Release date: Feb. 4, 2004

Issue: 02/17/04

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Defector Points Finger at Iran in September 11 Plot

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

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An Iranian defector stepped forward to provide key testimony in the trial of an alleged 9/11 conspirator, a 31-year old Moroccan named Abdelghani Mzoudi, just hours before a German court was preparing to drop all charges against him. The defector, Hamid Reza Zakeri, told a court in Hamburg on Jan. 30 that a Mzoudi colleague, 9/11 hijacker Ziad Samir al-Jarrah, met in Iran with Zakeri's former bosses at the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS), Iran's intelligence service, two years before the September 11 terrorist attacks. "I saw him at a training camp in eastern Iran with [Lebanese terrorist] Imad Mugniyeh and [top al-Qaeda operative] Saef al-Adil," he said.

Mzoudi himself was in Iran for training in 1997, Zakeri says. The Germans had charged Mzoudi with providing material support to the al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg that included al-Jarrah and two other 9/11 hijackers, but they were preparing to drop the charges before Zakeri stepped forward with new information. Insight first published Zakeri's allegations of an Iranian government link to the 9/11 conspiracy last year [see "Defector Alleges Iranian Involvement in Sept. 11 Attacks," posted June 10, 2003, at Insight Online]. At the time, the CIA responded to Insight inquiries regarding Zakeri's credibility by calling him a "serial fabricator."

Zakeri claimed that he met with a CIA officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, in July 2001 and provided warning of the 9/11 attacks. The CIA acknowledged the meeting, then claimed Zakeri had provided no credible evidence of a terrorist plot against the United States. But German prosecutors and the German intelligence agencies who have interviewed Zakeri don't appear to share that assessment. Germany's counterespionage service, the Bundeskriminalamt, supplied prosecutors with a 30-page transcript of its interview with Zakeri on Jan. 21, prompting the court to halt Mzoudi's trial and expected release.

In his original interview with Insight, which was picked up by American media organizations only after Zakeri's name surfaced in the German 9/11 trial on Jan. 21, the former MOIS operative said he personally handled security at two meetings between top al-Qaeda operatives and Iranian officials held in Iran just months before the September 11 attacks.

Zakeri's information dovetailed in many respects with an earlier report on Iran's al-Qaeda ties produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency that Insight first revealed in November 2001 [see "Iran Cosponsors Al-Qaeda Terrorism," Dec. 3, 2001]. Both reports have been spiked until now.

Zakeri backed up his original account of the two meetings between al-Qaeda and Iran with a document signed by Hojjat-ol eslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, who headed the Intelligence Department for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The letter, dated May 14, 2001, carried instructions from Khamenei to his Intelligence Ministry regarding relations with al-Qaeda.

In a follow-on interview with Insight just hours before he appeared in the Hamburg courtroom on Jan. 30, Zakeri reiterated his earlier allegations that Saad bin Laden, eldest son of the Saudi terrorist, and bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, both came to Iran in the months prior to the 9/11 attacks to discuss the logistics and strategy of a major attack on the United States with Iranian intelligence officers.

Saad bin Laden "spoke good English" during his talks with MOIS officials when he came to Iran four months and seven days before 9/11, Zakeri tells Insight.

Another top al-Qaeda operative, Saef al-Adil, currently is in Iran, Zakeri tells Insight, where he has met with the deputy military commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Gen. Mohammad Baqr Zolqadr. Training of al-Qaeda operatives by the IRGC took place at the "Fathi Shiqaqi" camp to the northeast of Iran, he adds. Shiqaqi was the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), an Iranian-backed terrorist group, until Israeli intelligence operatives assassinated him in Malta in October 1995. Shiqaqi was replaced as head of PIJ by Ramadan Shallah, who left a teaching job at the University of South Florida where he had worked alongside professor Sami al-Arian, now awaiting trial in the United States on terrorism-related charges.

U.S. officials say they believe Saad bin Laden currently is in Iran, where he is being given refuge and safe harbor, but repeated requests to the Iranian government to hand him over for trial have gone unanswered. The Iranian government says only that a number of al-Qaeda operatives crossed into Iran from neighboring Afghanistan and that they currently are awaiting prosecution for unspecified violations of Iranian law.

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Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.

For more on this story, read "Proof That Tehran Backed Terrorism."

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