Investigative Report

Iran Cosponsors Al-QaedaTerrorism       

       ByKenneth R. Timmerman

Nov. 12, 2001

Issue date: 12/03/01  


Iranian President Mohammad Khatami cameto New York City on Nov. 8 to

attend a U.N. summit as U.S.intelligence and law-enforcement agencies

explored new information tying hisregime's intelligence services to Sept. 11

and to previous anti-American terroristattacks, Insight has learned.


The information is coming from avariety of sources and shows a clear pattern

of operational contacts between theIranian government and Osama bin

Laden's al-Qaeda organization. Thesecontacts include joint planning of

terrorist operations, military trainingof bin Laden operatives inside Iran and by

Iranian personnel in Syria and Lebanon,financial assistance to clandestine

terrorist and surveillance cells, falsepassports, communications and, in one

case, the direct supply of explosivesby Iran for a major terrorist attack carried

out by al-Qaeda.


Some of the details, provided tofederal grand juries impaneled in New York

state and Virginia, remain under sealin ongoing cases against fugitive

terrorists. But other information hasbeen vetted and circulated to top U.S. war

planners in finished intelligenceproducts during the last two weeks.


Deputy Secretary of Defense PaulWolfowitz was briefed on Iran's ties to bin

Laden's al-Qaeda on Oct. 26 and was"floored," several sources familiar with

the briefing tell Insight. The highlyclassified material was based on "solid

reporting and hard evidence," a sourcesays. It laid out a pattern of

Iranian-government ties to the EgyptianIslamic Jihad, which joined forces with

bin Laden's group in February 1998 toform the World Islamic Front for Jihad

Against Jews and Crusaders.


Bin Laden's top deputy, former EgyptianIslamic Jihad leader Ayman

al-Zawahiri, is believed by U.S.investigators to have masterminded the Sept.

11 attacks and to have been tapped asbin Laden's successor should he be

killed or die of what some believe areserious kidney and bone-marrow



Throughout the 1990s, Zawahiri traveledrepeatedly to Iran as the guest of

Minister of Intelligence and SecurityAli Fallahian and the head of foreign

terrorist operations, Ahmad Vahidi.Vahidi is the commander of the Qods force,

a special-operations unit that conductsforeign terrorist operations, several

reports say.


In recent months, Egyptian IslamicJihad commandos have transited in large

numbers through the Iranian city ofMashad en route to Afghanistan to join bin

Laden's ranks, according to U.S. andEuropean intelligence reports obtained by

Insight. The Iranian route was chosenbecause bin Laden believes U.S.

intelligence officials are monitoringPakistani airports and were responsible for

the arrest of several of his topoperatives during the last six years. These

included Ramzi Yousef, who bombed theWorld Trade Center in 1993 and was

arrested in Pakistan in 1995 andreturned to the United States, and Mir Aimal

Kansi, who gunned down CIA employees infront of the agency's Langley, Va.,

headquarters in January 1993 and wasarrested in Pakistan and returned to

the U.S. in 1997.


In early September, roughly one weekbefore the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran

suddenly closed the border crossing atMashad to the Egyptian jihadis,

according to these reports. U.S.officials believe it was because the Iranians

knew a major terrorist attack was aboutto occur and didn't want to give the

United States cause for militaryretaliation against Iran, which has high-value

targets vulnerable to U.S. cruisemissiles and stealth bombers.


"The Egyptian jihadis are providing thefoot soldiers for bin Laden's

organization," one U.S. intelligenceofficial tells Insight. "It's not at all

surprising to see cross-fertilizationgoing on between them and the Iranian



In early October, a Europeanintelligence official adds, fugitive Lebanese

terrorist Imad Mugniyeh met in Mashadwith a senior Iranian intelligence officer

and an Iraqi identified as "a topdeputy to Saddam Hussein in charge of

intelligence matters" apparently todiscuss cooperation with bin Laden and the

Taliban in Afghanistan. Although theIranian government long has opposed

the Taliban, since the U.S. bombingsbegan they have harshly criticized the

United States and offered to deliverGulbadin Hekmatiar, a radical Islamist

Afghani leader living in exile inTehran, back to the Taliban fold.


Meanwhile, Insight learned, Iraniandefectors and former Iranian intelligence

officials have said an element of theIranian government had foreknowledge

of the Sept. 11 attacks. reported two days after the attacks

(see "TopIranian Official Seeks Safe Haven"),a senior Iranian official

telephoned a relative in Los Angeleswithin three hours of the attacks seeking

to send his wife and children to whathe called a "safe haven" in the United

States. The official also provideddetails of an Iranian-government

disinformation campaign to pinresponsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks on the

Japanese Red Army &emdash; with detailsthat were not released when the story first

ran that same day on a pro-Iranian TVstation in Lebanon.


