Skip to comments.Investigative Report: Iran Cosponsors Al-Qaeda Terrorism
Posted on 11/12/2001 12:17:17 PM PST by Stand Watch Listen
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 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.
Does anyone know anything about this journalist, or about Insight Magazine?
What I have seen of insight Magazine is credible from a primarily libertarian-conservative position. Dont know the writer and my experience with Insight is somewhat limited.
K. Timmerman is quite good as an investigative reporter. It's a shame that FR archives are not available now for either source and/or author. Otherwise you would been able to examine many of the offerings yourself.
I've posted Insight articles the entire time I've been on FR
Fidel May Be Part of Terror Campaign
Source: insight mag;Published: November 9, 2001
Author: Martin Arostegui
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