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interview: sabah khodada

After your service in the army, you worked for a secret part of the Iraqi government?

Some of it is not very secretive. But there's another part, which has a lot to do with international terrorism and this kind of operation -- this is very secretive.

Maybe you could tell me what this section is called, and who runs it. And what did it do?

It's called the Division of Special Operations. ... This whole camp where their training is run by the Iraqi [security service]... The government organization [that] basically possesses or have control of the camp is the Iraqi intelligence. But different training people who come, they are headed or sent by different people in the Iraqi government.

You say that this is a secret camp. But what was it like? Was it something you drove by and could see on the highway? Did you need special clearance to go there? How would you describe this place, this location?

If you're driving on those farm roads, you could probably see the edges of the camp, but you wouldn't realize this is a special camp. The camp is huge. And the locations for the training are far from anybody can see them from the outside. But even when we have visitors, even at the level of a minister, or even higher than a minister in the Iraqi government, they will have to drive around the camp or be driven in the camp inside very specific type of a vehicle. They will sit on the back seat, for example, of this vehicle and they would have ... in addition to the shaded windows, they will have to pull down curtains and they snap those curtains on the bottom, to make sure nobody can see anything outside this vehicle while they're driven around.

This is even government officials [who] are not allowed to see this kind of training?

Yes. At the very highest level, they cannot see this training.

What kind of training went on, and who was being trained?

Training is majorly on terrorism. They would be trained on assassinations, kidnapping, hijacking of airplanes, hijacking of buses, public buses, hijacking of trains and all other kinds of operations related to terrorism.

The people being trained were Iraqis in one group, and non-Iraqis, or foreign nationals, in another?

Non-Iraqis were trained separately from us. There were strict orders not to meet with them and not to talk to them. And even when they conduct their training, their training has to occur at times different from the times when we conduct the Iraqis our own training.


Sabah Khodada was a captain in the Iraqi army from 1982 to 1992. He worked at what he describes as a highly secret terrorist training camp at Salman Pak (see Khodada's hand-drawn map of the camp), an area south of Baghdad. In this translated interview, conducted in association with The New York Times on Oct. 14, 2001, Khodada describes what went on at Salman Pak, including details on training hijackers. He emigrated to the U.S. in May 2001.

[Editor's Note, November 2005: More than two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there has been no verification of Khodada's account of the activities at Salman Pak. In fact, U.S. officials have now concluded that Salman Pak was most likely used to train Iraqi counter-terrorism units in anti-hijacking techniques. It should also be noted that he and other defectors interviewed for this report were brought to FRONTLINE's attention by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a dissident organization that was working to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Since the original broadcast, Khodada has not publicly addressed questions that have been raised about his account of activities at Salman Pak.]

So you were training Iraqis, Saddam's fedayeen, members of the militia in Iraq. And someone else, other groups, were training the non-Iraqis?

They were special trainers or teachers from the Iraqi intelligence and al-Mukhabarat. And those same trainers or teachers will train the fedayeen, the Iraqi fedayeen, and also the same group of those teachers will train the non-Iraqis, foreigners who are in the camp. Personally, my profession is not this kind of training. My profession is to train people on infantry, typical infantry training, such as training on machine guns, pistols, hand grenades, rocket launchers on the shoulder and this kind of training. The special training that I'm talking about, such as the kidnapping and so, is conducted by those trainers who are not from the army; they are from ... al-Mukhabarat.And there was a person who is very famous. They call him Al-Shaba. [ph]. This is Arabic word means "The Ghost," who was responsible for all the training, and those trainers or the teachers.

Why was he called the Ghost?

I don't know exactly why he's being called the Ghost. I came there and his name was the Ghost. But I know that he has conducted several terrorist operations in Lebanon and in other countries all over the world. And I know that he told us that he's been requested to be arrested by the Interpol. This is probably why he called himself the Ghost.

And the foreign nationals, the Arabs who are there, but who are not Iraqis -- what were they like? Were they Egyptians, Saudis? Do you know where they came from?

They look like they're mostly from the Gulf, sometimes from areas close to Yemen, from their dark skin and short bodies. And they also are Muslims. ...

Were they religious?

I don't know exactly because I saw them seldom very [briefly]. But some of them has beards, long beards, which is an indication of being a religious Muslim. ...

How long were you at this base, at this secret location?

Approximately six months.

What was your job?

Administrational things, such as providing food, leave of absence permissions, general training. Ammunition ... providing them with ammunition when needed.

How did you meet the Ghost? And what did he say?

