Last Wednesday, the Minister of Defense, Margarita Robles, presided over the tribute to the eight secret agents who, two decades ago, were shot dead in Iraq at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Center (CNI). The event was held behind closed doors, so that the cameras could not capture the faces of the Spanish spies and the relatives of the victims, marked by emotion.
On November 29, 2003, eight months after the United States invaded the country claiming non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Alberto Martínez, José Merino, José Lucas, Ignacio Zanón, Alfonso Vega, Carlos Baró and José Carlos Rodríguez were ambushed by the Iraqi insurgency in Latifiya, 30 kilometers south of Baghdad. Although they fought to the last bullet, their pistols proved powerless against the longer-range Kalashnikovs of their attackers. Jose Manuel Sanchez, who fled in search of help, was the only survivor.
A month and a half earlier, on 9 October, another CNI member, José Antonio Bernal, had been murdered at the door of his home in Baghdad. The death of these eight agents constitutes the greatest tragedy in the history of the Spanish secret service, a page written with the heroism of its protagonists, but also with the accumulation of errors and betrayals that led to the fateful outcome.
In July 2007, more than three and a half years after the crime, the then director of the CNI, Alberto Saiz, ordered "to review the performance of the [intelligence] center in Iraq" and to "promote the investigation" of the murders of its agents. The result of this work was reflected in a secret document, dated November of that year, to which a media outlet has had access for the first time. It is a critical assessment of the CNI's actions in the months following the invasion of Iraq and a review of the investigations carried out so far into the perpetrators of the attacks.
The conclusions of the document contain a harsh self-criticism. "At the beginning of 2003, the organization of the center was in a phase of concretizing tasks and delimiting responsibilities, which generated differences of opinion and dysfunctions," he begins, admitting, and then specifies: "The organizational structure of the center and the absence of a specific working group for Iraq led to overlaps and gaps." That is to say, when the invasion ended and Washington proclaimed military victory, the CNI dissolved its crisis cell and the agents on the ground were placed under the normal functioning of the secret service, "without exceptional follow-up being considered as the situation worsened [...] Inter-agency coordination and implementation capacity were considered to be sufficient, but this was not the case."
As a consequence, he explains, "the case officer [directly responsible] carried out his or her duties with a significant degree of ignorance of what was being developed and decided at other levels of command"; "the center always acted in tow of the execution conditions set by the Defense General Staff, which changed these conditions on some occasions, so it was necessary to adapt on the fly"; while "the urgency of the implementation of the teams in the area meant that mission planning was not carried out in accordance with the challenges that were assumed". These failures – lack of coordination, lack of planning, haste – prevented the correct interpretation of the warning signs of an accelerated deterioration in security and the rapid taking of appropriate measures, the report laments.
The presence of Spanish spies in Baghdad dates back to January 1993, when the Spanish Embassy was closed and they were directly accredited to their counterparts in Saddam Hussein. So close was the relationship that in October 2002 a high-level delegation of Iraqi intelligence visited the secret service headquarters in Madrid, prompting a complaint from the CIA. When the representative of the Iraqi secret service in Madrid was expelled, along with the rest of the diplomatic staff, he was sent off with a gift.
For their part, the two CNI representatives in Baghdad, who remained in Spain during the invasion, returned to Iraq in May, thinking that the danger had passed. Alberto Martínez and José Antonio Bernal occupied the same houses. Its drivers, guards and service personnel were the same as those that Iraqi intelligence had controlled long ago.
"The permanence of V16 [the CNI team in the Iraqi capital], with the same components, is considered one of the determining factors of the events that occurred afterwards. It was not considered a risk factor at the time. [However,] it is clear that the Iraqi intelligence services had positioned themselves against the international coalition and could believe that the CNI had betrayed their trust by Spain being part of the coalition. Consequently, it was logical to think that CNI members would become targets," the report states.
The Spanish spies "were fully identified as members of the CNI by their former interlocutors in the Iraqi service," he insists, and alarm bells must have been set off when, in August 2003, there was a chain of attacks in Baghdad that seemed to have "the support of the former intelligence services" of Saddam.
The CNI deployed agents with the Spanish troops deployed in Iraq, first in Diwaniya (July) and then in Najaf (August). This second team was in charge of the veteran Alberto Martínez, as "he was the only person capable of responding to such an urgent deployment". This was, according to the report, a "critical" error, since Alberto was in contact with Iraqi sources from his previous period, "which allowed these [Saddam's] secret services at all times to have him and the rest of the CNI personnel located." In addition, his "personal and professional situation was very deteriorated" after three years in Baghdad, he adds. "All of the above, which was known at the center, should have led to his immediate relief." But it was only decided to bring forward its replacement, which never happened.
