Days before the opening of the a long-anticipated public inquiry into the circumstances of the murder of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, in London, the Telegraph UK reported that “American spies” of the NSA had intercepted communications between London and Moscow, fingering those involved in his murder in November 2006, which they provided to British authorities. The inquiry itself, much of which will be held in secret and will hear evidence inadmissible in a trial, is scheduled to last for two months.
Litvinenko’s murder by poisoning with a difficult to detect, rare and highly radioactive isotope, polonium-210, was described by many as a “Russian-backed” state execution. The Russians did not hesitate to use this radioactive weapon on British soil, perhaps because they knew they could get away easily.
Litvinenko sought and was granted asylum in Great Britain in May 2001. He was at the time the deputy head of the Seventh Section of the Russian FSB. Previous to the fall of the Soviet Union he had served in the ultra-secret KGB Department for the Analysis of Criminal Organizations, and after 1991 he served as a counter-terrorism expert in the Central Staff of the MB-FSK-FSB.
The Telegraph has held its own investigation and has stated that it, “unearthed an audio recording appearing to capture Litvinenko giving a detailed account of his investigations into links between Vladimir Putin and one of the world’s most wanted criminals, Semion Mogilevich, rumored to head the Russian mafia that operates worldwide. The tape will reignite claims that Litvinenko could have been killed as a result of investigative work he carried out in a series of European countries after leaving Russia.”
One can anticipate some startling revelations, and perhaps some clarifications of Litvinenko statements made well prior to his assassination. Of particular interest to the author are claims the Russian did in an interview in July 2005, with the FAKT (Fact), the most popular tabloid daily in Poland, owned by the German publishing giant, Axel Springer AG.
FAKT contacted Litvinenko after the London bombings of July 2005, and in their discussion the Russian disclosed the following:
“FAKT: Every terrorist you have named [previously in the discussion] is from ‘the old staff’ of the KGB. Could you name someone from recent history?
“A. Litvinenko: Certainly, here it is. The number two person in the terrorist organization al Qaeda, who they are crediting with the series of explosions in London, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an old agent of the FSB. Being sentenced to death in Egypt for terrorism and hunted by Interpol, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 1998, was in the territory of Dagestan, where for half a year he received special training at one of the educational bases of the FSB. After this training he was transferred to Afghanistan, where he had never been before and where, following the recommendation of his Lubyanka chiefs, he at once…penetrated the milieu of bin Laden and soon became his assistant in al Qaeda.
“FAKT: Could you hint at least, where this data [on Soviet and Russian support for terrorists] comes from?
“A. Litvinenko: I can. During my service in one of the most secret departments of the FSB, top officials from the UFSB of Dagestan, who had directly worked with Ayman al-Zawahiri…were called to Moscow and received high posts.”
However, important facts Litvinenko provided on Zawahiri are demonstrably false.
With the Somalia operation winding down in 1995, bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, which was then operating from the Sudan, was able to pay more attention to Chechnya and Dagestan. It funded the movement of mujahideen through Turkey to Baku, Azerbaijan, from which point al-Qaeda operatives guided mujahideen to Dagestan and Chechnya. It was an expensive proposition and was generally paid for with funds received from friends in Saudi Arabia.
The failed attempt to kill Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during the 1995 all-Africa conference in Addis Ababa was soon found to be the handiwork of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian exile and friend of bin Laden, then residing in Khartoum. The Sudan government cut off all funds to his Egypt Islamic Jihad, and forced his immediate exit from the Sudan. The mujahid, formerly valued and visible, was a liability that President Bashir was determined to do without. Zawahiri then began a long expedition in search of a base of operations.
Zawahiri was often on the road and, while working out of the Sudan, he had traveled with a Swiss passport, using the name Amin Othman. Consumed by perpetual fund-raising efforts to ensure EIJ’s independence, he was known to have used a variety of passports to secretly visit countries…including the United States.
After his forced departure from Khartoum, he was seen in Switzerland and then Sarajevo and the Caucasus, where he hoped to set up a base of operations for his Egypt Islamic Jihad, likely in Chechnya. Crossing the border at Dagestan using a false passport he was arrested by Russian officials. As reported at the time, and apparently verified by his brother who was an al-Qaeda agent and under CIA surveillance in Albania, Ayman Zawahiri was released after six months in jail because Russian intelligence apparently failed to comprehend the importance of its prisoner.
The fact that the committed Islamist Zawahiri was coopted–whether in Dagestan or elsewhere–by Russian intelligence has never been claimed by anyone other than Litvinenko.
Most importantly, Litvinenko was greatly in error when he claimed that after his Russian training, Zawhiri “was transferred to Afghanistan, where he had never been before and where, following the recommendation of his Lubyanka chiefs, he at once…penetrated the milieu of bin Laden and soon became his assistant in al Qaeda.”
Zawahiri had certainly been in Afghanistan, living there permanently in 1986. By then he had become close friends with Osama bin Laden. After the war ended in Afghanistan, Zawahiri found a home in Yemen for his Egypt Islamic Jihad, and he joined bin Laden shortly after the Saudi exile chose residence in the Sudan in 1991. His permanent residence was finally noted in Khartoum in 1993.
While the above may appear to be quibbling, one must question why an intelligence agent of Litvinenko’s importance could be in error regarding the most fundamental elements of the Zawahiri biography. Anyway, this was not the reason why he was killed. He must have been provoked his former Russian employers by other statements, including this:
“FAKT: What can you say concerning the acts of terrorism in London? From what region and with what forces was this strike directed?
“A. Litvinenko: In reply to this question I can definitely say that the center of global terrorism is not in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or the Chechen Republic. The terrorist infection is spread worldwide from Lubyanka Square and the Kremlin cabinet.”
(Retrieved from the J.R. Nyquist blog and article “A Curious Specimen,” 13 August 2005.)
Whether Litvinenko will speak from the grave to prove his allegations against the Russian intelligence services remains to be seen.
* J. Millard Burr is a Senior Fellow at the American Center for Democracy.