I meet him several times a day. We usually meet in the morning when they go to training. We meet in the afternoon or the noontime when they come back from training. And several times, we'll meet at the evening to drink tea. And he will come, him and other teachers who always with him. They always talk about their operations proudly. For example, they were telling us about how they were able to penetrate the American forces during the 1990 Gulf War, where they went inside the Saudi Arabia territory, and they were able to bring exact coordinates of the Dharan airbase where it was hit by the Scud missiles and many Americans were killed.

He is an Iraqi, the Ghost?

Yes.

Did he explain what kind of training they were giving to the people who were there, especially to the non-Iraqis?

He tried not to talk about training as much as possible. I even, out of curiosity, asked him about those Arabs. Sometime he told me, "Don't ask about them. This is something we're not supposed to talk about."

So the Ghost said, "I can't talk to you about these Arabs who are training, or what we're training them in."

Yes.

So did you find out what kind of training was going on?

I don't necessarily know what kind of training they do, but they were trained exactly at the same locations, and they were trained by the same teachers who were training ... [the fighters for] Saddam. Training includes hijacking and kidnapping of airplanes, trains, public buses, and planting explosives in cities, sabotaging villages, sabotaging houses, assassinations.

And the training also included how to prepare for suicidal operations. For example, they will train them how to belt themselves around with explosives, and jump in a place and explode themselves out as part of the suicidal training. I think the trainings of the Arabs was much harsher, and much stricter, than the training of the Iraqis.

Why?

Because we know that Arabs, non-Iraqis who come to train in these kind of camps, are going to be sent to very dangerous and important operations outside Iraq; not inside Iraq. And they will be conducting very specific operations and dangerous operations in their own cities, or in their own countries, or other countries all over the world. Those Arabs are real volunteers. They come in small numbers, and they come with the intention to do some real suicidal operations. ...

There are other types of training, such as physical training, which we are all familiar with. But there's another kind of special training, which is called "self-confidence training." ... For example, a bunch of the fedayeen will be taken in a helicopter. They will fly them away to an unknown area, and they will be asked to jump out of the plane without knowing if there is underneath them a desert or a house or there's water. But they're supposed to jump. So, they will jump.

Another type of self-confidence training would be, for example, they will pull the pin of a hand grenade, and they will throw the hand grenade from one to another until the last one will throw it in the air and it will explode in the air. Another type of self-confidence training would be, they will put a hand grenade in a pipe, and they will pull the pin and throw it in the pipe, and stand near the pipe saluting the hand grenade until it explodes.

Other type of self-confidence training would be holding a rocket launcher, which is an Army GB-7, and holding it vertically, then shooting the rocket vertically, which is very unusual, but the backfire of this hand grenade will hit the ground next to you. And if you don't have self-confidence, you cannot do it. This is another kind of self-confidence training.

And they trained people to hijack airplanes?

Yes.

For what purpose?

... It has been said openly in the media and even to us, from the highest command, that the purpose of establishing Saddam's fighters is to attack American targets and American interests. This is known. There's no doubt about it.

All this training is directed towards attacking American targets, and American interests. The training does not only include hijacking of planes and sabotage. ... Some other people were trained to do parachuting. Some other areas were training on how to penetrate enemy lines and get information from behind enemy lines. But it's all for the general concept of hitting and attacking American targets and American interests.

Who controlled this operation?

In terms of training, they will train in this special camp. But after this training, they will go in small groups. These small groups are directly connected with Saddam, or to Saddam's son. For example, the Iraqi fighters, they will be spread all over the country. Occasionally those individual groups, very small groups, will be called for. They might encounter different kind of special training beyond this training on specific things. I'll give you an example. They were calling for some of these groups to train intensively to learn English language, Persian language, Hebrew language, to be sent out to different places of the world to conduct such kind of ... different kind of operations. I suspect that the higher level of training, or the additional training they encounter, has a lot to do with what happened. And there's a lot of similarity with what happened with New York and Washington on September 11.

That was your reaction on September 11 -- that some of these people might be involved?

I assure you, this operation was conducted by people who were trained by Saddam. And I'm going to keep assuring the world this is what happened.

Osama bin Laden has no such capabilities. Why? Because this kind of attacks must be, and has to be, organized by a capable state, such as Iraq; a state where they can provide high level of training, and they can provide high level of intelligence to do such training.

How could Osama bin Laden -- who's hiding in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan in small caves and valleys -- train people and gather information and send people to do such high-level operation? We all know this is a high-level operation. This cannot be done by a person who does not even own a plane in Afghanistan, who cannot offer such training in Afghanistan. This is definitely done by a mastermind like Saddam. ...

