From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]



How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran
Joshuah Bearman  /  04.24.07

How the CIA used a fake science fiction film to sneak six Americans
out of revolutionary Iran.

November 4, 1979, began like any other day at the US embassy in
Tehran. The staff filtered in under gray skies, the marines manned
their posts, and the daily crush of anti-American protestors massed
outside the gate chanting, “Allahu akbar! Marg bar Amrika!”

Mark and Cora Lijek, a young couple serving in their first foreign
service post, knew the slogans – “God is great! Death to America!” –
and had learned to ignore the din as they went about their duties. But
today, the protest sounded louder than usual. And when some of the
local employees came in and said there was “a problem at the gate,”
they knew this morning would be different. Militant students were soon
scaling the walls of the embassy complex. Someone forced open the
front gate, and the trickle of invaders became a flood. The mob
quickly fanned across the 27-acre compound, waving posters of the
Ayatollah Khomeini. They took the ambassador’s residence, then set
upon the chancery, the citadel of the embassy where most of the staff
was stationed.

At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked
would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor
was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a
few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The
group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and
wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa

They tried to keep calm, and even to continue working. But then the
power went out and panic spread throughout the building. The Iranian
employees, who knew the revolutionary forces’ predilection for firing
squads, braced for the worst. “There’s someone on the roof,” one
Iranian worker said, trembling. Another smelled smoke. People began to
weep in the dark, convinced the militants would try to burn down the
building. Outside, the roar of the victorious mob grew louder. There
were occasional gunshots. It was time to flee.

The Americans destroyed the plates used to make visa stamps, organized
an evacuation plan, and ushered everyone to the back door. “We’ll
leave in groups of five or six,” the marine sergeant on duty said.
“Locals first. Then the married couples. Then the rest.” The consulate
building was the only structure in the compound with an exit on the
street. The goal was to make it to the British embassy about six
blocks away.

It was pouring rain when they opened the heavy roll-down steel doors.
The street was mercifully empty. One group turned north, only to be
captured moments later and marched back to the embassy at gunpoint.

Heading west, the Staffords, the Lijeks, Anders, and several Iranians
avoided detection. They had almost reached the British embassy when
they encountered yet another demonstration. A local in their group
gave some quick advice – “Don’t go that way” – and then she melted
into the crowd. The group zigzagged to Anders’ nearby apartment, at
one point sneaking single-file past an office used by the komiteh, one
of the gun-wielding, self-appointed bands of revolutionaries that
controlled much of Tehran.

They locked the door and switched on Anders’ lunch-box radio, a
standard-issue “escape and evade” device that could connect with the
embassy’s radio network. Marines were squawking frantically, trying to
coordinate with one another. Someone calling himself Codename Palm
Tree was relaying a bird’s-eye view of the takeover: “There are rifles
and weapons being brought into the compound.” This was Henry Lee
Schatz, an agricultural attach who was watching the scene from his
sixth-floor office in a building across the street from the compound.
“They’re being unloaded from trucks.”

The Iran hostage crisis, which would go on for 444 days, shaking
America’s confidence and sinking President Jimmy Carter’s reelection
campaign, had begun. Americans would soon be haunted by Khomeini’s
grim visage, and well-armed Islamic militants would parade blindfolded
hostages across the nightly news and threaten trials for the “spies”
that they’d captured. Everyone remembers the 52 Americans trapped at
the embassy and the failed rescue attempt a few months later that
ended with a disastrous Army helicopter crash in the Iranian desert.
But not many know the long- classified details of the CIA’s
involvement in the escape of the other group – thrust into a hostile
city in the throes of revolution.

By 3 o’clock that afternoon, the five people huddled in Anders’ one-
bedroom apartment realized they were in serious trouble. As the
militants seized control, there were fewer English speakers on the
radio net. Codename Palm Tree had fled. After the last holdouts in the
chancery’s vault radioed their surrender, the only voices coming
through the box were speaking in Farsi. The embassy was lost. The
escapees were on their own.

The CIA was in chaos when Tony Mendez arrived at his desk the next
morning. People dashed through the halls, clutching files and papers.
Desks were piling up with “flash” cables – the highest-priority
messages, reserved for wartime situations.

Mendez, 38, had been at the agency during the Vietnam War. But this
seemed worse. At least then the US had another government to talk to.
In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council refused
to negotiate. With no diplomatic channels open, clandestine efforts
were the last hope. But since the revolution had begun a year earlier,
most of the CIA’s intelligence infrastructure in Iran had been
destroyed. As former head of the Disguise Section and current
authentication chief of the CIA’s Graphics and Authentication
Division, Mendez oversaw logistical operations behind the tens of
thousands of false identities the CIA was running. He knew there were
only three field agents in Iran and that they had all been captured at
the embassy.

At first, Mendez thought his job was to free the hostages. He started
suiting up agents to penetrate Iran, and he spent a whirlwind 90 hours
straight working on a plan called Operation Bodyguard in which a dead
body double for the Shah would be used to arrange for the hostages’
release. It was a gorgeous plan, he thought. But the White House
rejected it.

