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The mystery behind the hoax
By Pepe Escobar

Mohammed al-Asuquf (or Usuquf) is not a top member of al-Qaeda. He may not even exist. Intelligence sources in Brussels guarantee they've never heard of him, or of an apocalyptic interview he may have granted to Al Jazeera, allegedly instigated by Osama bin Laden. Some say, "maybe the spelling is wrong, after all it's an Arabic name".

In a convoluted telephone conversation, Al Jazeera's HQ in Qatar confirmed they have never interviewed or aired an interview with Mohammed al-Asuquf /Usuquf. So this means this writer and Asia Times Online were in fact victims of a hoax on November 14. An article was uploaded that day, quoting from an interview by al-Usuquf, detailing al-Qaeda's alleged nuclear plans against the US - with the caveat that his identity could not be established, nor his membership of al-Qaeda.

A source relayed the interview by email from Singapore on November 6. This source had always been reliable - and knew that Asia Times Online had been tracking al-Qaeda since way before September 11, 2001. The content was chilling, the author was unknown, the circumstances were somewhat bizarre, but the source assured there was no good reason to suspect a hoax.

The information - or disinformation - surfaced among a stream of red alerts. An al-Qaeda "big fish" was allegedly in American custody. Osama bin Laden's latest tape, threatening the US and its allies in the war against terrorism, had surfaced in Pakistan - handed over to an Al Jazeera correspondent, Ahmed Muhaffaq Ziedan. Some intelligence sources are claiming - with no evidence - that the tape itself was recorded in a Karachi madrassa and reached Al Jazeera through a circuituous route via Bangladesh. On the same day the article was uploaded, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a "confidential alert" warning of possible "spectacular" attacks against the US, capable of causing "massive casualties".

But once the hoax was established - it is listed
here on the website - we put pressure on the Singapore source to uncover his source. After a while he was sure it was a "high-ranking member of a foreign government", who did not want his name to be disclosed, but then confirmed by email that he too could not identify who relayed him the information - or disinformation.

Meanwhile, on November 17, Al Jazeera released the contents of a six-page text obtained by its investigative correspondent Yosri Fouda, in which al-Qaeda reserves itself the right to attack its aggressors, "to destroy peoples and cities, to destroy economies and to kill civilians" - the same message of the fake al-Asuquf/Usuquf interview.

There are no copies of the full text of the al-Asuquf/Usuquf interview in English on the Internet - apart from the hoax warning mentioned above. But there are copies in Portuguese, and they have been circulating at least since November. 6. We are unaware of copies circulating in other Western languages.

After al-Asuquf/Usuquf started talking in cyberspace, we read the following: "A copy of the interview came to Foz do Iguazu, and was translated into Portuguese by a university professor in the city's Arab community. This is probably the only existing version of this interview not in Arabic."

Some sources point to Foz do Iguazu as the key to the riddle. The city is right on the so-called tri-border region between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. On November 8, CNN heavily advertised scenic Iguazu Falls - the Brazilian equivalent of Niagara Falls - as the backdrop for what it terms a "terrorist paradise" in South America.

CNN claims to have learned from Argentinian intelligence sources that several Hezbollah operatives, plus operatives from other groups linked to al-Qaeda, met recently at the tri-border, in Ciudad del Este (Paraguay), to plan attacks against US and Israeli targets.

Argentinian intelligence also recently met with American intelligence in Washington - and the main point of discussion was the possibility of a new terrorist offensive launched from South America.

Ever since September 11, 2001, Washington has tried very hard to connect the tri-border with the Lebanese Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and also to the Egyptian Gamaa al-Islamiya - a major al-Qaeda ally. Last April, the US government officially declared the tri-border an area of "terrorist activity". The area, according to Washington, was a "collection center" for Islamist groups.

But the fact is that the tri-border is more about the black market, money laundering and drug trafficking than about terrorism. The absolute majority of the locals are involved in legal businesses. There are very lively Taiwanese and Arab communities. The typical crime is tax evasion. There is absolutely no evidence of a Hezbollah cell, and absolutely no evidence of links to al-Qaeda. Locals say the American accusations have been a tremendous blow to the formely thriving tourism industry which capitalizes on the beauty of Iguazu Falls.

Asad Ahmad Barakat, a Shi'ite Muslim, Lebanese-born Paraguayan citizen, is going to sue CNN. The network accused him in its tri-border piece of being involved in the planning of attacks against the US. Barakat is accused by Paraguayan justice of criminal association and tax evasion. He says he is a Hezbollah sympathizer, "like in Brazil there are millions who sympathize with the Workers Party, and this is not a crime". He says he has the support of the Lebanese ambassador in Brazil.

Muhamad Mahmod Ismail, the president of the association Arab-Brazil, stresses that "the attacks of the international media against the tri-border are part of an American policy for the region … Here we have one of the largest freshwater reservoirs of the Americas, the huge Itaipu hydroelectric plant, and the third largest world market [Mercosur]. It's not an accident that the region has been constantly attacked." No one in Foz do Iguazu seems to know about an Arab university professor who translated an al-Qaeda interview.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is currently in Santiago, Chile - not very far from the tri-border - attending a conference of defense ministers of the Americas. He said on Monday that the US won't pressure Latin America for a more active role in the war against terrorism. Each country, he says, has to decide how to employ its own methods.

As for the virtual Mohammed al-Asuquf/Usuquf, the mystery remains. Who would profit from such a setup? Sources speculate about two possibilities: Either the hoax was manufactured as a justification for more intensive American policing of the strategically crucial tri-border area; or the hoax was manufactured in the name of al-Qaeda to reinforce its strategy of instilling fear.

[Asia Times Online adds: In either case, we deeply regret being used to propagate someone else's strategy. There is of course another possibility: that the entire affair of the hoax interview was aimed at discrediting Asia Times Online and/or its writer, Pepe Escobar. We would be a little surprised that we would be considered important enough for such an operation, but if this was its aim, it worked. Many blogs and websites posted the entire text of Escobar's original article, in blatant violation of our copyright - and thus our timely retraction of the article, and explanation on our website, had limited effect in reducing the damage. Meanwhile, the lesson has been learned: increased vigilance at this time of rampant dirty tricks is essential.]

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Nov 22, 2002

The message behind bin Laden's message (Nov 19, '02)

Islamism, fascism and terrorism (Nov,'02)
Part 1
Part 2

A chilling inheritance of terror (Oct 30, '02)

Bin Laden's terror wave (Oct 29, '02)



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