More hard evidence of Iran's ties tobin Laden was provided in startling

testimony before a New York court onOct. 20, 2000, by Ali Mohamed, who

pleaded guilty to five counts ofconspiracy to murder U.S. citizens in the

Tanzania and Kenya embassy bombings bybin Laden's organization in July



The Egyptian-born Mohamed told thecourt he tried to penetrate U.S.

intelligence agencies as a double agentfor bin Laden in the early 1980s but

ultimately was rejected by suspiciousU.S. case officers. Later, he emigrated to

the United States, took U.S.citizenship and joined an elite U.S. Army Special

Forces unit as an instructor in MiddleEast politics at Fort Bragg, N.C. In 1989

he traveled to Afghanistan where hehooked up with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and

bin Laden. By his own admission he thenbegan training al-Qaeda terrorists in

"military and basic explosives" as wellas intelligence-surveillance techniques

for use in anti-American terroristattacks.


Mohamed testified that he personally"arranged security for a meeting in the

Sudan between Mugniyeh, Hezbollah'schief, and bin Laden." The

Lebanese-born Mugniyeh reports directlyto Iranian military intelligence and

lives in Iran, according to U.S. andEuropean intelligence reports. Mugniyeh was

placed on the most-wanted list of theworld's top 22 terrorists for a string of

anti-American attacks, including the1985 murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert

Stethem onboard a hijacked TWA airlinerin Beirut. Following the meeting

between Mugniyeh and bin Laden,"Hezbollah provided explosives training for

al-Qaeda and al-Jihad," Mohamedtestified. "Iran supplied Egyptian Islamic

Jihad with weapons. Iran also usedHezbollah to supply explosives that were

disguised to look like rocks."


The federal grand jury that indictedbin Laden in 1998 for the embassy

bombings described the operationalsupport al-Qaeda received from

governments in explicit terms:"Al-Qaeda also forged alliances with the

National Islamic Front in the Sudan andwith the government of Iran and its

associated terrorist group Hezbollahfor the purpose of working together

against their perceived common enemiesin the West, particularly the United

States," the indictment says. Mohamedtestified that "much of this type of

training is actually carried out at atraining camp there, in Iran, run by the

Iranian Ministry of Information andSecurity." Even more damning comments

were made by Mohamed under seal,because James Owens, one of the victims

of the U.S. Embassy bombings inTanzania, told the court at a sentencing

hearing last month for the convictedbombers that "Iran provided the

explosives for the bombings which havebrought us here today." Despite this

evidence of operational ties betweenIran and the network that blew up the

U.S. embassies, no Iranian official hasyet been publicly indicted for the



Many Middle East analysts in the UnitedStates and international Muslim

leaders insist there can be nocooperation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims

because of historic enmities that makethe feud between Protestants and

Catholics in Ireland look tame (see "AFaith With Many Faces," Nov. 19).


Omar Bakri Mohammad, a cleric in Londonwho professed to be close to bin

Laden, told this reporter three yearsago that Sunni-Shia hostilities prevented

any cooperation with Iran by bin Ladenoperatives. He since has been arrested

in connection with the Sept. 11 probe.


Similarly, in Washington, KhaledSaffuri of the Islamic Institute tells Insight

that "For ideological reasons, Ibelieve it is very unlikely there are any ties

between bin Laden and Iran."


Evidence from court cases, formerIranian-government intelligence officers and

U.S. counterintelligence officialsinvolved in the Sept. 11 investigation now is

emerging that proves these traditionalviews dangerously wrong. "Think of it

this way," an FBI investigator tellsInsight. "It's like Republican and Democratic

party members on an aircraft carrier inthe Persian Gulf who are today working

together for a common purpose against acommon enemy. For them, the

United States is that enemy."


U.S. officials now believe that abetter way of understanding the ties among

terrorist groups is not the traditionalorganization chart, but a more fluid matrix

that sets out the personalrelationships among individual terrorists. "This is a

relatively small universe," a topinvestigator tells Insight. "They tend to

cooperate across party lines, sometimesformally, sometimes not. It's more

important to know who knows who thanwhich organization is supported by

which state."


Once the terrorists cycle throughAfghanistan and return to their home

countries or fight in other wars, saysa U.S. intelligence analyst for this region,

they meet other terrorists and get toknow each other's specialty. "Johnny

might be an expert at plantingexplosives in boom boxes. Jerry might be good

at procuring false documents. It's thattype of cooperation," the analyst says.


Former CIA director R. James Woolsey,now a partner at the Shea & Gardner

law firm in Washington, tells Insighthe long believed there was room in

terrorist "joint ventures" for three ormore players. "I've seen more evidence of

Iraqi involvement but wouldn't besurprised to see Iranian involvement with bin

Laden given the past history of Iranianterrorist activities in the 1990s,"

Woolsey says.


A former Iranian-governmentintelligence officer who has defected to the West

tells Insight during telephoneinterviews from Germany that he personally

informed the FBI at the beginning ofSeptember of a plot by Iran to crash

civilian jumbo jets into the WorldTrade Center and government buildings in

Washington. A key element of the plot,which was code-named Shaitan der

artash (Devil in the Fire), was the useof Arab "muscle men" to hijack the

airliners. "Only the men leading thecells were Iranians," he says, "and they

were recruited from among Iran'sArab-speaking population" in the southwest

province of Khouzistan, bordering Iraq.


