Nov. 12, 2001
Issue date: 12/03/01
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami came to New York City on Nov. 8 to
attend a U.N. summit as U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies
explored new information tying his regime's intelligence services to Sept. 11
and to previous anti-American terrorist attacks, Insight has learned.
The information is coming from a variety of sources and shows a clear pattern
of operational contacts between the Iranian government and Osama bin
Laden's al-Qaeda organization. These contacts include joint planning of
terrorist operations, military training of bin Laden operatives inside Iran and by
Iranian personnel in Syria and Lebanon, financial assistance to clandestine
terrorist and surveillance cells, false passports, communications and, in one
case, the direct supply of explosives by Iran for a major terrorist attack carried
out by al-Qaeda.
Some of the details, provided to federal grand juries impaneled in New York
state and Virginia, remain under seal in ongoing cases against fugitive
terrorists. But other information has been vetted and circulated to top U.S. war
planners in finished intelligence products during the last two weeks.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz 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 highly classified material was based on "solid
reporting and hard evidence," a source says. It laid out a pattern of
Iranian-government ties to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which joined forces with
bin Laden's group in February 1998 to form the World Islamic Front for Jihad
Against Jews and Crusaders.
Bin Laden's top deputy, former Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman
al-Zawahiri, is believed by U.S. investigators to have masterminded the Sept.
11 attacks and to have been tapped as bin Laden's successor should he be
killed or die of what some believe are serious kidney and bone-marrow
Throughout the 1990s, Zawahiri traveled repeatedly to Iran as the guest of
Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Fallahian and the head of foreign
terrorist operations, Ahmad Vahidi. Vahidi is the commander of the Qods force,
a special-operations unit that conducts foreign terrorist operations, several
In recent months, Egyptian Islamic Jihad commandos have transited in large
numbers through the Iranian city of Mashad en route to Afghanistan to join bin
Laden's ranks, according to U.S. and European intelligence reports obtained by
Insight. The Iranian route was chosen because bin Laden believes U.S.
intelligence officials are monitoring Pakistani airports and were responsible for
the arrest of several of his top operatives during the last six years. These
included Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 and was
arrested in Pakistan in 1995 and returned to the United States, and Mir Aimal
Kansi, who gunned down CIA employees in front of the agency's Langley, Va.,
headquarters in January 1993 and was arrested in Pakistan and returned to
the U.S. in 1997.
In early September, roughly one week before the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran
suddenly closed the border crossing at Mashad to the Egyptian jihadis,
according to these reports. U.S. officials believe it was because the Iranians
knew a major terrorist attack was about to occur and didn't want to give the
United States cause for military retaliation against Iran, which has high-value
targets vulnerable to U.S. cruise missiles and stealth bombers.
"The Egyptian jihadis are providing the foot soldiers for bin Laden's
organization," one U.S. intelligence official tells Insight. "It's not at all
surprising to see cross-fertilization going on between them and the Iranian
In early October, a European intelligence official adds, fugitive Lebanese
terrorist Imad Mugniyeh met in Mashad with a senior Iranian intelligence officer
and an Iraqi identified as "a top deputy to Saddam Hussein in charge of
intelligence matters" apparently to discuss cooperation with bin Laden and the
Taliban in Afghanistan. Although the Iranian government long has opposed
the Taliban, since the U.S. bombings began they have harshly criticized the
United States and offered to deliver Gulbadin Hekmatiar, a radical Islamist
Afghani leader living in exile in Tehran, back to the Taliban fold.
Meanwhile, Insight learned, Iranian defectors and former Iranian intelligence
officials have said an element of the Iranian government had foreknowledge
of the Sept. 11 attacks. As Insightmag.com reported two days after the attacks
(see "Top Iranian Official Seeks Safe Haven"), a senior Iranian official
telephoned a relative in Los Angeles within three hours of the attacks seeking
to send his wife and children to what he called a "safe haven" in the United
States. The official also provided details of an Iranian-government
disinformation campaign to pin responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks on the
Japanese Red Army &emdash; with details that were not released when the story first
ran that same day on a pro-Iranian TV station in Lebanon.
