The 'war on terror': The last stand of al-Qa'ida's Houdini

Omar al-Faruq, who was killed by British troops in Iraq on Monday, was the man who had achieved what appeared to be impossible - escape from the US detention centre at Bagram, in Afghanistan. So how did he come to be shot dead in a Basra suburb?

Justin Huggler Reports
Wednesday 27 September 2006 00:00

In the early hours of Monday, about 250 British soldiers surrounded a house in a suburb of the Iraqi city of Basra. It's not a safe place, even in broad daylight. At night nobody ventures out, and the street would have been dark and silent. The troops had come for one man: 250 highly trained, heavily armed soldiers, sent after a single fugitive. But then this was no ordinary fugitive. This was al-Qa'ida's answer to the Count of Monte Cristo: a man who had escaped from one of the most heavily guarded prisons on earth, the special detention centre at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. To this day, nobody is sure how he pulled it off.

Omar al-Faruq's story is remarkable. Born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents, he trained at an al-Qa'ida camp in Afghanistan, was captured in Indonesia, and flown secretly back to Afghanistan by the Americans to be held at Bagram. After his escape last year, he taunted the Americans and accused them of torturing him in a propaganda video released to Arab television channels. On Monday morning, his extraordinary life on the run finally came to an end in a hail of British bullets in his homeland, Iraq.

This was a man who managed to escape from a prison where he was kept in a wire cage that was supposed to be watched both night and day, in an orange jumpsuit that was supposed to make it impossible for him to escape without being spotted. Who broke out through three layers of razor wire and concrete, and managed to cross a minefield that the Americans deliberately did not clear in order to make escape a lethal option.

It wasn't supposed to end the way it did - at least, not according to the Army. Major Charlie Burbridge told reporters: "As we moved into the house there was an exchange of fire and the individual we're talking about, Omar al-Faruq, was killed, which is regrettable, frankly, as the operation was intended to arrest him." But a neighbour in Basra told The New York Times that Faruq was alone in the house, which is bound to raise the question of why 250 heavily armed soldiers were unable to take a single man alive.

Whatever the truth over his death, the US and Britain will be delighted they finally have a body that links the insurgency raging in Iraq with al-Qa'ida.

Except, quite possibly, they don't. The same neighbour said Faruq arrived in Iraq only 20 days ago, to visit his seriously ill mother, who lives in Basra, not to take part in the insurgency. That would explain why he was in Basra, deep in the Shia heartlands in the south, where al-Qa'ida is not exactly popular. It is the Sunni militants who claim they are allied to Osama bin Laden, and who massacre Shia Iraqis and bomb their holiest shrines.

It was an enigmatic end to the life of one of al-Qa'ida's most resourceful fugitives. Was the ruthless killer finally tracked down because he couldn't keep away from his ailing mother's side? The wife he left behind in Indonesia, Mira Agustina, who appeared before the cameras briefly yesterday with only her eyes visible behind a black veil, was left to say in dazed wonderment: "It feels as if something in my heart tells me that he's dead, but the other half of my heart says that I am not convinced." She says she did not even know her husband was being held in Afghanistan for three years, so secretive were the Americans about where they had taken him.

There can be few men whose lives have so completely encapsulated the strange wandering life of the modern Islamic militant, born at one end of the world, captured at the other, and finally killed back where he started. It was a life that took in the now notorious practice of "rendition", the American method of secretly flying captured suspects to places such as Bagram where they can be interrogated using methods that would be illegal in the US. And it also took in a starring appearance in one of the equally notorious al-Qa'ida propaganda videos.

When Omar al-Faruq, if that is his real name - he also went under several aliases - first came to the world's attention in 2002, he was living a quiet and outwardly unremarkable life with Mira in Cijeruk, a small Indonesian village nestled among paddy fields and banana trees an hour from Jakarta.

US investigators happened upon him quite by accident, according to a report in Time magazine that quoted a "CIA document". They were intrigued to find the same Indonesian mobile phone number - 081-2957-6852 - stored in mobile phones belonging to Abu Zubeida, a senior al-Qa'ida operative captured in Pakistan, Agus Dwikarna, an Indonesian militant, and a third, unnamed al-Qa'ida prisoner in Guantanamo Bay.

