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U.S. Behind Secret Transfer of Terror Suspects

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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 11, 2002; Page A01

JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 10 -- Arriving here from Pakistan in mid-November, Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni told acquaintances that he had come to Indonesia to disburse an inheritance to his late father's second wife. But instead of writing a check and leaving, he settled into a small boarding house in a crowded, lower-middle-class neighborhood, where he visited the local mosque and spent hours on end watching television at a friend's house.

Stocky and bearded, Iqbal, 24, betrayed little about his life in Pakistan, except to hand out business cards identifying him as a Koran reader for an Islamic radio station. In early January, however, the CIA informed Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency that Iqbal had another occupation, according to Indonesian officials and foreign diplomats. Iqbal, they said, was an al Qaeda operative who had worked with Richard C. Reid, the Briton charged with trying to detonate explosives in his shoes on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami on Dec. 22.

The officials and diplomats said the CIA provided information about Iqbal's whereabouts and urged Indonesia to apprehend him. A few days later, the Egyptian government formally asked Indonesia to extradite Iqbal, who carried an Egyptian as well as a Pakistani passport, a senior Indonesian official said. The Egyptian request alleged Iqbal was wanted in connection with terrorism, he said. It did not specify the crime, he said, but Indonesian officials were told the charges were unrelated to the Reid case.

By Jan. 9, Iqbal was in the hands of Indonesian intelligence agents. Two days later -- without a court hearing or a lawyer -- he was hustled aboard an unmarked, U.S.-registered Gulfstream V jet parked at a military airport in Jakarta and flown to Egypt, the Indonesian officials said.

Since Sept. 11, the U.S. government has secretly transported dozens of people suspected of links to terrorists to countries other than the United States, bypassing extradition procedures and legal formalities, according to Western diplomats and intelligence sources. The suspects have been taken to countries, including Egypt and Jordan, whose intelligence services have close ties to the CIA and where they can be subjected to interrogation tactics -- including torture and threats to families -- that are illegal in the United States, the sources said. In some cases, U.S. intelligence agents remain closely involved in the interrogation, the sources said.

"After September 11, these sorts of movements have been occurring all the time," a U.S. diplomat said. "It allows us to get information from terrorists in a way we can't do on U.S. soil."

U.S. officials would not comment on evidence linking Iqbal to Reid, but Western diplomats in Jakarta said Iqbal's name appeared on al Qaeda documents discovered by U.S. intelligence agents in Afghanistan. Indonesian officials said U.S. officials did not detail Iqbal's alleged involvement with terrorism other than to say he was connected to Reid, and as a consequence, he was highly sought by the U.S. government.

Iqbal remains in custody in Egypt, intelligence sources said. The sources said he has been questioned by U.S. agents but there was no word on his legal status, a situation that resembles that of other Islamic activists taken into custody in cooperation with the CIA.

In October, for instance, a Yemeni microbiology student wanted in connection with the bombing of the USS Cole was flown from Pakistan to Jordan on a U.S.-registered Gulfstream jet after Pakistan's intelligence agency surrendered him to U.S. authorities at the Karachi airport, Pakistani government sources said. The hand-over of the shackled and blindfolded student, Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, who was alleged to be an al Qaeda operative, occurred in the middle of the night at a remote corner of the airport without extradition or deportation procedures, the sources said.

U.S. forces seized five Algerians and a Yemeni in Bosnia on Jan. 19 and flew them to a detention camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after they were ordered released by the Bosnian Supreme Court for lack of evidence -- and despite an injunction from the Bosnian Human Rights Chamber that four of them be allowed to remain in the country pending further proceedings. The Human Rights Chamber, created under the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords that ended the 1992-95 war, was designed to protect human rights and due process.

U.S. involvement in seizing terrorism suspects in third countries and shipping them with few or no legal proceedings to the United States or other countries -- known as "rendition" -- is not new. In recent years, U.S. agents, working with Egyptian intelligence and local authorities in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans, have sent dozens of suspected Islamic extremists to Cairo or taken them to the United States, according to U.S. officials, Egyptian lawyers and human rights groups. U.S. authorities are urging Pakistan to take the same step with the chief suspect in the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

In 1998, U.S. agents spirited Talaat Fouad Qassem, 38, a reputed leader of the Islamic Group, an Egyptian extremist organization, to Egypt after he was picked up in Croatia while traveling to Bosnia from Denmark, where he had been granted political asylum. Qassem was allegedly an associate of Ayman Zawahiri, the number-two man in Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Egyptian lawyers said he was questioned aboard a U.S. ship off the Croatian coast before being taken to Cairo, where a military tribunal had already sentenced him to death in absentia. Egyptian officials have refused to discuss his case.

U.S. intelligence officers are also believed to have participated in the 1998 seizure in Azerbaijan of three members of Egypt's other main underground group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, according to testimony provided to their attorneys in Cairo.

Also in 1998, CIA officers working with Albanian police seized five members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who were allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania's capital.

After three days of interrogation, the five men were flown to Egypt aboard a plane that was chartered by the CIA; two were put to death. The five were among 13 suspects known to have been picked up in the Balkans with U.S. involvement and taken to Egypt for trial.