More hard evidence of Iran's ties to bin Laden was provided in startling
testimony before a New York court on Oct. 20, 2000, by Ali Mohamed, who
pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens in the
Tanzania and Kenya embassy bombings by bin Laden's organization in July
The Egyptian-born Mohamed told the court he tried to penetrate U.S.
intelligence agencies as a double agent for bin Laden in the early 1980s but
ultimately was rejected by suspicious U.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 Middle East politics at Fort Bragg, N.C. In 1989
he traveled to Afghanistan where he hooked up with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and
bin Laden. By his own admission he then began training al-Qaeda terrorists in
"military and basic explosives" as well as intelligence-surveillance techniques
for use in anti-American terrorist attacks.
Mohamed testified that he personally "arranged security for a meeting in the
Sudan between Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's chief, and bin Laden." The
Lebanese-born Mugniyeh reports directly to Iranian military intelligence and
lives in Iran, according to U.S. and European intelligence reports. Mugniyeh was
placed on the most-wanted list of the world's top 22 terrorists for a string of
anti-American attacks, including the 1985 murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert
Stethem onboard a hijacked TWA airliner in Beirut. Following the meeting
between Mugniyeh and bin Laden, "Hezbollah provided explosives training for
al-Qaeda and al-Jihad," Mohamed testified. "Iran supplied Egyptian Islamic
Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were
disguised to look like rocks."
The federal grand jury that indicted bin Laden in 1998 for the embassy
bombings described the operational support al-Qaeda received from
governments in explicit terms: "Al-Qaeda also forged alliances with the
National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with the government of Iran and its
associated terrorist group Hezbollah for the purpose of working together
against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United
States," the indictment says. Mohamed testified that "much of this type of
training is actually carried out at a training camp there, in Iran, run by the
Iranian Ministry of Information and Security." Even more damning comments
were made by Mohamed under seal, because James Owens, one of the victims
of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania, told the court at a sentencing
hearing last month for the convicted bombers that "Iran provided the
explosives for the bombings which have brought us here today." Despite this
evidence of operational ties between Iran and the network that blew up the
U.S. embassies, no Iranian official has yet been publicly indicted for the
Many Middle East analysts in the United States and international Muslim
leaders insist there can be no cooperation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims
because of historic enmities that make the feud between Protestants and
Catholics in Ireland look tame (see "A Faith With Many Faces," Nov. 19).
Omar Bakri Mohammad, a cleric in London who professed to be close to bin
Laden, told this reporter three years ago that Sunni-Shia hostilities prevented
any cooperation with Iran by bin Laden operatives. He since has been arrested
in connection with the Sept. 11 probe.
Similarly, in Washington, Khaled Saffuri of the Islamic Institute tells Insight
that "For ideological reasons, I believe it is very unlikely there are any ties
between bin Laden and Iran."
Evidence from court cases, former Iranian-government intelligence officers and
U.S. counterintelligence officials involved in the Sept. 11 investigation now is
emerging that proves these traditional views dangerously wrong. "Think of it
this way," an FBI investigator tells Insight. "It's like Republican and Democratic
party members on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf who are today working
together for a common purpose against a common enemy. For them, the
United States is that enemy."
U.S. officials now believe that a better way of understanding the ties among
terrorist groups is not the traditional organization chart, but a more fluid matrix
that sets out the personal relationships among individual terrorists. "This is a
relatively small universe," a top investigator tells Insight. "They tend to
cooperate across party lines, sometimes formally, sometimes not. It's more
important to know who knows who than which organization is supported by
Once the terrorists cycle through Afghanistan and return to their home
countries or fight in other wars, says a U.S. intelligence analyst for this region,
they meet other terrorists and get to know each other's specialty. "Johnny
might be an expert at planting explosives in boom boxes. Jerry might be good
at procuring false documents. It's that type of cooperation," the analyst says.
Former CIA director R. James Woolsey, now a partner at the Shea & Gardner
law firm in Washington, tells Insight he long believed there was room in
terrorist "joint ventures" for three or more players. "I've seen more evidence of
Iraqi involvement but wouldn't be surprised to see Iranian involvement with bin
Laden given the past history of Iranian terrorist activities in the 1990s,"
A former Iranian-government intelligence officer who has defected to the West
tells Insight during telephone interviews from Germany that he personally
informed the FBI at the beginning of September of a plot by Iran to crash
civilian jumbo jets into the World Trade 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 use of Arab "muscle men" to hijack the
airliners. "Only the men leading the cells were Iranians," he says, "and they
were recruited from among Iran's Arab-speaking population" in the southwest
province of Khouzistan, bordering Iraq.
