International Papers

Middle East Prison Stories

Several Arab papers regarded the death of three U.S. soldiers in a mortar attack in Baghdad Sunday as routine enough to avoid putting the story into a major headline. The vacuum was partly filled by the revelations of several well-known Muslim militants.

The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat ran as its main story an AP report on statements allegedly made by the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Khaled Sheikh Muhammad. Muhammad was captured in Pakistan earlier this year and is currently being held by the United States at a secret location. In addition to the reports circulated in the U.S. press that Muhammad allegedly told his interrogators he first discussed the idea of organizing the air attacks with Osama Bin Laden in 1996 and that the initial plan called for using five aircraft on each American coast, he also noted that two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khaled al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Khazimi, played a much more central role in planning the operations than investigators had thought; “[P]erhaps more important,” the story noted, “than that of Muhammad Atta.” The Saudi government may breathe a small sigh of relief, in that Muhammad purportedly said he had never heard of Omar al-Bayoumi, the Saudi citizen who received Mihdar and Khazimi in San Diego. Bayoumi, who lives in Saudi Arabia, was accused in a recent congressional report on the 9/11 attacks of having aided the hijackers. Riyadh says he’s innocent of any wrongdoing. There had been speculation he was working for the Saudi intelligence services.

Bin Laden was also implicated in the failed April 1993 effort to kill former President George Bush in Kuwait—a deed long blamed on Iraqi intelligence. According to Arab diplomatic sources at the United Nations quoted in Kuwait’s daily Al-Rai al-Aam, U.S. forces in Iraq have detained a Palestinian, Fahim Ramzi, who admitted taking part in the assassination plot. Ramzi also said he was in contact with Osama Bin Laden and met him secretly in Sudan in 1993. If the story is true, it may provide a more solid link between Bin Laden and the former Iraqi regime than what the Bush administration has provided to date, since it would mean, at the least, that Saddam harbored an al-Qaida operative and may possibly have collaborated with him or used him in the attempt on the American president’s life. That is evidently why U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz asked the Kuwaitis to allow U.S. investigators to question the plotters still imprisoned in the emirate. The Arab source told the paper that the Kuwaitis were cooperating, but they doubted that those in prison would have anything interesting to add on the matter after all these years. Wolfowitz would surely disagree. Are the Kuwaitis subtly burying the issue? That’s unclear, but if it’s confirmed they were sitting on an al-Qaida network for a decade and never bothered to tell anyone, some people might begin questioning why.

In Lebanon, Al-Safir had an Islamist scoop of its own: In an exclusive, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezollah, told the newspaper, as a front-page headline put it, ” ‘Inevitable Freedom’: The Operation To Free the Prisoners Is Reaching Its Conclusion.” Hezbollah and Israel appear to be near a deal on exchanging prisoners and combatants’ remains, following the resumption of negotiations several weeks ago through an unnamed German mediator. The tenor of the piece was intriguing, since it was written by a journalist with close ties to the party. Therefore, its details may be part of an ongoing negotiating process, a publicity stunt to show how resolute Hezbollah has been in bargaining with Israel, or both. The crux of the article is that Israel agreed to liberate all its Lebanese prisoners, as well as some Palestinians and other Arabs. Hezbollah had insisted on releasing Palestinians partly to discredit the Palestinian Authority’s negotiations with Israel since the PA has been unable to free prisoners.

What is left unsaid is what the Israelis will get in return. The mediator reportedly did meet one Israeli prisoner, but the fate of four others—three soldiers captured by Hezbollah in late 2000 and later declared dead by the Israeli Army, and navigator Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986—was not mentioned in the article. If what Nasrallah said is true—that Israel agreed to release all Lebanese prisoners and also accepted a number of other conditions—this might suggest that at least one of the four is still alive, since otherwise Israel is unlikely to give so much up for so little. Nasrallah noted that tough negotiations still lie ahead, but concluded, “I strongly hope we will soon reach the day of great celebration [after] freeing the prisoners and recovering the bodies of martyrs in Lebanon and Palestine.”