Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Mongrel Magazine – March 2007


Latif Yahia: Self-proclaimed peace activist. Alleged arms dealer. All-round nice guy.

01020242228001When someone’s welcomed you into their home, and introduced you to their family, its awkward having to confess to them that you don’t really believe a word they’re saying. It’s a trickier proposition still, when the person in question is Dr. Latif Yahia. The 42-year-old is best known as the author of I Was The Devil’s Double – a sensational account of his life as a fidi (or body double) for Saddam Hussein’s psychotic son Uday. More recently, his quest for an Irish passport has brought him a new nemesis in Tanaiste and Minister for Justice Michael McDowell.

Latif Yahia describes himself as a human rights campaigner and victim of Saddam’s regime. And none of the countless international news outlets who’ve interviewed him down the years – including BBC, Sky, CNN, CBS, Fox and Al-Jazeera – have ever disputed that description. But an examination of his life story raises major questions about the man’s motives and credibility. Then there’s his violent temper. Since arriving in Europe in 1992, he has, by his own account, taken an Austrian policeman hostage at gunpoint, punched a judge and doused a Norwegian refugee camp in petrol with the intention of burning it down.

And yet, for all that, he still comes across as a fairly personable guy.

Insofar as the facts of Dr Yahia’s life are known, they are as follows. Born into a wealthy Sunni family, Latif Yahia’s physical resemblance to Saddam’s eldest son was first remarked upon when they were classmates together in secondary school in Baghdad. After university, Dr Yahia served as a Captain in Iraqi Special Forces in the Iran-Iraq war. In November 1987, he was summoned to Uday Hussein’s palace where, after a period of torture and solitary confinement, he agreed to work as a look-alike for the president’s hated heir.

Fleeing Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, with help from the CIA and their Kurdish allies, he settled eventually in Ireland. He has lived here for almost a decade. But despite being married to an Irish woman, and having an Irish child, his applications for citizenship here have been rejected. And Dr Yahia has no doubt about where the blame lies. “I don’t have a problem in this country,” he tells me over coffee. “No parking tickets, no fines. I’ve never claimed a cent off this country. One idiot racist guy, I have a problem with. It’s Michael McDowell. I call him racist. You can put that in. I would love it if he brought me to court.”

Interestingly, Dr. Yahia uses the word ‘racist’ two more times in the interview. Both in reference to himself. The first is to explain why he’d like an Irish actor to play him in a mooted biopic. “I’m racist for Irish people” he smiles. Later again, when asked why he prefers living in Offaly to Dublin, he shrugs and says “Maybe I’m racist”. (At that stage though, I’ve been bamboozled by so many of his contradictions and wild allegations, I don’t even don’t bother asking what he means.)

Dr Yahia has never been given an official explanation for why the Minister for Justice has rejected his naturalisation application. He says it’s because of a baseless claim, passed from the CIA to Special Branch, that he is an international arms dealer. Neither does Dr Yahia have the right to appeal the decision. “This is why I call Michael McDowell the Saddam Hussein of Ireland,” he says. “Before if I apply for citizenship, and the minister refuses me, I can bring him to the High Court. If you don’t have a criminal record, you’re paying tax and you’re living quietly, you are entitled to citizenship. If you’re married to an Irish citizen, after three years, you get citizenship. Since Michael McDowell came along he destroyed all this law. He makes everything himself. Nothing goes over his head.”

The most serious allegation Dr Yahia makes against the Department of Justice is that an official there offered him a passport for €50,000 in January. When I contact the department’s press office, they ask me for the name of the person alleged to have solicited this money. I give it to them. The spokeswoman suggests Dr. Yahia take the matter up with the Gardai. Dr Yahia, though, is in no hurry. “This is an investigation I’ve been working on for two-and-a-half years” he says. “I have two barristers and an ex-detective sergeant working on it. We’re going to do a press conference about the Department of Justice. For me, I’ll always be the winner in the end.”

It’s easy to see why the people of Daingean have taken a shine to Latif Yahia. He’s a very charming guy. With his sharp suits and larger-than-life personality, he might be the most exciting thing ever to have hit this sleepy village. The walls in his house are lined with photos of him with an array of famous faces. Among those I recognise are George Galloway, Shimon Peres, Bertie Ahern and current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. He may have some high flying friends, but Dr Yahia isn’t afraid to pitch in locally. “I have a friend nearby,” he says, gesturing. “He has a house built on 12 acres. They don’t give him permission to extend his house. So I go with him to the councillor with a brown envelope… It’s done.”

His own house is a modest enough affair. But his private study is akin to what you’d expect to find in a presidential palace. Dr Yahia sits behind an enormous wooden desk that takes up most of the room. An Iraqi flag and ceremonial sword hang behind him. The glass door looks out on a rainy Irish back garden. A man could appear slightly ridiculous in this set-up if he weren’t careful. A widescreen television in the living room is switched to Al-Jazeera. Dr Yahia is taping the trials of former members of Iraq’s Baath party. Many of those on trial are people he knows personally. He chain smokes for the duration of our interview.

Actually, I’ve seen this room on television before. Numerous foreign news outlets have come here for Dr Yahia’s take on developments in Iraq. In Ireland, his diatribes against the Department of Justice have made the daily newspapers occasionally. Next month an entire episode of RTE1’s Ryan Confidential will be devoted to his story. I email producer David Blake Knox to ask if the makers of the programme made any attempt to check the veracity of Dr Yahia’s claims. He replies: “Our goal in this interview is to allow our viewers the opportunity to form their own opinions about his credibility.” I take that as a no.

