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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Bomb-Builder, 'Out of the Shadows'

From time to time there has been talk - at least in these parts - that if the United States really wants to clean up the terrorist bases in the Middle East, it is going to have to deal with Syria. Today's Washington Post has a story that shows why. It is the story of a Syrian bombmaker, who is now under arrest in Turkey, and who is 'linked to al-Qaeda.' This story has both an American angle and an Israeli angle:

Right up to the hot August night his apartment exploded, Louai Sakka's neighbors took him for a newlywed. The lanky Syrian was not seen much in the corridors of the high-rise residential complex where he lived in this sunny resort city, but he spent time nuzzling an attractive young brunette and sipping beer beside the pool.

His real identity began to emerge shortly after 3 a.m. on Aug. 4, when the windows of Apt. 1703 blew out, showering the parking lot with the contents of the kitchen and bits and pieces of the massive bomb Sakka had been painstakingly assembling in the living room. Sakka, who escaped the inferno only to be arrested two days later, turned out to be a senior operative for al Qaeda and intimately linked to major terrorist plots in Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, where he had worked beside Abu Musab Zarqawi, a longtime confederate.


By 2003, Turkish prosecutors say, Sakka was in the thick of the planning for the bombings of two synagogues, the British Consulate and a British bank in Istanbul over two days in November that year. Though Karahan said Sakka now denies involvement, an indictment released Feb. 10 charges that he "proposed" the attacks, with specific approval from both Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden. Testimony in the mass trial of more than 70 Turks already charged in the case indicated that Sakka provided all the funds for the attacks, with the largest installment delivered in a sock stuffed with euros from Saudi sympathizers, according to the indictment. When the bombs went off, he cheered as he watched satellite television reports with the leading Turkish plotters, all of whom had fled to Aleppo.


In the aftermath of the fall of Fallujah, foreign fighters in Iraq convened a shura , or council, Karahan said. The meeting authorized 10 separate attacks on Israeli targets. Sakka, who told Turkish interrogators he learned bomb-making in Iraq, volunteered to strike the Israeli cruise ships that regularly call on Turkey's southern coast, Karahan said. The attorney said Sakka believed U.S. soldiers used the vessels for R & R and that his own days were numbered because his surgically altered face had appeared on an insurgent video of a downed American drone in Iraq. Turkish doctors had detected a nose job and scars suggesting Sakka might also have altered his chin and eyebrows.

"He decided it's about time his life ends, because he changed his face but he was still recognized," Karahan said.

In Antalya, Sakka spent lavishly preparing for the attack. Using an alias, he put down $60,000 on a villa in the Beldibi neighborhood, insisting on the unit closest to the beach, with a panoramic view of the resort city and its harbor. "His criterion was it had to be directly on the water, no matter what the price was," said Mehmet Yildirim, the watchman.

The two-bedroom Apt. 1703 was closer to town, in a complex overlooking the marina where Sakka moored a 27-foot yacht, the Tufan. On board was diving equipment and a submersible water scooter, capable of running for 45 minutes at a depth of 75 feet.

Karahan said Sakka spent days chatting with Israeli tourists, who flocked to the Turkish coast in summer, and learned the precise arrival time and route of the ship he planned to attack as it approached Antalya. In a rented Hyundai, he ferried the ingredients for a one-ton bomb -- hydrogen peroxide, aluminum powder, acetone -- from the port city of Mersin. Then he scoured Antalya's industrial zone for a shop that worked with chrome.

Sakka needed someone to build a distiller, a glorified pressure cooker to concentrate the hydrogen.

"He said he wanted to increase the hydrogen peroxide to 70 or 75 percent by extracting the water," said the metalworker who did the job, at the cost of another 2,000 euros, after checking out Sakka's claim that he wanted to use the chemical to bleach wood. The metalworker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for his safety, said his only suspicion was that Sakka might be making drugs. But he said a friend who works with chemicals told him the wood-bleaching purpose made sense, and Sakka named a genuine firm in Syria as his employer.

During the week it took to build the device, Sakka spent time at the shop; one day, the conversation turned to al Qaeda. "God knows how it came up," the metalworker said. "I said, 'Nah, there's no such thing as al Qaeda.' Probably he was thinking, 'Yeah, you'll find out!' "

He did not look the part of an Islamic radical. The metalworker recalled pulling up next to Sakka on a street, rapping on the window and asking him why he wasn't in Syria, where he claimed he was headed the day the distiller was lifted into his trunk. Sakka's reply was a leering nod toward the striking young woman in the passenger seat, apparently the companion neighbors saw him nuzzling by the pool at the apartment complex.

Inside his apartment, the living room became a workshop crowded with plastic vats, gas masks, fire extinguishers and PVC pipes to circulate the water needed to keep stable more than 1,000 pounds of hydrogen. The room held 200 pounds of aluminum powder and 13 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives. Sakka said he intended to finish assembling the bomb on board the Tufan to ensure that no Turks were endangered.

How the fire began is unclear. The metalworker suspects it was sparked by his creation, wired for industrial use at 7,500 watts, enough to melt the wiring in a residential building. Hamid Obysi, a fellow Syrian who was assisting Sakka, told police they were both awakened by the explosion -- a small one, by all accounts, and less damaging than the resulting fire -- and scrambled for their lives, leaving behind a laptop computer, four cell phones, a digital camera and seven fake IDs. They took a taxi to Beldibi, where, after a quick visit to the villa, Sakka gave the guard 2,000 euros and instructions to keep quiet, prosecutors said. The fugitives left town by bus, with Sakka giving Obysi 1,000 euros in getaway money. Obysi was arrested trying to enter Syria.

Sakka proceeded east to Diyarbakir and made plans to double back, booking a domestic flight to Istanbul. He got as far as the police check at the airport, where his attorney said he surrendered to police officers who found his ID suspicious.

"I'm the one you're looking for," he said.


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