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FIDEL MAY BE PART OF TERROR CAMPAIGNBy Martin Arostegui*
At 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 14, Ana Belen Montes, a senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), walked into a public telephone booth outside Washington's National Zoo and made two calls to pager numbers later traced by federal agents to Cuba's Directorate of General Intelligence (DGI). She already had compromised the identities of CIA agents, revealed U.S. military secrets and exposed the contents of classified files. But, as Montes sent repeated signals to her DGI handlers during the days immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the FBI was given orders to act.
The Sept. 21 arrest of a Fidel Castro mole deeply burrowed into the U.S. defense establishment at such a moment - even as weapons-grade anthrax was being mailed to media and congressional targets - raises serious questions about a possible Cuban connection with the international terrorist conspiracy targeting the United States. Concerns about Cuba's continuing threat to U.S. national security were voiced recently by the DIA director, Vice Adm. Tom Wilson. Before entering a closed session of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence he told reporters that "Cuba could initiate information warfare or computer-network attacks that could seriously disrupt our military."
While there has been a tendency to play down Castro's capabilities to engage the United States in asymmetrical warfare, "they are getting renewed attention in the light of recent events," according to a Pentagon source. The source tells Insight that only a highly sophisticated espionage network, such as the one operating from Cuba, could have cracked the code of Air Force One in an apparent breach of security that caused U.S. Secret Service officials to whisk the president out of sight on the morning of Sept. 11.
A sudden decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to shut down Russia's electronic listening station at Lourdes near Havana by next year, announced just hours before his meeting with President George W. Bush at the Oct. 19 economic summit in Shanghai, "reflects the degree of alarm over Cuba's intelligence operations," according to a U.S. defense analyst in Washington. Congress already was threatening to freeze financial aid to Moscow unless it dismantled the intelligence facility that gives Castro a degree of international leverage out of proportion to the bankrupt state of his communist regime.
Despite some residual support for Castro in the Kremlin, a Cuban delegation visiting Moscow to procure additional funding for the Lourdes facility abruptly was dismissed with the announcement that instead the listening post would be closed. Influential elements in Moscow fear that the rogue use of Cuban spy facilities could drag Russia into an unwanted confrontation with Washington. According to Cuban exile Ernesto Betancourt, some Russian officials were highly disturbed by a 1999 incident recorded by the Federal Communications Commission in which Cuban electronic-warfare specialists penetrated New York's air-traffic-control system by simulating U.S. Air Force flight codes. The signals, which seriously threatened to disrupt air traffic, were traced to a 1,500 kilowatt transmitter operating west of Havana.
As Russia and the United States try to close ranks against the common threat posed by Muslim terrorist networks in Central Asia, say intelligence insiders, Castro's growing ties with radical Islamic movements have become a source of worry for both governments. During his recent tour of Syria, Libya, Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, the Cuban dictator told a cheering crowd of Muslim students at the University of Tehran, "Together we will bring America to its knees."
Agence France-Presse reported that Castro, in an apocalyptic speech on May 10, told his Muslim audience in Iran: "America is weak. I have studied its weaknesses from very close by. I tell you, the imperialist king will finally fall." Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Castro followed the lead of hard-line Muslim leaders by blaming "this tragedy" on "the terrorist policies of the United States."
There are signs that Castro's new alignment with fundamentalist Islam could go beyond crowd-pleasing declarations. U.S. law-enforcement agencies have indications that Cuba may have assisted the logistics and planning for the latest wave of terrorist attacks. Insight has learned that al-Qaeda ringleader Mohammed Atta, who organized the Sept. 11 attacks and crashed a hijacked airliner into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, may have met secretly with Cuban undercover agents shortly after his arrival in the United States last year. The Czech government has confirmed that Atta similarly had met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague.
Federal investigators believe that Castro had been exploiting the international controversy unleashed by the Elian Gonzalez case to flood the United States with intelligence agents - including high-level officials of Cuba's biological-warfare program who allegedly spoke with Atta at a Miami motel. Federal investigators suspect that Atta's Cuban contact was a top defense-ministry officer with personal ties to Castro who entered the United States under cover of assignment to a Cuban-government delegation escorting Elian's two grandmothers, who supposedly were coming to mediate the custody battle.
"Information which Atta's al-Qaeda cells readily possessed on flight schools, airport security and airline flight patterns only could have been obtained through an intelligence infrastructure already in place," says a federal law-enforcement official. FBI affidavits filed in connection with the roundup of a Cuban spy ring involved in the 1996 shootdown of two small aircraft over the straits of Florida charge the Cuban DGI with conducting espionage against U.S. military and civil aviation through a network of some 300 agents operating across the continent.
