A Bomb-Builder, 'Out of the Shadows'
Monday, February 20, 2006
ANTALYA, Turkey -- Right up to the hot August night his apartment exploded, Louai Sakka's neighbors took him for a newlywed. The lanky Syrian was not seen much in the corridors of the high-rise residential complex where he lived in this sunny resort city, but he spent time nuzzling an attractive young brunette and sipping beer beside the pool.
His real identity began to emerge shortly after 3 a.m. on Aug. 4, when the windows of Apt. 1703 blew out, showering the parking lot with the contents of the kitchen and bits and pieces of the massive bomb Sakka had been painstakingly assembling in the living room. Sakka, who escaped the inferno only to be arrested two days later, turned out to be a senior operative for al Qaeda and intimately linked to major terrorist plots in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, where he had worked beside Abu Musab Zarqawi, a longtime confederate.
He showed up in Antalya last summer with tens of thousands of dollars in cash and a face altered by plastic surgery. After his arrest, he told investigators he had planned to die steering a yacht laden with explosives into a cruise ship he believed was filled with U.S. soldiers and which was already approaching across the turquoise Mediterranean.
The attack, just 48 hours away when the chemicals ignited, was intended to crown a wide-ranging career in terrorism. Sakka played a role in the so-called millennium plot to attack hotels in Amman, Jordan, on Dec. 31, 1999. Turkish prosecutors also describe him as the planner of the 2003 truck bombings that killed 57 people in Istanbul, financed with $160,000 in al Qaeda funds.
Between attacks, according to his attorney, Sakka provided false passports and other means to help Islamic militants through the web of paths that U.S. military officials call rat lines. The routes crisscross Turkey to and from Afghanistan, Chechnya and, since 2003, Iraq, where Sakka traveled after the Istanbul bombings. Insurgents say Louai al-Turki, as he was known there, played a prominent role in major attacks on U.S. bases and commanded insurgent forces in Fallujah when it served as the militants' headquarters.
"He's been involved in this for 15 years," said the attorney, Osman Karahan.
The significance of Sakka, who was 32 at the time of his arrest, was slow to emerge. But he spoke at length to Turkish interrogators, admitting his role in past plots and describing Iraq as a training ground for terrorists comparable to Chechnya and Bosnia in the past, according to people who have read a summary of his statement. Sakka, who remains in a jail in Istanbul, declined to sign the account, however, on the advice of his controversial attorney.
"Actually, he does not deny his past activities," said Karahan, who subscribes to the same militant vision of Islam as many of his clients. "We are people who work for justice, so we want to tell the truth. Things need to be taken out of the shadows." Investigators have pressed Sakka to provide evidence against Karahan.
The attorney's office candidly declares his beliefs. The waiting room features copies of Kaide magazine, the Turkish spelling of Qaeda, with ads announcing the martyrdom of Turkish volunteers in Iraq. Copies of a paperback titled "Virgins of Paradise: Eyes Like Fawns and Shining Skin" are on sale for $4. Every image of a human face, including the portrait on Karahan's diploma, is covered by a tab of paper. "Angels don't come where faces are pictured," Karahan explained.
The lawyer said he handles almost 80 percent of the criminal cases brought against Islamic militants in Turkey, a practice that increased sharply after Sept. 11, 2001, when Turkey began detaining large numbers of suspects at its borders. In 2000, he secured the release of Sakka's wife and three children, who were taken in an operation that narrowly missed Sakka.
"He called me on the phone from Holland," Karahan said. "He said he was in Istanbul a few days earlier but managed to escape."
Born in Aleppo, in Syria's north, the son of successful factory owner, Sakka forsook a "rich life" for the struggles of radical Islam, the attorney said. He said Sakka worked in Turkey starting in 1998, easing the passage of militants through a country that U.S. and Turkish authorities have long acknowledged is a major logistical hub for terrorists. Karahan said that included preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks, notably in Bursa, a city 60 miles south of Istanbul.