By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
It is unclear when Sakka crossed paths with Zarqawi, but a Jordanian court convicted both men in absentia for plotting to attack an Amman hotel, border crossings and Christian tourist sites during the celebration of the millennium.
By 2003, Turkish prosecutors say, Sakka was in the thick of the planning for the bombings of two synagogues, the British Consulate and a British bank in Istanbul over two days in November that year. Though Karahan said Sakka now denies involvement, an indictment released Feb. 10 charges that he "proposed" the attacks, with specific approval from both Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden. Testimony in the mass trial of more than 70 Turks already charged in the case indicated that Sakka provided all the funds for the attacks, with the largest installment delivered in a sock stuffed with euros from Saudi sympathizers, according to the indictment. When the bombs went off, he cheered as he watched satellite television reports with the leading Turkish plotters, all of whom had fled to Aleppo.
Sakka next surfaced in Iraq, infiltrating the border via routes he was known for helping volunteers navigate, insurgents said. A former member of Zarqawi's group, Abu Khalid Dulaimi, 55, said Sakka arrived in Fallujah in March 2004 with seven Turkish men and helped defend the city against the first, aborted Marine offensive in April. Reunited with Zarqawi, he was well known as a key aide to the insurgent leader. Prosecutors say he was involved in the slaying of a Turkish truck driver.
Dulaimi said Sakka provided coordinates for mortar attacks on U.S. bases in Mosul, Samarra, Baghdad and Anbar province. He said Sakka also played a "vivid" role in an attack on Abu Ghraib prison, where the inmates included two organizers of the Istanbul bombings. A third organizer, Habib Akdas, was reported killed in the second, successful Marine offensive on Fallujah in November 2004.
In the aftermath of the fall of Fallujah, foreign fighters in Iraq convened a shura , or council, Karahan said. The meeting authorized 10 separate attacks on Israeli targets. Sakka, who told Turkish interrogators he learned bomb-making in Iraq, volunteered to strike the Israeli cruise ships that regularly call on Turkey's southern coast, Karahan said. The attorney said Sakka believed U.S. soldiers used the vessels for R & R and that his own days were numbered because his surgically altered face had appeared on an insurgent video of a downed American drone in Iraq. Turkish doctors had detected a nose job and scars suggesting Sakka might also have altered his chin and eyebrows.
"He decided it's about time his life ends, because he changed his face but he was still recognized," Karahan said.
In Antalya, Sakka spent lavishly preparing for the attack. Using an alias, he put down $60,000 on a villa in the Beldibi neighborhood, insisting on the unit closest to the beach, with a panoramic view of the resort city and its harbor. "His criterion was it had to be directly on the water, no matter what the price was," said Mehmet Yildirim, the watchman.
The two-bedroom Apt. 1703 was closer to town, in a complex overlooking the marina where Sakka moored a 27-foot yacht, the Tufan. On board was diving equipment and a submersible water scooter, capable of running for 45 minutes at a depth of 75 feet.
Karahan said Sakka spent days chatting with Israeli tourists, who flocked to the Turkish coast in summer, and learned the precise arrival time and route of the ship he planned to attack as it approached Antalya. In a rented Hyundai, he ferried the ingredients for a one-ton bomb -- hydrogen peroxide, aluminum powder, acetone -- from the port city of Mersin. Then he scoured Antalya's industrial zone for a shop that worked with chrome.
Sakka needed someone to build a distiller, a glorified pressure cooker to concentrate the hydrogen.
"He said he wanted to increase the hydrogen peroxide to 70 or 75 percent by extracting the water," said the metalworker who did the job, at the cost of another 2,000 euros, after checking out Sakka's claim that he wanted to use the chemical to bleach wood. The metalworker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for his safety, said his only suspicion was that Sakka might be making drugs. But he said a friend who works with chemicals told him the wood-bleaching purpose made sense, and Sakka named a genuine firm in Syria as his employer.
During the week it took to build the device, Sakka spent time at the shop; one day, the conversation turned to al Qaeda. "God knows how it came up," the metalworker said. "I said, 'Nah, there's no such thing as al Qaeda.' Probably he was thinking, 'Yeah, you'll find out!' "
He did not look the part of an Islamic radical. The metalworker recalled pulling up next to Sakka on a street, rapping on the window and asking him why he wasn't in Syria, where he claimed he was headed the day the distiller was lifted into his trunk. Sakka's reply was a leering nod toward the striking young woman in the passenger seat, apparently the companion neighbors saw him nuzzling by the pool at the apartment complex.
Inside his apartment, the living room became a workshop crowded with plastic vats, gas masks, fire extinguishers and PVC pipes to circulate the water needed to keep stable more than 1,000 pounds of hydrogen. The room held 200 pounds of aluminum powder and 13 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives. Sakka said he intended to finish assembling the bomb on board the Tufan to ensure that no Turks were endangered.
How the fire began is unclear. The metalworker suspects it was sparked by his creation, wired for industrial use at 7,500 watts, enough to melt the wiring in a residential building. Hamid Obysi, a fellow Syrian who was assisting Sakka, told police they were both awakened by the explosion -- a small one, by all accounts, and less damaging than the resulting fire -- and scrambled for their lives, leaving behind a laptop computer, four cell phones, a digital camera and seven fake IDs. They took a taxi to Beldibi, where, after a quick visit to the villa, Sakka gave the guard 2,000 euros and instructions to keep quiet, prosecutors said. The fugitives left town by bus, with Sakka giving Obysi 1,000 euros in getaway money. Obysi was arrested trying to enter Syria.
Sakka proceeded east to Diyarbakir and made plans to double back, booking a domestic flight to Istanbul. He got as far as the police check at the airport, where his attorney said he surrendered to police officers who found his ID suspicious.
"I'm the one you're looking for," he said.