The other members of the cells wererecruited under a variety of "false flags,"

the officer says. In the earliestversion of the plot, hatched in 1988 in

response to the accidental downing ofan Iranian Airbus by the USS Vincennes

in the Persian Gulf, the Arab recruitswere told that they were hijacking U.S.

airliners, not crashing them, and wouldfly to Cyprus and on to Baghdad "where

they would be greeted as heroes."


The former intelligence officer says hereceived a coded message from inside

Iran one week before the Sept. 11attacks, signaling that the Shaitan der

artash plan had been reactivated. Hesays he contacted the German

intelligence agency, the BND, and thelegal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in

Berlin. U.S. government officials tellInsight that the FBI now claims it didn't

receive the defector's warning untilafter Sept. 11.


To carry out the plan, a privatecompany connected to the Iranian government

purchased a Boeing 757 simulatorthrough the European Airbus consortium 18

months before the attacks, the defectortells Insight. One of the individuals

who purchased the simulator in Pariswas in the United States on Sept. 11, he



Iranian defectors and U.S.counterintelligence officials have been warning for

years of Iran's increasing preferenceto use Arabs and other non-Iranian

Muslims for terrorist operations. "Itprovides them deniability," a U.S.

investigator tells Insight. "If you arethe government of Iran, you don't want to

leave fingerprints that could tie youto these attacks. Unlike bin Laden, you've

got real assets that can be targetedand destroyed. The United States has an

excellent track record of attackingsuch targets, so any regime that openly

engaged in anti-U.S. terrorism wouldhave to be motivated by an extraordinary

urge to self-destruction. Not likely."


In Europe, for many years the Iranianshave used Lebanese nationals who

were able to enter European countrieswith relative ease, say U.S. intelligence

specialists. In the United States, theyhave turned increasingly to Egyptian and

Saudi citizens, who face fewerrestrictions when they apply for visas.


Another immediate concern for U.S.counterintelligence is a group known as

Anjoman Islami, whose members morefrequently go by the more prosaic

name of the Muslim StudentsAssociation-Persian Speakers Group (MSA/PSG).


On Feb. 4, 1999, then-FBI directorLouis Freeh made an extraordinary public

statement about the dangers presentedby Anjoman Islami: "There are still

significant numbers of Iranian studentsattending United States universities

and technical institutes. A significantnumber of these students are hard-core

members of the pro-Iranian studentorganization known as the Anjoman

Islami, which is comprised almostexclusively of fanatical, anti-American,

Iranian Shiite Muslims. The Iraniangovernment relies heavily upon these

students studying in the United Statesfor low-level intelligence and technical

expertise. However, the Anjoman Islamialso represents a significant resource

base upon which the government of Irancan draw to maintain the capability to

mount operations against the UnitedStates, if it so decides."


In the United States, the group worksout of mosques and schools owned by

the state-run Alavi Foundation,including the Islamic Center in Potomac, Md.,

U.S. officials tell Insight.


"Without a doubt this is the mostdangerous Iranian government-controlled

group currently operating in the UnitedStates," one U.S. government

investigator tells Insight. "If theyreceived orders, we believe they could be

called into action to assassinateIranian political leaders living in exile, in

addition to the intelligence-gatheringtasks they now perform."


The United States is seeking theextradition from Iran of Hezbollah military

chief Mugniyeh and Saudi national Ahmedal-Mughassil, identified as the head

of the Saudi Hezbollah movement thatplanned and carried out the bombing of

a U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran,Saudi Arabia, in 1996 that killed 19 U.S.

servicemen. Al-Mughassil and 13 allegedcoconspirators were named in an

indictment handed down in the EasternDistrict of Virginia in June. "Their

movement was directed by elements ofthe Iranian government," the

indictment charges, and used theIranian Embassy to ferry troops into Lebanon

for terrorist training at camps run byLebanese Hezbollah members. Members

of the group conducted surveillance ofU.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia "at the

direction of an Iranian militaryofficer."


President George W. Bush has statedrepeatedly that countries are either "with

us or against us" in the war againstterror, but State Department officials

believe that is "too simple" a formula."We are looking to widen as much as

possible the coalition to combatinternational terrorism," Greg Sullivan, a

spokesman for the Near East Affairsbureau, tells Insight. "The Iranian

government has sent us encouragingstatements, but we are interested in

seeing an Iran that changes itsbehavior. We have not minced words on how

we feel about Iran's support forterrorism, but if we can agree that getting rid

of this threat is in our commoninterest, that's positive. It's not all or nothing."


Sullivan said there were "no plans" fordirect talks with Iranian President

Khatami or a one-on-one meeting betweenSecretary of State Colin Powell and

his Iranian counterpart, KamalKharazzi, who met this week in New York City as

part of multilateral talks onAfghanistan sponsored by the United Nations.

While the United States "obviouslywants" Iran to extradite wanted terrorists

Imad Mugniyeh and Ahmad Mughassil,"raising those issues at the United

Nations meeting would beinappropriate," Sullivan said.


Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writerfor Insight magazine.       


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