Then, a few weeks after the takeover of the embassy, Mendez received a
memorandum from the State Department marked as secret. The news was
startling: Not everyone in the embassy had been captured. A few had
escaped and were hiding somewhere in Tehran. Only a handful of
government officials knew the details because Carter’s advisers and
the State Department didn’t want to tip off the Iranians.

Mendez had spent 14 years in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service –
the part of the spy shop known for trying to plant explosives in
Fidel’s cigars and wiring cats with microphones for eavesdropping. His
specialty was using “identity transformation” to get people out of
sticky situations. He’d once transformed a black CIA officer and an
Asian diplomat into Caucasian businessmen – using masks that made them
ringers for Victor Mature and Rex Harrison – so they could arrange a
meeting in the capital of Laos, a country under strict martial law.
When a Russian engineer needed to deliver film canisters with
extraordinarily sensitive details about the new super-MiG jet, Mendez
helped his CIA handlers throw off their KGB tails by outfitting them
with a “jack-in-the-box.” An officer would wait for a moment of
confusion to sneak out of a car. As soon as he did, a spring-loaded
mannequin would pop up to give the impression that he was still
sitting in the passenger seat. Mendez had helped hundreds of friendly
assets escape danger undetected.

For the operation in Tehran, his strategy was straightforward: The
Americans would take on false identities, walk right out through
Mehrabad Airport, and board a plane. Of course, for this plan to work,
someone would have to sneak into Iran, connect with the escapees,
equip them with their false identities, and lead them to safety past
the increasingly treacherous Iranian security apparatus. And that
someone was him.

On the run in Tehran, the escapees were obvious targets. They couldn’t
sneak out on their own; they’d be spotted on the roads and certainly
questioned in the airport. If they presented diplomatic passports,
they’d be hustled back to the embassy and interrogated at gunpoint
with the rest of the “spies.”

For the first few days, they quietly slipped between temporary
hideouts, including the empty houses of those trapped at the embassy.
They sometimes slept in their clothes in case they had to run. Using a
phone was dangerous; the imams had tapped into the vast listening
network the Shah had used to suppress dissent. Each place they stayed
seemed increasingly vulnerable. Eventually, Anders rang John
Sheardown, a friend at the Canadian embassy. “Why didn’t you call
sooner?” Sheardown said. “Of course we can take you in.”

To minimize the risk, the group was split between the Sheardowns’
house and the official residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken
Taylor. Both homes were in the fashionable Shemiran district in
northern Tehran. The Qajar dynasty buried its kings here, in the
foothills of the Elburz Mountains, and the district was now home to
merchants, diplomats, wealthy civil servants – and a half-dozen
diplomatic refugees in hiding: the five from the consulate and Henry
Lee Schatz, the Codename Palm Tree broadcaster. He had hidden in a
Swedish diplomatic residence for weeks before making his way to the

The accommodations were luxurious. There were books, English-language
newspapers, and plenty of beer, wine, and scotch. But the guests could
never leave their quarters. As the weeks went by, a quiet routine
developed. They cooked elaborate dinners, read, played cards. Their
biggest daily concern was how to assemble teams for bridge – and
whether they’d be captured and potentially executed.

As time passed, the threat of discovery was mounting. The militants
had been combing embassy records and figuring out who was CIA. They
had even hired teams of carpet weavers to successfully reassemble
shredded documents. (The recovered papers would later be published by
the Iranian government in a series of books called Documents From the
US Espionage Den.) They might eventually figure out the true number of
embassy staff, count heads, and come up short. Outside, the
Revolutionary Guards had recently been making a show of force in
Shemiran, menacing the streets where foreigners lived and coming very
close to both hideouts. Once, the Americans had to dive away from the
windows when a military helicopter buzzed the Sheardowns’ house. And
everyone was spooked when an anonymous caller to the Taylor residence
asked to speak with Joe and Kathy Stafford and then hung up.

Back home, the US and Canadian governments were nervous, too. Hints
about the escapees had leaked, and several journalists were on the
verge of piecing together the story. Even as the CIA worked to free
the six, a wild array of unofficial rescue plans surfaced, mostly
involving overland routes and smugglers. The CIA held discussions with
Ross Perot, who’d just snuck two of his Electronic Data Systems
employees out of a jail in Tehran. At a NATO meeting in December, an
antsy Flora MacDonald, Canada’s minister of external affairs,
confronted US secretary of state Cyrus Vance and suggested having the
six Americans make for the Turkish border – on bicycles if necessary.