The assassination of José Antonio Bernal was the last warning. On 9 October, when the night watchman had already left and his replacement had not arrived, three people knocked on his door. A man dressed as a clergyman, whom the agent must have known, went inside. Realizing that they were trying to kidnap him, Bernal ran, but fell to the ground 50 meters from his house and was shot in the head. Investigators ruled out that the killing was personally motivated or the work of common criminals and concluded that it was "a terrorist attack, with it being more likely that it was carried out by former members of the Iraqi intelligence service."
The commission that investigated the crime in the following weeks warned that "there was a concrete and real threat and that an attack against members of the center or Spanish interests could be repeated at any time" and made several recommendations. On 26 November, three days before the ambush, some were accepted, such as the provision of armoured cars for CNI agents in Iraq (they never arrived, as the delivery time exceeded three months) or the improvement of communications equipment. However, the 2007 report regrets, "no decisive measures were taken, such as the repatriation of personnel known to the Iraqi secret services."
The Detained Translator
Regarding the ambush that killed seven of its agents, the CNI's investigation concluded that it was "prepared in advance, with precise information on the schedule and clear identification of the target." The attackers, the report states, were "former agents of the Iraqi intelligence service," who had a "Spanish-speaking agent, whom the Spaniards had approached to become their source." He allegedly informed them of the route that the attacked vehicles would follow in Lafitiya.
The CNI suspected that the tipster was Flayeh Al Mayali, a professor of Spanish at the University of Baghdad and translator for Alberto Martínez, who allegedly spoke with him the same morning he died. On 22 March 2004, when he went to the Spanish troop base in Diwaniya, he was arrested. During interrogations, he acknowledged, according to the CNI report, that he had worked for the Iraqi intelligence service, under threat of death, before the invasion; but denied any involvement in the attack on Alberto Martinez and his companions. At the end of the three days of pre-trial detention, he was handed over to US troops, who locked him up in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. But Washington was not interested in clarifying the death of the Spanish spies, but in defeating the Iraqi insurgency. Flayeh was released in February 2005 without ever being tried and alleged ill-treatment at the Spanish base, which the report denies. He was banned from entering European territory for ten years.
Beyond the alleged whistleblowing, the internal investigation concluded that "the events that occurred in Iraq were the result of a collective failure of the center. [...] Neither the structure nor the people in positions of responsibility at the various levels had the capacity to prevent, detect and neutralize the risk assumed by the agents carrying out their mission in Iraq as the situation in the area changed." He did not propose to purge responsibilities, but to take measures so that it did not happen again.
They resisted to the last cartridge
29/11/2003. 15.20 local time. The eight CNI agents return to Diwaniya from Baghdad in a Nissan Patrol and a Chevrolet. At the height of Latifiya, a white sedan comes at full speed from behind firing out of the side windows with two AK-47 rifles. The gunfire kills Martinez, the driver of the Nissan, and wounds Lucas, sitting in the back seat. The Nissan lags behind and the sedan overtakes on the left and fires at the Chevrolet. He kills Vega and wounds Rodriguez in the head. The Chevrolet falls down an embankment and gets stuck in the mud. Baró calls Baghdad and the Spanish base for his Thuraya, but is unable to communicate. He speaks to the CNI officer in Madrid and asks for urgent helicopter support. When he goes to transmit his coordinates, they start shooting at them from nearby houses and the communication is cut off. With the wheels blown out, Merino and Zanon approach in the Nissan and the sedan flees. They go down the embankment and join Baró, who asks Sanchez to pass him the chargers and leave for help. Baró gets down to the ground and starts firing shot by shot with his pistol at the assailants, but they are too far away and it doesn't reach them. Merino and Zanón join Baró and also open fire. As he walks away, Sanchez listens to the first. "I've been hit in the arm!" At last, he reaches the road, where a crowd cheers the attackers. The crowd surrounds him and tries to put him in a trunk, but then a priest takes his arm and kisses him. People change their attitude and let him go. When Sanchez finally returns, accompanied by U.S. soldiers, "the corpses of the members of the CNI show numerous bullet wounds, proof of the viciousness of the attackers and the resistance of the Spanish agents," the report says.
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