And the camp has a 707 that they train on?

Yes, there's a real whole 707 plane, a whole real plane, standing in the middle of the training area in this camp.

And they train people on how to get access to the cabin, to the crew?

Yes.

And how to take over the plane using weapons? How?

They will get trained on how to get weapons inside the plane. If there is a security weakness that they know of, they will prefer to get weapons. But I am sure that, before the attack of September 11, those people made a very thorough study. And they learned that getting weapons into the plane might not be a very good idea. But in this camp, I saw them getting trained on this kind of situations where security will not allow you to get weapons into the plane -- then what you need to do is to use all available methods and very advanced terrorizing method.

These methods are used to terrorize the passengers and the crew of the plane. They are even trained how to use utensils for food, like forks and knives provided in the plane. ... They are trained how to plant horror within the passengers by doing such actions. Even pens and pencils can be used for that purpose they were trained. They can do it, and they can overcome any plane because they are very well physically trained, and they are very strong, and they can do it. They can overtake a plane in a very efficient manner. ...

Recently, here in Washington, you met with the FBI.

Yes.

Did you tell them all of this?

Yes.

What was their reaction? Did they say they already knew about this, or did they act like this was all new to them?

No, they do not know about it. But I told them everything I know, hoping that they can make it useful to them. I did that to protect the peace, not only for America; the peace in America and the peace of the world. People must know such training and such preparation for terror is happening in Iraq. Otherwise, it's going to happen again and again. And it's up to those people, meaning the FBI, to take action about it. ...

Where is the camp located near? You could describe where it's geographically located.

Yes. It's southeast of Baghdad, about 25 kilometers from outside of Baghdad ... . I think the American government should have pictures of this camp from the air. I know for a fact that on January 1995, the United Nations came and took pictures of this camp. But they don't know -- neither the United Nations nor the American government -- what's going on inside this camp.

But they can see the 707, or the train?

On a Friday, which is equivalent to Sunday here, it's a holiday, was on January 1995. They came and the United Nations inspectors visited us. They went all the way inside the camp. They saw the plane, they saw the train, and they didn't care anything about it, because the story was, they told ... his commanders told the United Nation, "This is a camp to train police, anti-riots police."

Anti-riot police?

Yes.

And it really was a terrorist training camp?

Yes.

I can hear someone saying to me, "This is one person claiming that this happened. How are we going to check?" How do we prove or, if you will, test what you have to say?

... If you want to make sure about it, go back to pictures of your government, aerial pictures of your government, and go back all the documents that showed this camp is existing. And go back to my friend who is in Turkey, who could also tell you the same thing that I'm telling you now.

Addition to that, maybe you can find archives of Iraqi TV, showing on the Iraqi TV Saddam's fighters ... putting bombs belted on their bodies, wearing masks. Maybe you should be able to get these archives and see something what's shown openly on Iraqi TV.

The training of Saddam's militia was shown on Iraqi TV?

They will show some of their training. For example, they will show clips of their jumping from the helicopters. But there was also parades, military parades, and they will show off Saddam wearing this explosive around themselves with their masks on. ... I even heard it on Arabic BBC when they were saying, when they were describing them, not as Saddam's fighters -- they describe them as "the terrorists of Saddam" -- wearing explosives and looking like crocodiles, black crocodiles. I'm very surprised that you, in America, don't know about these things.

To you, then, the likely suspect here is the government of Iraq and Saddam in all this terrorism. And yet we're looking the wrong way?

I assure you, and I'm going to keep assuring you, that all these things are obvious. I don't know why you don't see it. When we were in Iraq, Saddam said all the time, even during the Gulf War, "We will take our revenge at the proper time." He kept telling the people, "Get ready for our revenge."

We saw people getting trained to hijack airplanes, to put explosives. How could anybody not think this is not done by Saddam? Even the grouping, those groups were divided into five to six people in the group. How about the training on planes? Some of these groups were taken and trained to drive airplanes at the School of Aviation, northern of Baghdad ... .Everything coincides with what's happening.

In addition to that, we heard in the news about meeting some of those hijackers with the Iraqi intelligence people in Prague, and even getting money to get trained on flying airplanes in the United States from the Iraqi intelligence.

[Did you hear that some of those training at the camp were working for] Osama bin Laden?