The number was traced to Faruq. Indonesian security forces captured him, and three days later the US whisked him off to Bagram to be interrogated. At first he refused to cooperate. But eventually, after nearly three months, he began to talk. And the story he told was rather more dramatic than his interrogators were expecting. He told them he was al-Qa'ida's senior representative in south-east Asia, and he was involved in planned attacks in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Cambodia.

He said a plan was under way to bomb US embassies across the region on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The US put out an alert and the attacks, of course, never happened. But Faruq gave the Americans a wealth of information on al-Qa'ida's efforts in south-east Asia.

That, at least, is what happened according to the CIA report quoted by Time back in 2002. Indonesian officials, meanwhile, have claimed they would have found it easier to pin a lot of attacks on the cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, who was arrested and jailed after the 2002 Bali bomb attacks, if the Americans had allowed Faruq to testify. Reports at the time did not say what made Faruq cave in and talk. But in his al-Qa'ida propaganda video appearance after his escape he described being tortured. He said he was taken from Bagram to a place called the "Prison of Darkness", where it was so dark he could not see his own hand in front of his face. He said his wrists were tied with rope so tight the blood supply was cut off. And he said interrogators forced him to watch video footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre in the 9/11 attacks, with the sound of the explosion turned up very loud, followed by the sounds of people screaming.

The reports of his interrogation were the last that the outside world heard of Faruq until last year. Then he surfaced again, in the most dramatic fashion, with his escape from Bagram.

Except, at the time, only senior American officials knew Faruq was one of the four prisoners who had escaped. When they named the escapees, they identified Mr Faruq by an old and little used alias, presumably to cover up the fact they had not only lost four inmates, but had mislaid one of their most prized al-Qa'ida captives. That Faruq was one of the four who escaped that day only emerged months later, when a lawyer tried to call him to give evidence in the military trial of a sergeant who had been accused of mistreating him - and was told he could not because Faruq had escaped.

It was a spectacular escape. The detention facility at Bagram has been described as resembling the conditions in which Hannibal Lecter was held in The Silence of the Lambs. Prisoners were kept in wire cages where they could be seen at all times by guards. When they were allowed out, they were shackled hand and foot.

But in the early hours of 11 June last year, Faruq and three fellow prisoners managed to pick the lock of the wire cage where they were being held with implements they had made themselves, according to reports in US newspapers which quoted military sources extensively. They managed to slip out of their distinctive orange jumpsuits, and instead put on less recognisable blue prisonwear they had somehow acquired.

They then managed to get through an exercise yard and to a small section of the perimeter fence that was damaged, without attracting the sentries on two watchtowers. They crawled, Houdini-like, through a small gap between the razor wire and the concrete blocks, and dropped to the other side, where they then managed to get across a minefield.

"It was bizarre to me," Maj-Gen Peter Gilchrist, Britain's senior officer in Afghanistan at the time, said. "I don't understand how it could happen."

The escape was so remarkable that serious doubts have been raised over whether it can possibly have happened the way it is described. At the very least, analysts have suggested, the four escapees must have had help on the inside, in order to know about the gap in the fence, and to find their way there so easily through a maze of buildings. Newsweek magazine quoted a fugitive Taliban commander as claiming the four men were secretly exchanged for captured US special operations troops, and the escape story was invented to cover the swap. The US vehemently denies this, and it does seem unlikely it would invent a story which seemed a major humiliation at the time.

It seems Faruq had pulled off one of the great escapes of modern times. He turned up again earlier this year, in an al-Qa'ida propaganda video, to gloat about it. Identified as "the hero Faruq al-Iraqi" (Faruq the Iraqi), he was shown in a lengthy interview talking about his capture in Indonesia, his interrogation at Bagram, and his escape. Wearing an ammunition belt across his chest, he described several close calls during the escape, saying the fugitives were exposed to view when they were breaking out of the cell, but no one noticed. After they broke out of the compound, searchlights came within metres of them several times, but never quite picked them out.

He was an elusive man. After his capture, his wife told reporters: "When we got married, he made me promise that if he disappeared one day, I would not go looking for him. So I kept my commitment and didn't search."

At the time of the video, most observers thought he was probably still in Afghanistan, or just across the border in Pakistan. But six months later his body has turned up in his homeland, Iraq - run to ground at last on a visit to his sick mother.

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