The Americans sensed the stagnation and growing peril. On January 10,
1980 – nearly nine weeks after going into hiding – Mark Lijek and
Anders drafted a cable for Ken Taylor to send to Washington on their
behalf. Mark later paraphrased its contents: “We need to get out of

CIA cover stories are generally designed to be mundane and unlikely to
attract attention. That’s how Mendez’s plan started out. He would use
Canadian documentation for the Americans, because of the common
language and similar culture – and, well, everybody loves Canadians.
But Mendez still had to figure out an excuse for a half-dozen Canucks
to be wandering through Iran’s theocratic upheaval. There were plenty
of North American journalists, humanitarians, and oil industry
advisers in country. But they were either heavily monitored or well
known to authorities. The State Department thought they could
masquerade as unemployed teachers, until someone realized that the
English-language schools were all closed. When the Canadian government
suggested nutritionists inspecting crops, Mendez dismissed the idea as
preposterous: “Have you been to Tehran in January? There’s snow on the
ground. And certainly no agriculture.”

He was stuck. For about a week, no one in Washington or Ottawa could
invent a reason for anyone to be in Tehran. Then Mendez hit upon an
unusual but strangely credible plan: He’d become Kevin Costa Harkins,
an Irish film producer leading his preproduction crew through Iran to
do some location scouting for a big-budget Hollywood epic. Mendez had
contacts in Hollywood from past collaborations. (After all, they were
in the same business of creating false realities.) And it wouldn’t be
surprising, Mendez thought, that a handful of eccentrics from
Tinseltown might be oblivious to the political situation in
revolutionary Iran. The Iranian government, incredibly, was trying to
encourage international business in the country. They needed the hard
currency, and a film production could mean millions of US dollars.

Mendez gave his superiors an operations plan, with an analysis of the
target, mission, and logistics. The task was so difficult that his
bosses had signaled that they’d be reluctant to sign off on anything
but an airtight exfiltration mission. But this proposal was detailed
enough to be approved by them and the White House. Plausibility, as
they say in the espionage business, was good.

To build his cover, Mendez put $10,000 into his briefcase and flew to
Los Angeles. He called his friend John Chambers, the veteran makeup
artist who had won a 1969 Academy Award for Planet of the Apes and
also happened to be one of Mendez’s longtime CIA collaborators.
Chambers brought in a special effects colleague, Bob Sidell. They all
met in mid-January and Mendez briefed the pair on the situation and
his scheme. Chambers and Sidell thought about the hostages they were
seeing each night on television and quickly declared they were in.

Mendez knew they had to plan the ruse down to the last detail. “If
anyone checks,” he said, “we need that foundation to be there.” If
they were exposed, it could embarrass the government, compromise the
agency, and imperil their lives and the lives of the hostages in the
embassy. The militants had said from the beginning that any attempted
rescue would lead to executions.

In just four days, Mendez, Chambers, and Sidell created a fake
Hollywood production company. They designed business cards and
concocted identities for the six members of the location-scouting
party, including all their former credits. The production company’s
offices would be set up in a suite at Sunset Gower Studios on what was
formerly the Columbia lot, in a space vacated by Michael Douglas after
he finished The China Syndrome.

All they needed now was a film – and Chambers had the perfect script.
Months before, he had received a call from a would-be producer named
Barry Geller. Geller had purchased the rights to Roger Zelazny’s
science fiction novel, Lord of Light, written his own treatment,
raised a few million dollars in starting capital from wealthy
investors, and hired Jack Kirby, the famous comic book artist who
cocreated X-Men, to do concept drawings. Along the way, Geller
imagined a Colorado theme park based on Kirby’s set designs that would
be called Science Fiction Land; it would include a 300-foot-tall
Ferris wheel, voice-operated mag-lev cars, a “planetary control room”
staffed by robots, and a heated dome almost twice as tall as the
Empire State Building. Geller had announced his grand plan in November
at a press conference attended by Jack Kirby, former football star and
prospective cast member Rosey Grier, and several people dressed like
visitors from the future. Shortly thereafter, Geller’s second-in-
command was arrested for embezzling production funds, and the Lord of
Light film project evaporated.

Since Chambers had been hired by Geller to do makeup for the film, he
still had the script and drawings at his house. The story, a tale of
Hindu-inspired mystical science fiction, took place on a colonized
planet. Iran’s landscape could provide many of the rugged settings
required by the script. A famous underground bazaar in Tehran even
matched one of the necessary locations. “This is perfect,” Mendez
said. He removed the cover and gave the script a new name, Argo – like
the vessel used by Jason on his daring voyage across the world to
retrieve the Golden Fleece.

