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InsightMag.com

Investigative Report

Iran Cosponsors Al-Qaeda Terrorism       

       By Kenneth R. Timmerman

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

ailments.

 

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

reports say.

 

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

government."

 

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

1998.

 

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

bombing.

 

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

which state."

 

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,"

Woolsey says.

 

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

adds.

 

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.        

 

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