The other members of the cells were recruited under a variety of "false flags,"
the officer says. In the earliest version of the plot, hatched in 1988 in
response to the accidental downing of an Iranian Airbus by the USS Vincennes
in the Persian Gulf, the Arab recruits were told that they were hijacking U.S.
airliners, not crashing them, and would fly to Cyprus and on to Baghdad "where
they would be greeted as heroes."
The former intelligence officer says he received a coded message from inside
Iran one week before the Sept. 11 attacks, signaling that the Shaitan der
artash plan had been reactivated. He says he contacted the German
intelligence agency, the BND, and the legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in
Berlin. U.S. government officials tell Insight that the FBI now claims it didn't
receive the defector's warning until after Sept. 11.
To carry out the plan, a private company connected to the Iranian government
purchased a Boeing 757 simulator through the European Airbus consortium 18
months before the attacks, the defector tells Insight. One of the individuals
who purchased the simulator in Paris was in the United States on Sept. 11, he
Iranian defectors and U.S. counterintelligence officials have been warning for
years of Iran's increasing preference to use Arabs and other non-Iranian
Muslims for terrorist operations. "It provides them deniability," a U.S.
investigator tells Insight. "If you are the government of Iran, you don't want to
leave fingerprints that could tie you to these attacks. Unlike bin Laden, you've
got real assets that can be targeted and destroyed. The United States has an
excellent track record of attacking such targets, so any regime that openly
engaged in anti-U.S. terrorism would have to be motivated by an extraordinary
urge to self-destruction. Not likely."
In Europe, for many years the Iranians have used Lebanese nationals who
were able to enter European countries with relative ease, say U.S. intelligence
specialists. In the United States, they have turned increasingly to Egyptian and
Saudi citizens, who face fewer restrictions when they apply for visas.
Another immediate concern for U.S. counterintelligence is a group known as
Anjoman Islami, whose members more frequently go by the more prosaic
name of the Muslim Students Association-Persian Speakers Group (MSA/PSG).
On Feb. 4, 1999, then-FBI director Louis Freeh made an extraordinary public
statement about the dangers presented by Anjoman Islami: "There are still
significant numbers of Iranian students attending United States universities
and technical institutes. A significant number of these students are hard-core
members of the pro-Iranian student organization known as the Anjoman
Islami, which is comprised almost exclusively of fanatical, anti-American,
Iranian Shiite Muslims. The Iranian government relies heavily upon these
students studying in the United States for low-level intelligence and technical
expertise. However, the Anjoman Islami also represents a significant resource
base upon which the government of Iran can draw to maintain the capability to
mount operations against the United States, if it so decides."
In the United States, the group works out 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 most dangerous Iranian government-controlled
group currently operating in the United States," one U.S. government
investigator tells Insight. "If they received orders, we believe they could be
called into action to assassinate Iranian political leaders living in exile, in
addition to the intelligence-gathering tasks they now perform."
The United States is seeking the extradition from Iran of Hezbollah military
chief Mugniyeh and Saudi national Ahmed al-Mughassil, identified as the head
of the Saudi Hezbollah movement that planned 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 alleged coconspirators were named in an
indictment handed down in the Eastern District of Virginia in June. "Their
movement was directed by elements of the Iranian government," the
indictment charges, and used the Iranian Embassy to ferry troops into Lebanon
for terrorist training at camps run by Lebanese Hezbollah members. Members
of the group conducted surveillance of U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia "at the
direction of an Iranian military officer."
President George W. Bush has stated repeatedly that countries are either "with
us or against us" in the war against terror, but State Department officials
believe that is "too simple" a formula. "We are looking to widen as much as
possible the coalition to combat international terrorism," Greg Sullivan, a
spokesman for the Near East Affairs bureau, tells Insight. "The Iranian
government has sent us encouraging statements, but we are interested in
seeing an Iran that changes its behavior. We have not minced words on how
we feel about Iran's support for terrorism, but if we can agree that getting rid
of this threat is in our common interest, that's positive. It's not all or nothing."
Sullivan said there were "no plans" for direct talks with Iranian President
Khatami or a one-on-one meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and
his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazzi, who met this week in New York City as
part of multilateral talks on Afghanistan sponsored by the United Nations.
While the United States "obviously wants" Iran to extradite wanted terrorists
Imad Mugniyeh and Ahmad Mughassil, "raising those issues at the United
Nations meeting would be inappropriate," Sullivan said.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.
Click here for reprint information.
Email this article to a friend.
Print this article in an easy-to-read format.