The new production company outfitted its office with phone lines,
typewriters, film posters and canisters, and a sign on the door:
studio six productions, named for the six Americans awaiting rescue.
Sidell read the script and sketched out a schedule for a month’s worth
of shooting. Mendez and Chambers designed a full-page ad for the film
and bought space in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The night
before Mendez returned to Washington, Studio Six threw a small party
at the Brown Derby, where they toasted their “production” and Mendez
grabbed some matchbooks as additional props to boost his Hollywood
bona fides. Shortly thereafter, the Argo ads appeared, announcing that
principal photography would commence in March. The film’s title was
rendered in distressed lettering against a black background. Next to
it was a bullet hole. Below it was the tagline “A Cosmic

Mendez slipped into Iran on January 25, 1980, after receiving a cable
from the CIA director indicating President Carter’s personal approval
that read, “You may proceed. Good luck.” He flew in from Europe, where
he’d obtained a visa at the Iranian consulate in Bonn. “I have a
business meeting with my company associates,” he explained to Iranian
authorities in Germany. “They’re flying in from Hong Kong tomorrow and
are expecting me.” Mendez had broken into a cold sweat in the airport
– even professionals have their moments of doubt – but he knew there
was no turning back. He put his faith in the strength of his cover

As a specialist in forgery and counterfeiting, Mendez arrived with his
watercolor kit and tools. But the rest of the exfiltration supplies
had been sent ahead through diplomatic pouch and awaited him at the
Canadian embassy. Mendez included everything he could think of: health
cards and driver’s licenses, maple leaf pins, receipts from
restaurants in Toronto and Montreal, the Studio Six business cards, a
lens for the cinematographer, and the Argo production materials. The
six passports were what Mendez called “real fakes”: genuine documents
that the Canadian government prepared for the Holly wood aliases
devised by the CIA. Acquiring those passports had been a coup for
Mendez; Canadian law prohibits such falsification, but the country’s
parliament held an emergency secret session, the first since World War
II, to make an exception. Mendez rendez voused with ambassador Ken
Taylor in his office, retrieved the Canadian passports, and imprinted
them with Iranian visas. His ink pad was dry from the trip, so he wet
it with some of the ambassador’s scotch and carefully entered dates
indicating that the six members of the film crew had arrived in Iran
the day before.

That night the Staffords, the Lijeks, Schatz, and Anders dined with
the ambassadors of Denmark and New Zealand, along with some staff, at
the Sheardown residence. The Americans had lit a fire, set out the
hors d’oeuvres, and were already drinking when Taylor arrived with a
surprise guest.

“We have prepared for your escape,” Mendez announced during dinner. He
then explained the cover story and presented Kirby’s drawings, the
script, the ad in Variety, and the telephone number of the Studio Six
office back on Sunset Boulevard. Mendez handed out the business cards
and passports. Cora Lijek would become Teresa Harris, the writer. Mark
was the transportation coordinator. Kathy Stafford was the set
designer. Joe Stafford was an associate producer. Anders was the
director. Schatz, the party’s cameraman, received the scoping lens and
detailed specs on how to operate a Panaflex camera. Mark Lijek noticed
that Mendez wore a distinctively British Harris tweed sport coat, in
keeping with his alias as an Irish film producer.

“What about the airport controls?” Joe Stafford asked.

It was a good question. Mendez knew there were no foolproof
operations, and this one could hit a significant snag. Iranian
immigration used a dual-copy embarkation/disembarkation form. There
were matching yellow and white sheets. Upon entry, immigration kept
the white copy, which was supposed to be compared with the yellow copy
when someone left. A CIA contact at the Mehrabad Airport had provided
the forms, and it had been no problem for Mendez to forge the yellow
copy. Recent intelligence suggested that immigration agents often
didn’t bother to match the forms.

The Americans were initially nervous about the plan. “Let me just show
you how this kind of operation works,” Mendez said, picking up two
corks from the many opened wine bottles. He put the corks between his
thumbs and forefingers in two interlocking D shapes. “Here’s the bad
guys,” he said, showing that they couldn’t be separated, “and here’s
us.” With a sudden sleight of hand, he pulled them apart.

It was parlor magic – but somehow extraordinarily comforting. The six
felt they had a competent leader. “It’s going to be that easy,” Mendez
said, sensing the group’s growing confidence. “We’ll be able to fool
them all.”

Studio Six was busy back home as well. Bob Sidell and his wife, Andi,
were manning the production office. They had three phone lines. One
was an unpublished number known only to the CIA. If it ever rang, it
meant that Mendez and the rest of the Argo crew were either in deep
trouble or home free. Andi answered the other two lines, which were
ringing constantly.

When the ads appeared, Hollywood Reporter and Variety writers called,
generating small news articles in each magazine. “Two noted Hollywood
makeup artists – one an Oscar winner – have turned producers,” read an
article in the January 25, 1980, Holly wood Reporter. “Their first
motion picture being Argo, a science fantasy fiction, from a story by
Teresa Harris … Shooting will begin in the south of France, and then
move to the Mideast … depending on the political climate.” About the
cast, Bob Sidell was quoted as saying, “We will use substantial names.
At the moment we are sworn to secrecy.” The coverage in turn generated
further interest in this new Hollywood player soon to start filming in
the Middle East.

Sidell, who had been working in Hollywood for nearly 25 years, always
said the whole town ran on BS, but even he was surprised by how easily
the fictional universe of Studio Six took on the force of apparent
reality. It was not long before this small CIA outpost found itself
deep in the movie business.