For a man who’s done so many interviews down the years, Latif Yahia isn’t especially media savvy. If nothing else, you’d think making charges of racism and corruption against the Department of Justice, and then admitting to racism and paying bribes himself in almost the next breath, would be an obvious no-no. But off he goes. He gives ludicrous, evasive answers to direct questions, only to volunteer more incriminating information moments later. When he mentions that he hasn’t committed as much as a parking offence here, I counter that he regularly used false passports in other jurisdictions, and filed bogus asylum applications in Norway, Sweden, Germany and Holland.

“Even here,” he admits. “I arrived here under a false passport.” He has never admitted this before. “But I didn’t do it so that I could commit fraud” he adds. “I just wanted nobody to know I was here. It was for security.” But why then does he give so many interviews? Why is there a poster of him hanging in the window of his local pub? “Since I come here, I don’t want to hide who I am.” It’s quite infuriating really. His recent self-published memoir The Black Hole opens with an admission that he fled Iraq in the company of a prostitute named Nusa. They claimed asylum together in European as man and wife, though they were not married. His previous memoir had neglected to mention any of this.

Time and again, Dr Yahia stresses his personal security as the justification for any number of lies and transgressions. But at other times he portrays himself as indifferent about his own safety. One of his most sensational claims is that he had an affair with a Saudi princess in London in the mid-1990s. The affair ended tragically when the princess, pregnant with his child, was lured back to Saudi Arabia and beheaded. He’s has already described London as being swarming with Saudi intelligence agents. He’s even said the Saudis tried to recruit him to assassinate a prominent dissident there. So why does his book describe him giving the married princess a “lingering embrace” at the airport. Was that not unduly reckless? “I didn’t care. I was counting on being dead a long time ago”.

In conversation, Dr Yahia regularly departs on tangents to make all sorts of claims – most of them unprintable, all of them unverifiable. “A Shia death squad has arrived in Europe now,” he announces at one point. “It is called Al-Naki. They are 120,000 suicide bombers. They are in Sweden, Ireland, the UK, France, everywhere. They are not all Iraqi, but they speak with Iraqi accents and they’re claiming asylum under Iraqi names. They have a list. If you do something to upset Iran then you’ll be on the list. I don’t want to do propaganda for myself, but my name is on it.”

The most serious question mark hanging over Dr Yahia is how he made his fortune after fleeing Iraq. His first years in Europe were rough. US, British, Austrian and Israeli intelligence all attempted to recruit him, and made life difficult for him when he refused to cooperate. Assassination attempts were made against him. At one stage he claims to have been thrown into a secret Austrian prison for a year. Meanwhile, he was making high profile television appearances offering his insights on life as ‘Saddam’s son’.

Dr. Yahia’s version of what happened next is this: In November 1994, he received a phone call from Uday Hussein who asked him to return to Iraq immediately. Dr Yahia refused. Uday then said that he would grant Dr Yahia’s parents a visa to fly to meet their son in Thailand. The rest of the family would remain in Baghdad in Uday’s custody. Dr Yahia says that once in Bangkok his parents relayed Uday’s demands. The dictator’s son would finance a new European company which Dr Yahia would set up and run. The company would funnel money into Iraq and Dr Yahia would keep 15% of the revenue for himself.

The plan, if Uday indeed proposed it, wasn’t as hair-brained as it sounds. In the mid-1990s, with sanctions crippling Iraq’s economy, the regime needed cash much more than it needed good PR. As a prominent critic of the regime, Dr Yahia would have been the perfect front for such a company. Indeed, the UN’s Food for Oil programme is now known to have been riven with such scams. Dr Yahia claims that he refused to cooperate with his former boss point blank. But why then did the ruthless Uday fail to carry out his threats against the Yahia family, who continued to live under Saddam’s protection? Dr Yahia claims that his father, who died some years later, was murdered by Uday. But there is no evidence to support that claim.

The case here against Dr Yahia is far from water tight. But it at least makes much more sense than his own version of events. He claims that in 1994 a stranger walked into his office in Vienna and asked if he knew anything about diamond struggling. When he replied in the negative the stranger gave him a month-long crash course, a fake Dutch passport and a $1.5 million cash loan to get started. Though Dr Yahia claims he doesn’t know why he was singled out for this kindness, he says he went on to make $4 million a month smuggling diamonds between Lagos and Amsterdam. This despite having zero experience and being known to every intelligence outfit in the world.

“Everything’s a payroll,” he replies, when asked to explain his extraordinary good fortune. “In the West there is corruption, the same as everywhere. Everyone in this world has a price. When I was travelling around these countries I got to know the politicians. How do you think I know all these presidents and princes?” He gestures around the walls. “I’m a small guy. Money, you know? I’m not afraid to say it.”

Whether or not Dr Yahia struck a deal with Uday in Bangkok, Iraqi opposition figures began to denounce him as an agent of the Baathist regime. Dr Yahia’s response, then and now, was that those making the accusations, including CIA favourites Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawi, were bigger crooks than any of Saddam’s cronies. “Half of the Iraqi opposition was [laundering money for Saddam]. Now they are in Government. ” Why didn’t Saddam reveal this at his trial? “Who told you he didn’t? The court wasn’t live. It was reported by Americans. That’s why they carried on and killed Uday and Saddam as quickly as possible. They could hide all the papers”

Dr Yahia’ s allegations against the now discredited leaders of the Iraqi opposition may not be unfounded. But it still wouldn’t excuse him if he himself was in the pay of a bloody tyrant he publicly claimed to oppose. Untangling definitive answers from this morass is an impossible task. But in the dirty world of Iraqi politics, the unfortunate temptation is to believe the worst about both sides. Before I bid him farewell, I ask how the doctor what he sees in the future. “Iraq is finished,” he says with a sigh. “Iraq is an Iranian state. But I’ll always be a winner in the end.”

See also: The Tangled Tale Behind The Devil’s Double (blog piece I wrote for The Guardian)