasible that the kidnappers would announce the execution of a person if they indeed did not kill him unless they wanted to measure the reaction and its effects.

Indeed, it would seem odd.

In the week to July 15, US and Iraqi forces detained 30 suspected al-Qa'eda suspects in Iraq, amongst them Khamis Abdul-Fahdawi, believed to be behind the attacks on the Bahraini and Pakistani ambassadors as well as the possible murder of Ihab al-Sherif. Another man - Abdullah Ibrahim al-Shadad, or Abu Abdul Aziz – was also detained. He has variously described as operations officer and the top operative in Baghdad for al-Qa'eda in Iraq. Zarqawi's group has downplayed the arrests, but in any case it looks like there has been a fairly substantial operation going on.

Okay, here is where I go into complete paranoid speculation. Bear with me.

Back in January 2005, it hit the press that the Pentagon had been considering a 'Salvador Option' – what the media interpreted to mean 'death squads' killing civilians at will with no respect for the law. I don't want to comment on El Salvador, not knowing enough about the civil war there to comment meaningfully.

But I did recently read a just-published piece of military scholarship on 'Pseudo Operations and Counterinsurgency' published by the Army War College and written by Lawrence E Cline, an intelligence professor and consultant who

is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer, and was trained as a Middle Eastern Foreign Area officer. He served as a United Nations (UN) Military Observer in Egypt and in Lebanon during its civil war; a staff officer with 7th Special Forces Group; advisor in El Salvador during its civil war;
senior intelligence analyst with Central Command during Operation DESERT STORM; and as intelligence production chief for United Task Force (UNITAF) in
Somalia. His final assignment was as Chief, Middle East Intelligence Branch, J-2, Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is an erudite work of scholarship – Cline knows counterinsurgency inside out.

These 'pseudo operations' are what the media jumped all over in January. Basically they involve 'turning' captured guerrillas and using them against the insurgency, primarily for intelligence gathering though in some cases for combat operations. Generally they have had quite a good success rate, if used properly, Cline concludes. But a major problem is working out how far they can go in trying to act like insurgents (which they need to do to establish their cover) – perhaps an allusion to mistakes made in El Salvador.

One interesting section reads thusly:

The insistence of both the British in Kenya and the Rhodesians in using white officers led to practical difficulties. Reid-Daly notes the problems in "blackening-up."63 In most cases involving contacts with the insurgents, the white officers had to hide outside of the village or camp in which their African team members were meeting the guerrillas. In at least one case, however, a team used a white member as a "prisoner" to gain access to a group of guerrillas.

Okay, here's my theory.

The US has been operating 'pseudo gangs' in Iraq since at least January in an attempt to gather intelligence and to identify key figures in the insurgency and kill or capture them. Given that most kidnapping operations have carried out by gangs of 'guns for hire' – petty criminals and low-level former mukhabarat or military – who then sell their captives to political groups, it can't have been too difficult to establish a cover.

Cline notes that the British found, when they were using the Mau Mau in Kenya, that the best candidates for 'pseudo gangs' were the ones driven by a sense of adventure rather than by ideology – which fits these 'guns for hire' perfectly.

So intelligence emerges that there is a plan to hit ambassadors to Iraq, to try to scare countries off having diplomatic contact with the elected government. Maybe the gig was offered straight to the 'pseudo gang'.

Bear in mind that most of the attempts failed, because the security around the ambassadors was fairly tight. Except for the Egyptian ambassador, who went out without his security detail.

So my suspicion is that the Egyptian ambassador agreed to go as a 'prisoner' with the 'pseudo gang' in a hope that such a tantalising prize would be enough to draw out the senior leadership of al-Qa'eda in Iraq. That's why Sawiris (who has had to go to the Iraqi underworld to buy the release of kidnapped Orascom employees) thinks that he's alive – he's heard the plan on the grapevine. And they managed to nab Zarqawi's man in Baghdad as a result of what looks to have been a very high-risk sting operation.

That's if he is alive. If it turns out he is dead, then my sincerest apologies for indulging in this speculation.


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