Exchanges between bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and Cuban intelligence also could involve the provision of weaponized biological strains produced by Cuba's extensive chemical/biological warfare facilities exposed by Insight three years ago (see "Fidel Castro's Deadly Secret," July 20, 1998). Kenneth Alibek, who developed anthrax as deputy director of the Soviet biological warfare Biopreperat program, says in his book Biohazard, published last year, that Castro has since been running an advanced biological-weapons program administered by scientists trained in Moscow in the 1990s.
Reports smuggled out by Cuban dissident scientists confirm that Castro's research has concentrated on developing undetectable methods of spreading deadly bacteria, including the use of contaminated bird flocks. Cuba, meanwhile, has been engaging in scientific exchanges with Iraq, say these scientists. A year ago, Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage opened a biotechnological research-and-development plant in Iran, paving the way for Castro's visit to that country last May.
Atta's dealings with the DGI are not the only contacts reported between Cuba's military intelligence and al-Qaeda. The Associated Press reported on March 4, 2000, that a young Afghani who trained at a camp run by bin Laden in northeast Afghanistan says he saw advisers there from Chechnya, Sudan, Libya, Iran, North Korea and Cuba. Some of these foreigners, he said, had brought biological/chemical weapons, which were stored in caves.
Three Afghani nationals and suspected al-Qaeda members caught trying to deposit $2 million in a bank in the Cayman Islands last August were found to have entered the British colony on a commercial flight from nearby Cuba using false Pakistani passports. British authorities who arrested the three men believe that they were handling drug proceeds laundered in Havana.
Colombia's former national police chief, Gen. Rosso José Serrano, maintains that Cuba also has facilitated contacts between radical Muslim militants and leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Serrano says that about 100 Afghanis have entered Colombia during the last decade to introduce cultivation of heroin poppies in guerrilla-held areas. An Egyptian terrorist belonging to al-Gamal al-Islamiya - who was wanted in connection with the 1997 massacre of 80 Western tourists near Cairo - entered Colombia illegally in 1998 to hold talks with FARC and was arrested and turned over to U.S. authorities.
Cuban biological/chemical-warfare technology also has been detected in Colombia. A FARC bomb that burned out the lungs of an entire police garrison in the Colombian town of San Adolfo last September contained chlorine-based poison gas, according to a lab analysis of the device. Some 20 Cuban military advisers currently are operating with FARC, according to Colombian army intelligence. It also has intercepted guerrilla radio communications in which FARC's military commander, Jorge Briceno, alias "Mono Jojoy," talks about forming an "anti-imperialist front" to launch terrorist attacks against targets in the United States. "To take away their economic resources wherever they may be, reach into North America and get to their own territory," says Briceno, "to make them feel the pain which they have inflicted on others."
In September, meanwhile, as Montes frantically transmitted information to her DGI spymasters through Cuba's mission to the United Nations, according to an FBI affidavit, Castro was ordering a military alert in Cuba and calling up reserves. A CIA psychiatric profiler who has studied Castro's personality believes that the Cuban dictator was displaying "geriatric overexertion." But top intelligence specialists tell Insight that Castro may have had reasons to fear a possible U.S. retaliation when President George W. Bush declared his war on terrorism.
"Tours through radical Islamic states by Castro and his close Venezuelan ally, President Hugo Chavez, in the months prior to the September attacks indicate some level of complicity or knowledge of what was going to happen," says Lisette Bustamante, a former aide to Castro who currently works on the Spanish daily newspaper La Razon.
Not only were statements by both leaders in their Middle Eastern trips laced with violent anti-American rhetoric, Bustamante points out, but Chavez quite candidly told reporters that his talks with Saddam Hussein and heads of other oil-producing states involved the creation of a "new anti-imperialist axis" against Western industrialized economies.
It was just the sort of anti-American blather that tends to excite the faithful remnant of the old-guard communists, say U.S. intelligence analysts. Mysterious predictions about some catastrophic event in the United States began to circulate in the electronic traffic and even were voiced by Russia's Pravda on Aug. 1 under the headline, "The Dollar and the U.S. Will Fall." Based on interviews with the Malaysian ambassador to Moscow and a group of Russian economists, the report was taken seriously enough for members of Russia's parliament, the Duma, to advise Russian citizens to cash out dollars. An adviser to the Duma's Commission on Economic Politics, Tatyana Koryagina, even specified late August or early September as the likely time for an attack on the United States that would lead to its economic collapse.
*Martin Arostegui is a free-lance writer for Insight magazine.