Authorities in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year quietly broke up a major terrorist ring affiliated with al Qaeda that had plotted to blow up targets in Dubai - a banking hub that has long seemed immune to attacks by the terrorist group.
The disruption in May of the previously undisclosed plot came at a sensitive time for the UAE, which months earlier concluded an agreement with the United States that would allow the U.S. to sell it nuclear reactor technology and nuclear fuel. Congress has until Oct. 17 to block the agreement, which has been viewed with concern by some nonproliferation groups.
Three U.S. intelligence officials and one former senior U.S. government official confirmed that the terrorist scheme originated in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), a relatively poor member of the seven-emirate country.
According to these officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the incident, UAE authorities found evidence that the terrorists had conducted video surveillance of targets in Dubai including Dubai Towers, which will be the tallest building in the world when it is completed in December. The officials also said the plotters had designated suicide bombers for the operations, but had not yet made so-called martyrdom videos.
Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, called the arrests a "significant ... disruption. It demonstrates al Qaeda's presence and perhaps even ill intent in the Emirates, but also signals strong cooperation from the Emirati authorities."
In the past, al Qaeda has not targeted Dubai in part because wealthy Arabs there have been a source of funding for the organization. Two of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States were from the UAE.
A spokeswoman for the UAE Embassy in Washington said the embassy "doesn't comment on internal security matters." But the disclosure threatens to embarrass the UAE as it seeks Congressional approval for a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States.
The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, was in Washington earlier this month to lobby for legislative approval of the deal, which is expected to come before Congress in mid-October. Several lawmakers are expressing concerns about the UAEs export laws and the fear of weapons proliferation to Iran.
The deal, which was signed at the end of President Bushs second term, will go ahead if Congress decides to do nothing. It will allow U.S. firms to sell nuclear fuel and technologies to the UAE. The Emirates has agreed to buy nuclear fuel from the world market - possibly including the U.S. - but has promised not to develop its own uranium enrichment capability or reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
The UAE Embassy spokeswoman, who asked not to be named because only the ambassador is permitted to be quoted on the record, pointed out that the chief of police in Dubai denied a story this week in the Israeli press alleging that the Iranian government was behind the latest plot.
The intelligence officials who spoke to The Washington Times said a former minister of public lands for RAK, Muhammad Ali al-Mansuri, was arrested in connection with the investigation.
An Irish-based human rights group, Frontline Protection of Human Rights Defenders, confirmed on its Web site the arrest of Mr. al-Mansuri, whom it described as a human rights lawyer. It said he was arrested June 7 at 5 a.m. by RAK authorities and handed over to authorities in Abu Dhabi. Mr. al-Mansuri, who is a member of the RAK royal family by marriage, was released on bail at 2:30 p.m. the same day, the group said, but has had his travel limited and is thought to have been rearrested. An e-mail to Mr. al-Mansuri was not returned.
"Frontline believes that Dr. Mohammed al-Mansuri is being targeted because of his peaceful and legitimate activities in defense of human rights, in particular his work in relation to civil and political rights, including freedom of the press," said an appeal from the group, whose board of trustees includes U2 lead singer Bono.
Present and former U.S. officials described the plan to target the towers and several other high profile locations in the country as a significant shift in how al Qaeda operates in the Emirates.
"Dubai, given where it is, has generally been more open as a society [than other Middle Eastern countries]," Mr. Zarate said. "Some would argue that Dubai has been more lax and in terms of travel and banking, they are stuck with dealing with more bad actors than their neighbors might be. Nonetheless, cooperation [on counterterrorism] has been very good."
Mr. Zarate added, "I also would not downplay the reality that for the sake of tourism and reputation, there is no desire on the part of any country to signal they are worried about a threat unnecessarily and that they are a target-rich environment."
Kenneth Katzman, a senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said: "It is widely believed that the UAE government was turning a blind eye to the presence of some al Qaeda activity in the UAE, with the implicit promise that no terrorist attacks would take place there. This [arrest] is significant because it shows the UAE's belief that it could prevent terrorist attacks this way was naive."
Nonetheless, Emiratis have also been helpful to the U.S. in the battle against al Qaeda. In November 2002, UAE authorities handed over to the U.S. Abd Rahim al-Nashiri, a senior al Qaeda leader who is regarded as the mastermind of the bombing in Yemen in 2000 of the USS Cole. Al-Nashiri is one of three al Qaeda leaders the CIA has acknowledged to have waterboarded during questioning.
According to a May 2002 letter from al Qaeda leaders that was declassified in 2006 by the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., the royal families in Dubai and Abu Dhabi were explicitly threatened with attacks if their cooperation with the United States against al Qaeda continued.