By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007
An Iraqi man accused of being a key aide to Osama bin Laden and a top leader of al-Qaeda was arrested late last year on his way to Iraq and handed over to the CIA, the Pentagon announced yesterday, in what became the first secret overseas detention since President Bush acknowledged the existence of such a program last September.
The disclosure revealed that the Bush administration reopened its detention program within three months of announcing that no secret prisoners remained in the CIA's custody. The program has been criticized by human rights organizations and U.S. allies.
In a statement yesterday, the Defense Department described Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, 46, as "one of al-Qaeda's highest-ranking and experienced senior operatives" and announced that he has been sent to the Pentagon-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bush acknowledged the CIA's detention program last September and transferred all 14 of its senior al-Qaeda suspects to Guantanamo Bay. One intelligence official said al-Iraqi was the first person held by the CIA since Bush made the acknowledgment, but the official would not say whether other people have been held since al-Iraqi was handed over to the agency earlier this year.
"What the president said in September was that there was no one in CIA custody at that time," an intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "This individual was captured late last year, well after the president's speech, and transferred to the CIA several weeks later."
The Pentagon and the CIA confirmed yesterday that al-Iraqi was held by the CIA for several months before he was transferred earlier this week to Guantanamo Bay.
Pentagon officials said al-Iraqi was behind assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and a U.N. official. The Pentagon also accused him of coordinating with the Taliban in its insurgency against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But his most recent assignment was as the successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by U.S. forces last summer. Officials said al-Iraqi hoped to lead Sunni insurgents in Iraq and coordinate their efforts with al-Qaeda's global operation. The Pentagon said he traveled to Iran, meeting with al-Qaeda operatives to urge them to do more against U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. officials would not say where al-Iraqi was captured, but sources ruled out all of Iraq's immediate neighbors, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and said he was not stopped at a border crossing. Officials said that several recent reports that al-Iraqi was operating freely were erroneous and that he has been in custody, in a third country, since late December.
Intelligence officials and experts have referred to al-Iraqi as al-Qaeda's chief planner and a top-ranking leader. The Pentagon said he is known and trusted by both bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and once served as Zawahiri's chief aide.
Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda was firmly based inside Afghanistan, al-Iraqi served on a council of advisers to bin Laden.
He spent 15 years in Afghanistan as a trainer and planner beginning in the early 1990s, the Pentagon said. Before leaving his home country to join al-Qaeda's Islamic movement, al-Iraqi served in Saddam Hussein's military, rising to the rank of major.
The officials, who agreed to discuss limited aspects of the case on the condition of anonymity, said as many as five countries provided information that led to al-Iraqi's capture.
In a staff-wide e-mail, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden called the capture "a significant victory" and said the agency played a "key role in efforts to locate" al-Iraqi.
Anticipating concerns about the nature of the ongoing CIA program, Hayden told his staff that the secret detentions and interrogation methods conducted in the program are "legal and thoroughly reviewed by our government to ensure that they are fully in accordance with our laws and treaty obligations."
Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said al-Iraqi and other detainees "have provided information essential to developing our knowledge of al-Qaeda's organizational structure, operations, communications, finances, logistics and criminal activities."
But human rights groups challenged the Bush administration and the CIA to publicly reveal their interrogation methods and disputed the legality of secret detention.
Yesterday's announcement "raises worrying questions about how long he has been detained by the CIA, where he was held, what kind of treatment he endured, and whether other prisoners still remain in CIA detention," the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch said in a statement, referring to al-Iraqi. The group called the secret detention "a blatant violation of international law."
Staff researcher Julie Tate and correspondent Craig Whitlock in Berlin contributed to this report.