‘We Knew Him’: Jordanian Spies Infiltrated Iraq to Find Zarqawi

Times Staff Writers

Shocked into action by violence on their own soil, Jordanian officials months ago began an intensive campaign of spying on insurgents in neighboring Iraq, a gambit that ultimately helped lead to the death of militant leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, Jordan’s top spies said Monday.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Dahabi, director of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department, and Col. Ali Burjaq, his counterterrorism chief, said in a rare interview that a splashy videotape Zarqawi released this spring helped Jordanian officials determine his approximate location at the time, a key lead that ultimately resulted in Zarqawi’s slaying last week in a U.S. aerial bombing.

Zarqawi’s need to micromanage all aspects of his group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, including finances and operations, also made him vulnerable to discovery, the two officials said.

“We knew him personally,” Burjaq said of the Jordanian-born militant, who spent part of the 1990s in prisons in Jordan after officials there found bombs and firearms at his home.


“We knew how he behaves,” Burjaq said, speaking at the intelligence agency’s mountaintop complex in Amman. “He was vicious, mean -- a dictator in his decisions. He didn’t allow anyone else to question his decisions.”

Until November 2005, when Zarqawi operatives crossed the border into Jordan and bombed three hotels in Amman, killing 60 people, Jordan’s intelligence service had barely operated in Iraq.

After the bombings, Iraq became, and remains, Amman’s primary security worry, even though Jordan also abuts the simmering tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The hotel bombings alarmed the Jordanians, forcing them to seek a more active role in combating Iraq’s troubles, the two intelligence officials said.

The attack also showed a skeptical Iraqi government, suspicious of its neighbors’ security forces, that Zarqawi was training Iraqis for cross-border operations in Jordan, a source close to Jordanian intelligence officials said.

With the permission of Iraq’s fledgling government, Jordanian operatives flooded the war-torn country, cultivating informants and working the periphery of the Zarqawi network to find ways into the organization, a Jordanian official and intelligence experts said.

Jordan’s GID set up spy bureaus in Iraq and began working with the Dulaimis, a large, mostly Sunni Arab tribe, some of whose members are closely tied to the insurgency, to gather information about anyone associating with Zarqawi or others in militant groups.

It marked a watershed for the Jordanians. “We always pursued a defensive policy” against terrorism, said Dahabi, who has headed the agency since December. “But ever since I became chief, we started to think of external operations. We wanted to do more daring operations and do external operations.”

U.S. military officials have said they managed to track Zarqawi’s spiritual advisor, Sheik Abdel Rashid Rahman, to the village of Hibhib, west of the provincial capital of Baqubah, where U.S. jets dropped two 500-pound bombs.

But Jordan also played a key role in ferreting out the militant, U.S. and Jordanian officials have said, providing crucial intelligence that apparently corroborated information the Americans were getting from within the insurgency.

Jordanian security and intelligence authorities were involved in the hunt from the start, helping trace locations at which Zarqawi and his group frequently stayed, Jordanian government spokesman Nasser Joudeh said.

Dahabi and Burjaq, emerging briefly from the shadowy world of surveillance and infiltration, provided The Times with a rare public account of the role that their spy service -- which is trained, supplied and funded by the U.S. -- played in hunting down Zarqawi.

They also voiced their nation’s strong commitment to U.S.-led efforts to stem terrorism, noting that in the 1990s Jordan was among the first to recognize the danger of Al Qaeda fighters returning home from Afghanistan, where they had fought the Soviet occupation.

The intelligence chiefs said they had a keen understanding of the way Al Qaeda militants thought, operated and countered the moves of their enemies.

“Because we started early, we gained experience early,” said Burjaq, 46.

“Many Americans are advanced in combating certain kinds of operations,” said Dahabi, 45, a graduate of the University of Sussex in Britain. “We understand Al Qaeda’s mentality as Arabs.”

The interview took place in Dahabi’s office, which is decorated with a huge painting of Arab tribesmen on horseback fighting Ottoman soldiers during the war for independence at the end of World War I. The faces of King Abdullah II, Jordan’s monarch, and his two young sons hover over the fiery scene.

Jordanian agents gathered valuable intelligence that was used to infiltrate terrorist organizations and stop attacks at home, including a plot to bomb hotels and tourist sites in Jordan just before New Year’s Eve 1999.

Jordan arrested at least 14 suspected Al Qaeda operatives in the months before that holiday and also provided American officials with vast amounts of intelligence that was used in part to pursue threads in the United States.

Dahabi and Burjaq, who joined Jordan’s spy service in 1983 and helped break up the notorious Palestinian terrorism group Abu Nidal, said they had been aggressively trailing Zarqawi and his adherents for years.

Counter-terrorism experts say the influx of Jordanian intelligence assets produced results in Iraq almost immediately, with the number of arrests of key Al Qaeda operatives jumping noticeably. Americans’ understanding of Zarqawi’s network and its role in the insurgency and attacks outside Iraq also picked up, officials said.

Iraq’s new intelligence services, formed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, lack experience and technology, but Jordan’s have both in abundance.

“The Jordanians are top-drawer, probably the best counter-terrorism force in the world,” said Alexis Debat, a former French Defense Ministry official who now is a counter-terrorism consultant and senior fellow for national security and terrorism at the Nixon Center in Washington.

“Any network they put their mind to destroying is gone.”

In April, when Zarqawi showed up in a highly publicized online propaganda video boasting of his group’s prowess, Jordanian analysts scrutinized the surrounding scenery as well as his blustery talk.

The tape confirmed suspicions that Zarqawi was in the Yousifiya area, a volatile insurgent stronghold south of Baghdad, which became the focus of U.S. and Jordanian intelligence efforts, Burjaq said. Throughout the spring, U.S. military officials, too, were publicly identifying the area south of Baghdad as a likely Zarqawi stronghold.

“At a certain stage, more intelligence [resources] were being devoted to Yousifiya,” Burjaq said, noting that Jordan’s familiarity with the region and intelligence networks played a key role in monitoring Zarqawi’s movements there.

“It’s not an easy area to get in and out of.”

The two Jordanian officials declined to confirm whether they had turned any of Zarqawi’s followers against him.

But Dahabi noted, “Some of the people I arrest, I recruit. Some of those who were in my jails helped me to carry out operations.”

“Sources,” Burjaq said. “To us, this is the tool.”

Once it became clear that the Yousifiya information was accurate, the Jordanians became more confident of their sources. Then when information was received about Zarqawi being in the Baqubah area, northeast of Baghdad, they were confident of that as well.

“We started to locate him and the Americans started to locate him,” Burjaq said.

Several sources, including a U.S. counter-terrorism official, credited both U.S. and Jordanian intelligence with developing information that led to the targeted hit on Zarqawi and subsequent raids at other locations.

“At a certain point, some of the sources connected,” Dahabi said.

The Americans say it was a U.S.-recruited human intelligence asset who ultimately led them to the house where Zarqawi was hiding, resulting in the decision to strike it. One U.S. official said American intelligence agencies had recruited someone who identified Rahman, Zarqawi’s spiritual advisor, allowing U.S. authorities to intercept Rahman’s communications with Zarqawi and learn that the two would be meeting last Wednesday.

From there, the advisor was monitored by an unmanned U.S. aircraft as he entered the house.

“When all the intelligence came together, all indications were that this man was in a particular place,” Dahabi said.

“The Americans sent F-16s, and they did a good job.”

Daragahi reported from Amman and Meyer from Washington.