They were always anxious that their secret third line would ring, but
every call was film-related. Friends saw Sidell’s name in the ads and
started asking for work. “Do you have a crew yet?” they wanted to
know. “When’s preproduction?” Within a few weeks, Studio Six was
overflowing with head shots, scripts, and pitches from producers.

“We’re not shooting for a couple of months yet,” he’d say. “Let’s talk
again in a few weeks.” Several people solicited Studio Six with decent-
sounding projects, so Sidell took meetings with them. One writer
wanted to adapt a little-known Arthur Conan Doyle horror story about a
reanimated mummy; Sidell even pursued releases from the Doyle estate –
all the while knowing that, one day soon, Studio Six would disappear
without a trace.

Everyone was in costume before dawn on January 28, 1980. Cora Lijek
had used sponge curlers to give herself a Shirley Temple look. She
thumbed through the script as they waited. Kathy Stafford donned
heavy, bohemian-looking glasses, pinned up her hair, and carried a
sketch pad and folder with Kirby’s concept drawings. Mark Lijek’s
dirty-blond beard had been darkened with mascara. Anders thought of
their escape as an adventure and flung himself into his role as Argo’s
flamboyant director: He appeared in a shirt two sizes too small,
buttoned only halfway up his hairy chest to reveal an improvised
silver medallion. He wore sunglasses, combed his hair over his ears,
and acted slightly effeminate. Schatz played with his lens. During the
previous two days, they’d done several dress rehearsals, with a Farsi-
speaking staffer from the Canadian embassy dressing up in fatigues for
mock interrogations, probing for cracks in their cover. They’d learned
the movie’s story line and their characters’ backgrounds and
motivations and were now waiting, essentially, for call time. By 4 am,
they’d packed, thanked their hosts, and were on their way to Mehrabad

In the van, Cora checked her pockets again to make sure they contained
nothing showing her real name. She and the others started playacting
their new roles. The only exception was Joe Stafford, who was
ambivalent about leaving behind colleagues at the embassy. He was
unenthusiastic about the plan and had refused to change his
appearance. Worse, he looked nervous.

Mendez had gone ahead. His office had been testing out Mehrabad,
sending agents to enter and exit the country, checking the security.
But he preferred to see things for himself. Like a bank robber sizing
up a heist, Mendez could tell instantly if things felt right. He’d
assess the customs and immigration desks – how diligent, for example,
was the staff? More worrisome than the professionals were the komiteh
and Revolutionary Guards standing behind them. Armed and
unpredictable, they made the airport truly dangerous.

But that morning seemed calm. There were komitehs at customs, but
their attention was focused on locals trying to smuggle out rugs or
gold. Mendez had picked the early morning because by 10 am, Mehrabad
would become a typically anarchic developing-world transit hub, with
disordered lines of people, commotion, yelling, and shoving. That’s
when the Revolutionary Guard would show up to have their run of the

When Mendez saw that the military presence was light, he signaled all-
clear to his film crew. The Americans entered the airport with
trepidation. They hadn’t been in public, after all, in nearly 80 days.
Most of the escapees had worked in the consulate, and they all knew
what it was like to scrutinize official paperwork, looking for flaws.
Worse yet, three of them had worked in the visa line. They’d been seen
by thousands of Iranians, many of whom might harbor grudges for being
turned down.

Everyone breathed easier when check-in at the Swissair counter and
customs went smoothly. The group made small talk as Schatz approached
immigration, presented his passport, and got his stamp. The Americans
were momentarily terrified when the officer disappeared with the rest
of the crew’s passports. But then he absent-mindedly wandered back to
the counter with some tea and waved the group on to the departure
lounge without bothering to match the yellow and white forms.

The wait was agonizing. Everyone kept their heads down. Joe Stafford
picked up a local paper at one point and then remembered that Canadian
film crews don’t read Farsi. He also kept using people’s real names,
giving the others serious jitters. It was getting later and brighter.
The airport was filling with people. They knew there was no backup
plan. Mendez wasn’t even carrying a gun, and the Revolutionary Guards
were arriving, wandering around in fatigues and harassing passengers.
Look them in the eye, Mendez had coached the six in case anyone was
questioned. Be confident but seem innocent. But he knew from the
agency’s reconnaissance that the guards could be tough, even
subjecting people to sudden body cavity searches. A mechanical problem
caused a delay, and the Revolutionary Guards were starting to turn
their attention to foreign passengers.

Mendez disappeared. He had a contact at the airport and went to check
on the flight status. No sooner had he learned that the delay would be
short than they heard the announcement: “Swissair flight 363, ready
for immediate departure.” As they boarded the plane from the windy
tarmac, Anders noticed the word AARGAU was printed across the fuselage
– the name of the Swiss region where the plane originated was
strangely similar to that of their cover story. He punched Mendez’s
arm and said, “You guys arrange everything, don’t you?”

Mendez smiled. After the plane’s wheels went up, Mendez knew he had
just pulled off one of the most successful deception operations of his
career. The bar opened once they left Iranian airspace, and everyone
ordered Bloody Marys. Mendez leaned into the aisle, looked back at the
group, and raised a toast: “We’re home free.”

