ISTANBUL, Turkey – An alleged Al Qaeda operative accused of serving as a key link between the group's leaders and suicide bombers hid his tracks so well that even fellow militants thought he was dead.
Loa'i Mohammad Haj Bakr al-Saqa, wanted by Turkey for 2003 bombings in Istanbul that killed 58 people, is said to have eluded intelligence services by using an array of fake IDs, employing aliases even with his Al Qaeda contacts and finally faking his death in Fallujah, Iraq, in late 2004.
The Syrian radical didn't surface until last August, when an accidental explosion forced him to flee his safehouse in the Turkish resort of Antalya, police say. Officers reported finding bomb-making materials meant for an attack on an Israeli cruise ship as well as fake IDs and passports from several countries.
Police eventually cornered al-Saqa in southeastern Turkey and he is awaiting trial on terrorism charges.
His story is an example of how Al Qaeda militants operate in the shadows, changing identities, moving from country to country and covering their tracks to help the loosely organized terror network carry out attacks.
Until recent years, al-Saqa was not well-known to international intelligence agencies despite his conviction in absentia in 2002 — along with Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — for a failed plot to attack Americans and Israelis in Jordan with poison gas during millennium celebrations. He and al-Zarqawi were each sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Al-Saqa later emerged as a key Al Qaeda operative in the Middle East. Two Turkish terror suspects interrogated at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq said al-Saqa served as a connection between the 2003 Istanbul bombers and Al Qaeda, according to testimony obtained by The Associated Press.
"He is a very important person for that region because obviously he knows more people than the locals themselves," said Michael Radu, a terrorism analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. "He probably meets people from different cells, different subgroups who do not know each other, but he knows them so he can have a much better picture."
Al-Saqa, 32, juggled identities, and rumors, to elude intelligence agencies.
Turkish Al Qaeda suspect Burhan Kus said at Abu Ghraib that he had heard al-Saqa and Habib Akdas, the accused ringleader of the Istanbul bombers, were killed in a U.S. bombardment of the Iraqi town of Fallujah in November 2004.
"Al-Saqa apparently faked his own death, borrowing a disinformation tactic used by Chechen militants," said Ercan Citlioglu, a terrorism expert at the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
Several accused Turkish Al Qaeda suspects recognized al-Saqa's photos but identified him with different names, most calling him "Syrian Alaaddin."
"The al-Saqa case clearly shows how Al Qaeda is taking advantage of fake IDs and porous borders to spread its terror, forcing countries to take more sophisticated measures, like taking fingerprints in the United States, to increase border security," Citlioglu said.
Analysts said his capture was a blow to Al Qaeda since he would be one of only a few people who understood the infrastructure of an organization that lacks permanent, hierarchical links.
"That is a serious blow because it is very hard to replace these kind of people," said Radu.
But Turkish security officials warn that others still operate in the region. One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described al-Saqa as one of fewer than a dozen Al Qaeda "middle managers" who serve as contacts between local cells and the Al Qaeda leadership.
Al-Saqa's success in eluding capture for so long underlines the challenges that authorities face in trying to crack down on Al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq.
He apparently left Iraq after spreading the rumor about his death in Fallujah. Nine months later, police responding to the Antalya explosion discovered more than 1,320 pounds of bomb-making materials, falsified Syrian and Turkish IDs and two Tunisian passports.
All bore al-Saqa's picture. He eventually was captured at Diyarbakir airport in southeastern Turkey with yet another fake Turkish ID.
Only then did Turkish police realize they had captured and deported al-Saqa — without knowing his real identity — in March 2003 for carrying a fake Syrian passport.
Identifying himself as a "mujahed" — guerrilla fighter — al-Saqa admitted to failed plans to make a bomb and to stage an attack on Israeli tourist ships, similar to the attack on the destroyer USS Cole off Yemen in October 2000 that killed 17 sailors, said Emin Demirel, a terrorism expert and author of several books on al-Qaida's structure in Turkey.
According to testimony obtained by AP, al-Saqa told Turkish prosecutors: "I was going to blow up the Israeli ship in international waters."
Prosecutors charged al-Saqa with being a senior Al Qaeda member, making bombs and smuggling explosives into Turkey. He is being held at the high-security Kandira prison near Istanbul. No trial date has been set.
Al-Saqa could also be extradited to Jordan, where a military court convicted him, al-Zarqawi and Jordanian-American Raed Hijazi in connection with the failed millennium terror attack. Jordanian prosecutors suggested in their indictment that al-Saqa was an agent coordinating between militants traveling through Turkey to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Istanbul, Al-Saqa played host to Hijazi and two other militants, including a cousin of al-Zarqawi, helping to arrange their travel to Pakistan for training in neighboring Afghanistan, court documents said.
Kus, the terror suspect held at Abu Ghraib, said al-Saqa was known to have provided passports to insurgents in Istanbul. He said al-Saqa brought $50,000 to Istanbul for the 2003 bombings at the British consulate, the local headquarters of the London-based bank HSBC and two synagogues. A total of 58 people were killed and hundreds suffered wounds.
Kus said al-Saqa and fellow ringleader Akdas cheered and shouted "Allahu Akbar" — Arabic for "God is great" — as they watched TV news in Syria about the bombings.
Seventy-two suspects were eventually charged in the attacks. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for Jan. 24.
Kus, charged with helping to build the Istanbul truck bombs, said he later traveled from Syria with Akdas to Iraq, where al-Saqa was a commander in Fallujah, then an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad.