By Lucy Komisar
MSNBC.COM, Sept 16, 2002
MSNBC exclusive: Document shows Tunisian with alleged al-Qaida links gave information to Italians two years ago
A Tunisian-born terrorism suspect placed two weeks ago on Washington’s list of most-wanted militants confessed two years before to Italian police that he helped run an elaborate arms smuggling ring that aided Islamic militants, but it’s not clear whether Italian and U.S. officials acted on the information. The case, revealed in a confidential document obtained by MSNBC.com, raises new questions about intelligence gathering in the war on al-Qaida.
On Aug. 29, the Treasury Department announced it was adding Waddani to its list of top suspected terrorists.
ACCORDING TO THE confidential document obtained by MSNBC.com, the Tunisian who the U.S. Treasury Department recently added to its terrorist blacklist had two years ago reported to Italian authorities a scheme for moving weapons from Russia through Uzbekistan to Pakistan where they “would end in the military training camps for Islamic terrorists in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The informant, Sekseka Habib Waddani, 32, then living in Milan, told Italian police that the arms were being “sold by the Russian Republic” because they were no longer modern. He said the weapons included pistols, Kalashnikov machine guns, missiles and grenades.
The classified Italian police report prompts questions about when the United States learned of Waddani, and whether any action was taken by Italian or U.S. officials after Waddani’s claim that large amounts of weapons were being sold to Islamic terrorists.
In the document, Waddani alleges that large amounts of Russian weapons were smuggled to Islamic militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
SUSPECT RAISES U.S. SUSPICION
According to police document, Waddani walked into a Milan financial police station on Sept. 27, 2000, and announced that he had information about arms trafficking. He said he knew about the operation because he had been involved when the weapons transited Italy and Switzerland. He said he was being blackmailed and asked for protection.
Just over a year later, in October 2001, the Italians indicted Waddani, but on charges that involved acts other than those he reported to the financial police, Italian officials say.
On Aug. 29 of this year, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it was adding Waddani to its list of top suspected terrorists, noting Italy’s charges against him — for involvement with the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which operates in North Africa, Spain and Italy and “has supported al-Qaida activities.” The Treasury Department said Waddani was indicted by the Italians for trafficking in arms, explosives, chemical weapons, identity papers, receiving stolen goods and aiding illegal immigration.
Judge Luca Pistorelli in Milan told MSNBC.com that Waddani is at large: “We suppose he is in France; or maybe he went back to Tunisia.”
It was not immediately clear whether Italian officials acted on the weapons smuggling information Waddani provided, or whether U.S. investigators had been notified by their Italian counterparts of the encounter with the Tunisian suspect. When contacted by MSNBC.com, a CIA spokesman said the agency “respectfully declines to comment.”
At the Treasury Department, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Rob Nichols said, “I checked with our war room. I cannot answer your questions, as they contain sensitive or classified information.”
WEAPONS TO BALKANS, SOUTH ASIA
Waddani said the arms initially arrived weekly from Russia via the Italian port of Ancona on the Adriatic Sea across from Croatia. They were then shipped to the former Yugoslavia for use by Bosnian Muslim fighters in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Later, in 1998, ethnic Albanian insurgents in the Serbian province of Kosovo benefited from the arms supply, Waddani said. He said a Sicilian lawyer in Zurich and a Muslim lawyer helped to find buyers in the Bosnian and Albanian communities in Switzerland.
But Waddani told police that the system had been abandoned, because the transport of arms through Europe was “complex, expensive and dangerous.” Instead, the Russian weapons were sold to groups in Pakistan.
In the Italian police report, Waddani did not describe the exact route of the weapons destined for South Asia, but he said Russian smugglers brought them to Uzbekistan, from where they were passed to Pakistan as “mechanical components.” Waddani said the end purchasers of the arms ran “military training camps in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Although Waddani didn’t mention al-Qaida by name, terror mastermind Osama bin Laden’s network operated up to a dozen military training camps in Afghanistan, and the group forged strong ties to tribes in northern Pakistan.
The weapons smuggling in Europe, Waddani said, flowed through a maze of companies and cities. Waddani told the Italian police that transactions in Switzerland were handled by HSS, a “trading company” that “belongs to a Pakistani named Haji Agka and to a Tunisian family of Zurich, Ahmed and Shoyab Sharifi. These latter are intimate friends of the head of the Muslim community of Zurich, [Albert] Ahmed Huber,” who facilitated “periodic and regular” shipments of weapons, Waddani said.
Ahmed Huber, a prominent member of Switzerland’s Muslim community, helped to facilitate arms shipments through Europe and Central Asia, according to allegations leveled by Habib Waddani, a U.S. terror suspect. Huber, who denies the charges, was added to Washington’s al-Qaida terrorist blacklist last November.
The United States put Huber on its al-Qaida terrorist blacklist last November, citing his membership on the board of al-Taqwa, the Lugano, Switzerland-based bank accused of moving bin Laden’s money.
In a phone interview, Huber responded to Waddani’s accusations: “I don’t know these people. I have never met these people. It is all rubbish. I have never been mixed up in any arms deals with the Kosovars or Albanians.” He added that though the Italian police gave Waddani’s statement to Swiss law enforcement, “the Swiss authorities never contacted me or anybody else.”
The Swiss Federal Justice Office in Bern had no comment.
According to Waddani, HSS would bring the arms by train to Switzerland as “machine parts” designated as “humanitarian aid” to be administered by the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center of Lucerne. Waddani said the center, controlled by Albanians, moved war materiel and laundered money. The organizers named the center after Mother Teresa to deflect suspicion. From there, the “parts” would go to Italy and former Yugoslavia.
Waddani noted that in the days when shipments came to Italy, they also included false documents for Muslims who lacked Italian residence papers. He said he got involved with the organization to get residence permits for his family, but that then he had been blackmailed. He told police he had obtained legitimate papers and did not want his previous contacts to endanger his status. If the Italian and American charges against Waddani are correct, the informant may have been playing a double game.
U.S. officials would not comment on the exact interest of Waddani to U.S. anti-terrorism specialists, but the Treasury Department’s terrorist blacklist gives an indication of the concerns Washington has for the Salafist organization to which Waddani belonged.
Ten other Salafist members were also put on the Treasury blacklist on Aug. 29. They include Adel Ben Soltane, arrested for the preparation of an attack against the U.S. Embassy in Rome; Yassine Chekkouri, who Scotland Yard investigators believe is “one of the highest” men in the al-Qaida organization; Mehdi Kammoun, who Italian authorities say organized a cell tied to al-Qaida; and Abdelhalim Remadna, who Italian authorities say is in direct contact with Abu Jaafar, the number three leader within al-Qaida.