There are two conflicting reports about whether Al Qaeda in Iraq was planning to hijack airplanes and crash them into the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. First, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the Western press that Czech intelligence and Interpol had told Baghdad of a plot to hijack airplanes and crash them into a Shiite shrine in Najaf or Karbala. The Foreign Minister said that the plot was to happen in 45-60 days. His claim was supported by U.S. military officials who talked to the Christian Science Monitor, and said that there was evidence of a plot, but that it was only in the early planning stages. The story was also disseminated in the Arabic press. As a result of the reports, the Najaf airport was said to have been closed down. If the attack had happened to one of Shiite Islam’s top shrines, it could’ve led to another civil war in Iraq as happened after the Samarra shrine was bombed in 2006.
The counter story came from other Iraqi ministers and Al-Zaman. The Iraqi Defense Minister said that the closing of the Najaf airport was due to a dispute between the airport and the Transportation Ministry, and that claims of a terrorist attack were unconfirmed. The Minister of National Security Affairs told Al-Rai that the terrorist stories were exaggerated. He said any security measures at the airport were normal, and that the panic was started by the newspapers. He also added that the story was spread for personal reasons. Al-Zaman ran a piece claiming that the Iraqi intelligence service the Mukhabarat, that reports to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was the source of the rumor, and that it was leaked on purpose to pressure the Shiite clerics to support the formation of a coalition between Maliki’s State of Law list and the Supreme Council-Sadrist led Iraqi National Alliance. The purpose might have been to threaten instability and more violence within the country if a new Shiite led government wasn’t formed immediately. That would greatly improve Maliki’s chances of remaining prime minister.
Finally, the Najaf airport had been closed down for a few days before the alleged Al Qaeda plot was revealed. The Najaf provincial council and governor launched official protests against its closure on April 12, 2010. The governor said that it was shut down due to a dispute between the Najaf Airport, the Baghdad Airport, and the civil aviation authority. There was also a rumor that the Transportation Ministry wanted to take over control of the Najaf airport as another reason for it being out of service.
The true facts behind the terrorist attack and closure of the Najaf airport may never be known, but there are definitely some holes in the story. There might have been intelligence on an alleged plot, but it was nowhere near fruition according to the papers if it was real. That might be why the Defense and National Security ministers played down the story. The Najaf airport was also closed before the rumor surfaced, and that appeared to be for political, not security reasons, so that part of the story does not hold up. Whether it was leaked under Maliki’s order to further his goal of hanging onto office cannot be determined. It is election time so it’s easy to understand why some might see the Prime Minister’s hand behind such a high profile story. Whatever the case the plot made headlines around the world, and was hyped as a 9/11-type plan, re-enforcing Iraq’s image as an unstable country full of terrorists.
Arraf, Jane, “Al Qaeda 9/11-style plot to fly airliners into shrines in Iraq,” Christian Science Monitor, 4/15/10
Aswat al-Iraq, “Najaf council threatens civil disobedience to open local airport,” 4/12/10
Al-Rai, “Al Waili for “The View”; “ media exaggerated.” Reports targeting religious shrines, planes in Iraq,” 4/15/10
Roads To Iraq, “Fake Najaf 9/11-style plot,” 4/15/10
Al-Sharq Al-Awsast, Al-Zaman, “The Story Behind the Closure of Najaf International Airport,” MEMRI Blog, 4/15/10
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