A few hours later, Studio Six Productions got its first and last call
on the secret third line. Startled, Andi picked up the phone. “It’s
over,” an unidentified voice said. “They made it out.”

{Joshuah Bearman (joshuahbearman [at] hotmail [dot] com) is a staff writer at the
LA Weekly.}


For Iraqi Terrorists Inside Iran, Membership Has Its Privileges
By ELI LAKE  /  April 26, 2007

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq – For Iraqi terrorists in Iran, membership has its privileges.

The leaders of many of the Sunni jihadist groups that are harbored
there are issued a special political refugee card. With the laminated
photo identification card, described this week in an interview by a
former Kurdish spy for Iranian intelligence, the terrorists can sail
through checkpoints and border checks.

If ever a jihadist were to encounter a problem with the local police,
flashing the card would make his problems disappear, in part because
the all-powerful intelligence ministry, known as Ettelaat, and
Revolutionary Guard are the only people allowed to issue them. As
such, these ministries have files with photographs and biographical
information on most of the Iraqi terrorists in Iran.

The status of the Al Qaeda affiliated jihadists in Iran was recounted
Tuesday in an interview with Osman Ali Mustapha, a former Kurdish
police officer who was recruited as a spy for the Iranians. In his
first interview with the press, and his second conversation with any
American, the former spy for Iran said of the terrorists who operate
across the Iranian border from Iraqi Kurdistan: “Each one of them
filled out a form at Ettelaat. They bring them to Ettelaat. It is a
green card for political refugees. When you want to go through a
checkpoint, the green card will let you go.” Later, he said these
cards “are not issued to non-Islamists. Normal refugees do not get

Mr. Mustapha added, “If you have this card you are treated better than
a Kurd. When the Kurds want to go somewhere, the authorities have a
suspicion about relations with Kurdish parties. When you have this
card, it means you are working for them.”

Mr. Mustapha was known in the shady world of crooked cops, smugglers,
terrorists, and spies as Osman the Small. It’s easy to understand why.
The 21-year-old, whose face looks like he’s already lived a lifetime,
is barely 5 feet tall, and his wide ears accentuate the rest of his
diminutive facial features.

Mr. Mustapha is in a position to know Iran’s relationship to Al Qaeda.
He was recruited in 2004 to the Ettelaat by a senior leader of what
was then Ansar al-Islam, the Sunni jihadist group that linked up with
Al Qaeda’s Iraqi chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The terrorist who served as a liaison to the Iranian intelligence
officers went by the nom de guerre of Ali Mujahid, or Ali the holy
warrior. Soon after Mr. Mustapha was fired from his job as a police
officer at Halabja in the early spring 2004, Ali Mujahid gave him a
number in Tehran and had him meet him in the town of Marywan.

“He was a member of Ansar but he had relations with Ettelaat,” Mr.
Mustapha said of Ali Mujahid. “Ali was an Ansar militia member from
Halabja. Before he became Ansar, he was a member of Kurdistan
Democratic Party Peshmerga militia, then he joined the Iraqi Islamic
movement, then Ansar al Islam.”

Mr. Mustapha continued, “He took me to a river in Marywan, Zrebar
river. He said, ‘I know when you were in security and you tortured
Islamists.’ I told him I was fired from security. He said, ‘I don’t
want you to work with Ansar, but if you want to work with the Etallat,
I will introduce you to a very high ranking member.”

In some ways, Mr. Mustapha was an ideal candidate for the Iranians. He
began spying on Kurdish Islamists for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
at the age of 14, when he developed a relationship with the director
of security in Sulimaniya, General Sarkawt Hassan Jalal. Mr.
Mustapha’s work as a mole earned him an entry-level job with the
police at Halabja, but the relationship soon soured with the local
police chief there, Anwar Haji Osman.

As Mr. Mustapha tells it, he was fired from his job in 2004 because he
defied the wishes of Mr. Osman. “He once waived a gun at me and
threatened to kill me because I went to General Sarkawt with my
problems,” he said. His feud with the Halabja police chief not only
got him fired, but earned him the enmity of a powerful man in his
hometown. The combination of his unemployment and his desire for
protection drove him into the arms of the Iranians.

With the Etallat he was paid between $300 and $400 a month, plus up to
$1,500 for what he deemed “special activities.” The monthly payments,
in American dollars, were significantly more than his old police
salary, which was in Iraqi dinars worth the equivalent of $250 a
month. The special activities at first included routine missions like
video surveillance of American bases in Kirkuk and the paramilitary
facility of the main Kurdish Iranian parties – the Kurdistan
Democratic Party of Iran, and Komalla. When asked what Iranians he
met, he listed five with whom he had contact. These include a man he
called Mr. Amiri, the chief of sabotage for Iran’s revolutionary
guard; Colonel Mohamed Yaqubi, an officer for Etallat in Sanandaj, in
Iranian Kurdistan; a man he called Mr. Sardari, an investigation
officer for the Etallat; Mr. Ebadi, the deputy of Etallat
administration in Kurdistan and Hassani Hidayeti, the chief of the
Etallat in Kermanshah. The Iranians also gave him a code name,
Sharazour four.