Nobody came and told us, "This is Al Qaeda people," but I know there were some Saudis, there were some Afghanis. There were some other people from other countries getting trained. They didn't tell us they were part of Al Qaeda; there's no such thing. ... In this camp, we know that those are Saudis, or Arabs are getting trained. Nobody will talk about Al Qaeda or any other organization.

They're just people.

Yes.

Who clearly wanted to ... or were interested in doing terror, becoming terrorists?

This camp is specialized in exporting terrorism to the whole world. ...

In the conversations that you had with the Ghost and with others, was it clear that they were involved in international terrorism -- that that's what the object here was, to send people out to do missions?

They all say it. On January 1, 1996, we all met with Saddam personally. And he told us we have to take revenge from America. Our duty is to attack and hit American targets in the Gulf, in the Arab world, and all over the world. He said that openly. When you volunteer to become Saddam's fighter ... they will tell you the purpose of your volunteer[ing] is to attack American targets and American interests, not only in Iraq, not only in the Gulf, [but] all over the world, including Europe and America. That's how Saddam was able to attract those Arabs and Muslims who came to train, because that's exactly what they want to do.

I just wanted to understand that in the camp itself, when you were sitting down with the trainers and they were describing what they were doing, did they say they were getting people ready for missions in Europe, in the United States?

Those people who are in the camp ... do the training, and the rest will be conducted by the higher command. For example, after you finish the training, there will be groups of five to six people, sometimes four people, but most likely between five to six people, not exceeding six. Maximum number will be six people.

Or they would be able, for example, to call for a specific group for a specific purpose to Baghdad. And nobody knows what this group is going to do. They will go to Baghdad. They will be briefed on what they're going to do, or trained about something specific. They will be sent, and we don't know where they go, and they come back to us. That's how it works. It's not like the trainers in the camp know what's going on. The operations are headed directly from the top.

But when someone would hear about an incident, like there was an attack on the U.S. military in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia in 1995, or the Khobar barracks was blown up in Saudi Arabia, you didn't hear anyone say, "We took part in that," or, "That was one of ours," during this period of time.

They don't talk specifics. The only specific thing they talked about in front of me is ... location coordinates during the Gulf War. But I hear them talking about operations in Saudi Arabia, operations other places, in Lebanon. But I never hear the details from them.

Any evidence of biological or chemical warfare training?

This type of training, if it happened, it occurred outside our camp...

Can you explain what's on this map that you drew?

The surrounding area around this camp is an area for fitness training. This is a Boeing 707, where they trained how to hijack it. And also they were trained how to resist or stop hijacking operation.

Next to it, there's a double-decker bus in which they could do the same thing -- training, hijacking. And this is next to it, there is a village, built houses like a model of a village. They will train how to plant TNT and explosives. And very next to it, there's a single house, where they're trained how to enter it, or sabotage it or explode it.

The railway track is where the train is. That's where they would have the same training for hijacking of a train. I would like to also tell you that this is a village where farmers would live. Those farmers, by the way, are employees by the Iraqi intelligence -- all of them. They look like normal families, but they are not as you think. They are employees of the Iraqi intelligence to put cover and protection to the base. ...

What's the method that's taught, in terms of hijacking? It's not just taking on weapons, is it?

Training will include the way they would sit in the plane, how they enter the plane, provided they got the right documents from the top levels of Iraqi Intelligence, such as passports. ... They will, for example, sit in two's, and they will assign who will sit to the right of the other guy, and who will sit to the other side. Two will sit in the front, two will sit in the back, and two will sit, for example, in the middle. They are trained to jump all at one time, and make a declaration that "We are going to take over the plane. And nobody [move], don't move, don't make any moves."

They will probably use a pencil or a pen, or even sunglasses or prescription glasses. Somebody will hold the crew members of the plane from their chins upward tightly, and you will pull it on his neck. He will think you are going to slaughter him and kill him. Including in this training is terrorizing by making very, very loud noises and screaming all over the plane. That will take over the planned horror, and will terrorize the plane, including the crew.

Why are you coming forward with this information?

I'd like to tell the whole world, and American people, that I wish peace ... in this world. And I want to tell you that what you have seen is very little from what we have seen done to the Iraqi people by Saddam. If somebody use chemical weapons such as in Halabja on his own people, what do you think he would do to different parts of the world? I call for the world and the Iraqi people and every Muslim not to believe the propaganda by Saddam and bin Laden. Those are murderers, and they have nothing to do with Islam.

Here in the United States, as a Muslim, I was never been harassed or treated badly, and nobody stopped me from my prayers, or stopped me from being a Muslim. So what Saddam is doing is exactly what's against Islam, against the world, and against peace of the world.

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