Between 1993 and 1999, terrorism suspects also were rendered to the United States from Nigeria, the Philippines, Kenya and South Africa in operations acknowledged by U.S. officials. Dozens of other covert renditions, often with Egyptian cooperation, were also conducted, U.S. officials said. The details of most of these operations, which often ignored local and international extradition laws, remain closely guarded.

Even when local intelligence agents are involved, diplomats said it is preferable to render a suspect secretly because it prevents lengthy court battles and minimizes publicity that could tip off the detainee's associates. Rendering suspects to a third country, particularly Muslim nations such as Egypt or Jordan, also helps to defuse domestic political concerns in predominantly Muslim nations such as Indonesia, the diplomats said.

Sending a suspect directly to the United States, the diplomats said, could prompt objections from government officials who fear that any publicity of such an action would lead to a backlash from fundamentalist Islamic groups.

In Iqbal's case, Indonesian government officials told local media that he had been sent to Egypt because of visa violations. A spokesman for the immigration department said Iqbal failed to identify a sponsor for his visit to Indonesia on his visa application form, which was submitted in Islamabad, Pakistan.

A senior Indonesian government official said disclosing the U.S. role would have exposed President Megawati Sukarnoputri to criticism from Muslim-oriented political parties in her governing coalition. "We can't be seen to be cooperating too closely with the United States," the official said.

The official said an extradition request from Egypt and the discovery of Iqbal's visa infraction provided political cover to comply with the CIA's request. "This was a U.S. deal all along," the senior official said. "Egypt just provided the formalities."

Indonesian officials believe Iqbal, who arrived in Jakarta on Nov. 17, came to the vast Southeast Asian archipelago not to plan an attack but to seek refuge as the Taliban neared collapse and al Qaeda leaders sought to flee Afghanistan. Western officials said they do not have a full picture of what Iqbal was doing in Indonesia and they cannot rule out the possibility that he was engaged in terrorist activities here.

Iqbal had lived in Jakarta as a teenager while his father, who also was an expert Koran reader, taught at the Arab Language Institute. Shortly after Iqbal arrived in November, he returned to his old neighborhood, a district in east Jakarta with narrow, winding streets and open sewers. There he met up with one of his father's former students, Mohammed Rizard, who helped him get a room at a nearby boarding house.

Rizard, a printer, said Iqbal often would spend afternoons at his house, watching television and singing Indian karaoke tunes. Although Iqbal said he came to Indonesia to distribute an inheritance to his father's second wife, he appeared to be in no hurry to perform the task, Rizard said.

"He was taking it easy," Rizard said. "He was more interested in talking about girls and singing karaoke."

Just before his arrest, Iqbal visited Solo, a city in central Java, Indonesia's main island, saying he was going to see his stepmother. The city is regarded by Western and Asian intelligence officials as a base for Jemaah Islamiah, a militant Muslim group with bases in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia that is alleged to be affiliated with al Qaeda. The group is accused of plotting to blow up Western embassies and U.S. naval vessels in Singapore and of aiding two of the Sept. 11 hijackers during a trip they made to Malaysia in 2000.

Rizard said he never discussed politics with Iqbal or inquired about his life in Pakistan. "He never talked about jihad or America," Rizard said. Rizard also said he rifled through Iqbal's suitcase and "found nothing suspicious."

In December, Iqbal sent several letters to friends in Pakistan, Rizard said. Three replies arrived at Rizard's house, which Iqbal used as a return address, after he had been seized and sent to Egypt. Rizard gave the unopened letters to correspondents for The Washington Post and the Weekend Australian newspaper.

The handwritten letters, in the Urdu language, contain no incriminating details but do suggest that Iqbal's missives had expressed deep frustration and despair.

"Why have you lost all hope?" one of his friends, Hafiz Mohammad Riazuddin, wrote. "Please keep your head and spirits up."

"Surprisingly you have asked about the Taliban," Riazuddin continued. "How did you become interested in politics? Anyway, by the time you sent this letter, Taliban rule has ended in Afghanistan. U.S. and British troops have landed in Afghanistan. The U.S. has taken bases in Pakistan and Pakistan's nuclear program is in danger."

A lengthy letter from a woman who appears to be his girlfriend suggested Iqbal had left Pakistan suddenly and had not told those close to him where he was going. "It gives great pleasure to know that you are alive," she wrote.

Another letter, from a man named Shahid, refers to plans to visit an "uncle in America" and talk to an "Uncle Babar" in Malaysia.

Despite criticism from some U.S. officials as well as from neighboring Singapore and Malaysia that Indonesia is not moving aggressively enough against suspected terrorists, particularly members of Jemaah Islamiah, officials here quickly point to Iqbal's rendition as proof they are cooperating, albeit quietly, in the global fight against terrorism.

"The CIA asked us to find this guy and hand him over," the senior Indonesian official said. "We did what they wanted."

Finn reported from Berlin. Correspondent Howard Schneider in Cairo, special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, and staff writers Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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