Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Monday, February 14, 2005
Page A - 1
Bethlehem, West Bank -- In June 1998, somewhere near CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., two rows of men in military fatigues posed for their graduation photo.
All of them were officers in Palestinian General Intelligence Service, charged with hunting down terrorists and preventing attacks on Israel. They had just completed a training course, paid for by the U.S. government, in which they learned firearms and counterterrorist tactics.
But the graduation photo holds a stark warning for the Bush administration as it gets more involved in Middle East peacemaking. Some of the men in the picture later swapped sides and began using the skills they learned in Virginia against the Israelis.
Such training courses, which were suspended with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, will be an integral part of Washington's aid package for the new government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"There will need to be some international effort, and the United States is prepared to play a major role in that, to help in the training of the Palestinian security forces and in making sure that they are security forces that are part of the solution, not part of the problem," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier this month on the London stop of her European tour.
Lt. Gen. William Ward, Rice's newly named Mideast security coordinator, will visit the region this month to "start looking at how to build Palestinian security forces," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.
"What we're really all talking about is helping the Palestinian security forces get organized, get equipped, get trained and get the command structure that allows them to take care of security problems," Boucher said.
The men in the 1998 photo came from Bethlehem, Jericho and Nablus, which all became flash points in the four-year uprising, called the intifada. Kneeling fourth from the left in the front row is Raafat Bajali. In December 2001, Bajali was killed when a bomb he was making blew up in his face. He had become a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said some of his comrades in the General Intelligence unit.
Bajali died in a fourth-floor apartment near Bethlehem's Manger Square, the home of Nedal Zedok, a colleague in the Palestinian security forces who also was moonlighting for Al-Aqsa. Zedok, too, was killed in the explosion.
Standing in the back row, second from the left, is Khaled Abu Nijmeh, from Deheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, according to two of his colleagues who are also pictured.
By 2001, he had become one of the most-wanted Palestinian militants in the city, suspected of involvement in a string of suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israelis. In May 2002, he was one of 13 gunmen escorted from the Church of the Nativity siege in Bethlehem, flown to Cyprus and then to exile in Europe. Three of the group, including Abu Nijmeh, were given asylum in Italy.
"I am a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and a first sergeant in Palestinian General Intelligence," Abu Nijmeh, now 36, told The Chronicle from his temporary home in Rome. "I personally received a course in antiterrorism and VIP protection.
"I was not alone. Many Palestinian security people were trained by the Americans. We hope they will continue helping us."
Abu Nijmeh and his 12 comrades will be allowed to return to Bethlehem under the cease-fire agreement reached last week between Israel and the Palestinians.
As Israeli commentators had been warning for years, the CIA inadvertently helped train future adversaries -- as it has done in other countries, including the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan who ended up as Taliban and al Qaeda militants.
"This has proven to be a very risky undertaking," said Israeli political analyst Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University. "Both the CIA and British efforts to train Palestinians during the Oslo process helped strengthen terrorist capabilities."
A U.S. official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said that if previous U.S. aid went to train would-be militants, "obviously steps will be taken so that any future training does not lead to a similar outcome."
The Palestinian security forces were created in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo accords by Arafat to maintain order in newly autonomous Palestinian territories. The recruits were supposed to serve as the police force for the Palestinian Authority and to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel. The CIA and British intelligence services helped provide training and equipment.
But Arafat also used the new police forces to keep himself in power. Based on longtime loyalties within his Fatah political faction, he created 14 separate, often overlapping, security services -- including a naval intelligence unit in the landlocked West Bank.
Palestinian security forces were doubling as militants in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and in Hamas, an Islamic group that has claimed credit for many anti-Israel attacks. Zedok, who was killed by Bajali's bomb, was among those dismissed from the security force after their connections were exposed by Israel. Others, including the Al-Aqsa founder and commander in Ramallah, Khaled al-Shawish, found refuge in Arafat's West Bank headquarters.
The training given to hundreds of Palestinian security officials between 1996 and 2000 was sanctioned by a presidential order in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton, who was deeply involved in peace-making efforts.
The order created a covert program that provided tens of millions of dollars to enhance the professionalism of the Palestinian security services and help combat anti-Israel terrorism. Under the arrangement, CIA contractors trained the Palestinians in firearms, counterterrorism, interrogation techniques and bureaucratic organization. The Palestinian graduates in the photo were instructed by International Training Inc., a private security- training firm that does contract work for the CIA.
The United States, the European Union and Britain also provided advanced radio communications systems, computers, vehicles and other equipment.
In October 1998, the Wye Plantation agreement -- hammered out between Clinton, Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a summit in rural Maryland -- formalized the assistance provided by the CIA to Palestinian security, in cooperation with a special security adviser appointed by the European Union, a British former intelligence officer named Alastair Crooke. It was Crooke who escorted Abu Nijmeh and the 12 other exiles from Bethlehem to Cyprus in May 2002 while CIA officers cleared Palestinian weapons from the Church of the Nativity, officials involved in the operation said.
Even before the intifada broke out in 2000, the Israeli government was becoming concerned about the inadvertent help to Palestinian militants. In November 1999, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked Washington to scale back its assistance to the Palestinian security forces.
"In recent conversations with senior U.S. officials, Israeli representatives expressed their concerns about the risk that sensitive information on antiterror methods and antiterror technology would be passed from the Palestinian Authority on to terror groups," the Israeli daily Haaretz reported at that time.
"The American aid to the Palestinians carries a great danger, because it is impossible to know exactly what the Palestinians are receiving, or who ultimately receives it," a Barak aide told Haaretz.
The Israeli warning was borne out by the graduation photo. Bajali and Abu Nijmeh, the two Al-Aqsa members, were not unusual in combining service in the Palestinian security forces with activity in an underground militia. When the Church of the Nativity siege ended in May 2002, Abu Nijmeh was just one of several security officers among the 13 men deported to Europe and 26 more banished from the West Bank to Gaza.
Among his colleagues when he joined General Intelligence, "there were five or six who were deported abroad and another 10 (from the West Bank) to Gaza," said one Palestinian officer pictured in the photo of the Class of 1998, who still is in the security forces and asked that his name not be used.
The certificate -- complete with gold-leaf seal -- that the 1998 graduates received from International Training Inc. refers only to an "antiterrorist driving and motorcade operations" course. But the CIA-sponsored session provided firearms training as well, the officer and other participants in the course who spoke to The Chronicle confirmed. "They trained us on pistols and MP5 machine guns," said the officer. "There were fixed targets and moving targets in front of us."
He said the training was shrouded in tight secrecy, and in a manner that foreshadowed future problems.
"We arrived in Washington, then they took us in another plane," he said. "We were in Virginia for a day or two, then they took us to a military base where they trained us.
"I was shocked by one thing -- when they put us on the plane, its windows were blackened," he said. "And when they put us on a bus, the windows were covered. I asked our escort, 'Why have you covered the windows of the bus and the airplane?'
"He replied, 'For the moment we are friends, but we could also become enemies. It's not in our interest to show you the security bases.'