Mr. Mustapha spent his easy money on cars, drugs, drinks, and women.
He said he purchased two Opals, would occasionally frequent houses of
prostitution and had a predilection for sedatives.

In May 2005, the Iranians upped the ante and asked Mr. Mustapha to
help aid a terrorist assassination. He met up in Iran with his old
friend Ali Mujahid, who helped him procure three circular blocks of
hard plastic TNT, four kilograms each, that would be later used for a
suicide belt. He was given instructions to deliver the explosives from
Iran across the border to a contact in Iraq who went by the name of
Sherkawt King Fu. The target for the operation, he was told, would be
a chief of operations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran. He
was promised a great reward if he completed the mission.

But Mr. Mustapha said he objected. He said he had another target in
mind, his old boss at the Halabja police department, Mr. Osman.
Eventually, Ali Mujahid and the Iranians agreed, likely because the
mission was a test of their new operative’s willingness to help plan a
murder. But Mr. Mustapha said it was because he was persuasive. “I
told them I would help kill this man for nothing,” he said.

This enthusiasm likely is what did him in. The day of the
assassination, June 20, 2005, he called Mr. Osman on his cell phone.
“I told him I would become a terrorist just for him.” And so he did.
Sherkawt Kung Fu delivered the TNT to a suicide bomber who killed Mr.
Osman within the hour.

Six days later Mr. Mustapha was arrested. The phone call and his loose
lips, along with his well-known dispute, made him a prime suspect in
the case. Today, Mr. Mustapha is unrepentant and stays at the Kani
Goma prison, awaiting a proper trial. “I am just ashamed because I
cooperated with foreigners,” he said. “I am not ashamed of killing the
chief. If the family of the chief came to me, I would tell them how I
did it.”


Divided Iraq has two spy agencies

Shiite officials wary of the CIA-funded, Sunni-led official
intelligence service have set up a parallel organization.

By Ned Parker  /  April 15, 2007

BAGHDAD – Suspicious of Iraq’s CIA-funded national intelligence
agency, members of the Iraqi government have erected a “shadow” secret
service that critics say is driven by a Shiite Muslim agenda and has
left the country with dueling spy agencies.

The minister of state for national security, a Shiite named Sherwan
Waili, has built a spy service boasting an estimated 1,200
intelligence agents out of a second-tier ministry with a minimal staff
and meager budget, Western officials say.

“He has representatives in every province,” a Western diplomat said,
speaking on condition of anonymity. “At the moment, it’s a slightly
shady parallel organization.”

Shiite officials say the minister is providing information on Al Qaeda
and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party that isn’t being
supplied by the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, or INIS, Iraq’s
primary spy service.

The INIS was established in the spring of 2004 by the U.S.-led
provisional authority and has been under the command of Gen. Mohammed
Shahwani, a Sunni Arab involved in a CIA-backed coup plot against
Hussein a decade ago. For the last three years, the agency has been
funded by the CIA, U.S. military and Iraqi officials say.

The service reports directly to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite
Muslim, but coreligionists in his government distrust the agency,
which has agents from the Hussein era. For most of 2005 and the first
part of 2006, Shahwani said, he was banned from Cabinet meetings.

“The general feeling is that the intelligence service is not
functioning or conducting its work in the proper way,” said deputy
parliament speaker Khalid Attiya, a Shiite.

The two spy agencies risk becoming open partisans in Iraq’s civil war
if vying political parties do not reach an agreement on how to rule
the country, one analyst warned.

“If no critical compromise is reached, the security services are going
to fall apart on ethnic, sectarian and party lines,” said Joost
Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group.
“It will be a failed state situation like Somalia.”

From its conception, Shahwani’s agency has antagonized Iraq’s new
Shiite elite. In September 2004, his men arrested at least 50 members
of a Shiite party in southern Iraq called Hezbollah – which is not
linked to the Lebanese group of that name – and detained them for
several months. In the same period, Shahwani accused one of the
country’s main Shiite political parties, the Supreme Council for
Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of being on Iran’s payroll and blamed its
militia for the deaths of 10 of his agents.

The Shiite drive to create the parallel secret service can be traced
to the spring of 2005, when the United States, mindful of Shiite
politicians’ close ties to Iran, fended off then-Prime Minister
Ibrahim Jafari’s effort to take charge of the INIS.

U.S. backing

The U.S. had invested heavily in creating a strong spy service and
trusted Shahwani, who has been a crucial asset to the Americans since
the fall of Hussein’s regime. Shahwani, who owns a home in the U.S.,
provided them access to old army officers, and formed an Iraqi special
forces unit, called the “Shahwanis,” that fought in the November 2004
battle to retake Fallouja from Sunni Arab insurgents.

Shahwani’s service “is funded completely by the U.S. Central
Intelligence Agency, not by the Iraqi government,” a U.S. military
official said on condition of anonymity. “U.S. funding for the INIS
amounts to $3 billion over a three-year period that started in 2004.”

Asked about the funding, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said, “The CIA
does not as a rule discuss publicly the details of its relationships
with the intelligence services of other countries.”

After failing to remove Shahwani in 2005, Shiite officials sought to
fill the gap. Then the minister of state for national security, Abdul
Karim Anizi, lobbied Jafari to turn his post into a full-fledged

“He pushed to provide a service. He was very proactive. He exerted a
lot of pressure and requested to make his post a full ministry, but
the proposal didn’t move an inch,” a former government official said
on condition of anonymity. “He started to recruit informers and
sympathizers. He couldn’t give them full salaries, but he could give
them government privileges and he built up a network of informers.”

When Anizi stepped down, he was replaced by Waili. The service has
expanded dramatically in the last year, Waili said, getting around its
limited state budget by hiring agents on contracts.

The agency provides a hard-line Shiite view in national security
meetings, observers say.

“It’s slightly reactionary in a Shiite sense,” the Western diplomat
said. “If you talk about [Sunni Muslim] Anbar province, you know he is
going to take a view largely uncharitable toward the Anbar tribes.”

A U.S. official suggested that certain sectarian groups were
frustrated with their inability to control the INIS and use it to
advance sectarian agendas, and that was fueling the emphasis on the
parallel service. The official also implied that Iran had sought to
undermine the INIS, in part because of its close ties to the United
States and the CIA.

“There might be some friction caused by the way this service operates
– it doesn’t operate on a sectarian basis,” the U.S. official said on
condition of anonymity. “There appear to be people in Iraq, and
perhaps in one of its neighboring countries, who do not like that

A Shiite official who deals with insurgency issues said that Waili was
trying to steer his service away from a sectarian bias, but the
problem was with those surrounding him.

“He is trying very hard to move away from sectarianism and say this is
a government to protect the people, but some of his officers have
sectarian views,” the official said.

Waili said his main goals were to crack down on Al Qaeda, Baathists,
militias and criminals. But his service has no legal charter to engage
in domestic spying or arrest people, and it is lobbying for a law that
would formalize its surveillance activities, make it a full ministry
and bring the CIA-funded INIS under its control. But the governing
Shiite coalition has not made its mind up about whether to formalize
Waili’s powers.

Sunni Arabs speak with deep distrust of Waili’s ministry, describing
it as sectarian in nature.

“I think non-Shiites would find it difficult to be accepted in this
ministry. It is a nonprofessional organization,” said independent
Sunni lawmaker Mithal Alusi, who serves as an informal consultant to

Alusi said Waili’s men had been arresting people on raids.

In their most controversial operation, Waili’s agents spied on at
least one Sunni member of parliament they suspected of terrorist
activities. The agents submitted evidence during the winter to the
Iraqi judiciary in a campaign to strip Sheik Abdel Nasser Janabi of
his parliamentary immunity.

Janabi, a fundamentalist cleric, is accused of being behind the
killings of more than 150 Shiites in the so-called “triangle of
death,” a region just south of Baghdad, where Sunni extremists
regularly target Shiites.

Authority questioned

Parliament Speaker Mahmoud Mashadani, an ally of Janabi, said the
investigation was politically motivated, and illegal.

“The information depends on an undercover officer from a ministry that
doesn’t even have the [legal] right to conduct surveillance,”
Mashadani said.

Waili defended his actions, saying his agents are tasked by the
government to gather evidence, adding that they can participate in
arrests if authorized by the prime minister. “We are doing our work
according to the law and for the service of the people and so far
nothing negative has been said about our security agents,” he said.

The fact remains that Waili and the rest of the Shiite-led government
have not pursued any investigations of Shiite lawmakers suspected of
involvement in sectarian killings.

One Shiite politician acknowledged the problem. “There are things that
have happened that when we have peace, people will have to be held
accountable for,” the lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.

At the same time, Shahwani’s INIS continues to run into troubles with
the Shiite elite.

Shahwani’s most recent controversy involves accusations that his men
kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in February in Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign
Minister Hoshyar Zebari said four of Shahwani’s agents were involved
in the kidnapping and had been arrested.

Shahwani told The Times that the four detained men were his agents,
but that they had been in the area on another mission at the time the
Iranian diplomat went missing. Shahwani also accused the Iranians of
inventing the story of the kidnapping so they could abduct one of his
men who had been spying on their diplomat. The freed Iranian diplomat
has said he was abducted by an Iraqi security force and then tortured
by the CIA.

Both Shahwani and Waili’s agencies have been accused of bending the
law in a country that has a legacy of military coups, authoritarian
regimes and unaccountable security agencies.

“In Iraq, everybody spies on everybody, everybody kills everybody,”
Mashadani said. “We are still living in a Saddam culture.”

{ned [dot] parker [at] latimes [dot] com}

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