Issue: 06/24/03

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Defector Alleges Iranian Involvement in Sept. 11 Attacks

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Zakeri's letter in Farsi (jpeg file)

Zakeri's letter in English

Zakeri list of 149 MOIS operatives involved in international terrorism (requires Farsi fonts in browser)


An even more devastating terrorism charge could be laid on Iran's doorstep if intelligence reports linking Iran to al-Qaeda are confirmed. Insight has learned of new links between top Iranian intelligence officials and the al-Qaeda leadership that suggest direct Iranian government involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. mainland. Documents and information provided to this magazine by a recent Iranian defector, if confirmed as authentic, could open a new front in the war on terror.

The defector, Hamid Reza Zakeri, says he worked in the intelligence office of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini and personally handled security at two meetings in Iran between top al-Qaeda operatives and Iranian officials just months before Sept. 11. Zakeri spoke to Insight about these ties last week by telephone from an undisclosed location. His information dovetailed with an earlier report on Iran's ties with al-Qaeda, produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency, that this magazine first revealed in November 2001 [see "Iran Cosponsors al-Qaeda Terrorism"].

Zakeri backed up his account of the two meetings between al-Qaeda and Iran with a document signed by Hojjatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, who heads the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) for Khameini. The letter, dated May 14, 2001, carried instructions from Khameini to MOIS regarding relations with al-Qaeda. In it, Nateq-Nouri quoted Khameini as ordering MOIS to "strike at [America's] economic structure, their reputation - and their internal peace and security." Above all, Khameini said, "we should be very careful and very clever, so as not to leave behind any evidence that could negatively impact our future standing or policies."

In closing the letter, Nateq-Nouri instructed his counterpart at MOIS, Hojjatoleslam Mustafa Pourghanad, to work to "improve our plans, especially in coordination with fighters of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah to find one objective that is beneficial to both sides." Above all, he added, "the Leader mentioned that we should limit our relations with al-Qaeda to just two people, as before - Imad Mugniyeh and Ayman al-Zawahiri - and deal only with them."

The letter from Nateq-Nouri was written just days after the second of two recent top-level meetings between an al-Qaeda delegation and the Iranian leadership, Zakeri tells Insight.

The first meeting took place in January 2001, when top Osama bin Laden deputy al-Zawahiri traveled to Iran from Afghanistan for a four-day meeting, accompanied by 29 other al-Qaeda leaders. "Zawahiri told my boss, Musfafa Hadadian, that they were planning a 'major operation' against the United States and Israel," Zakeri tells Insight. That meeting was held at a special mountain guest house near the town of Varamin outside Tehran. Zakeri says he handled security for the meeting.

According to Zakeri he did not speak with the Arabs who attended the meeting, but bases his account on what he was told by his boss and his colleagues in Iranian intelligence. "After the meeting, 12 of them stayed on in Iran," he says. "They were talking about their 'plans for the future,' and that they had the 'same enemy' as the Iranians. They said they were trying to build up one movement to cooperate together, and were asking Iran for operational support, equipment and money-laundering help in Dubai, as well as assistance with travel documents to help them travel from Iran to Europe. Ayman al-Zawahiri told my boss that al-Qaeda was 'very soon' going to make a major operation against the United States." Zakeri says that Nateq-Nouri, a former speaker of the Iranian parliament and top aide to Khameini, led the Iranian delegation and was assisted by Ali Akbar Parvaresh, the former education minister cited in the AIMA bombing case. Parvaresh was a member of Section 43, the planning unit of the intelligence ministry, Zakeri says.

A U.S. intelligence official who tracks Iran confirmed the role of Parvaresh and of Section 43 in planning terrorist operations.

The talks with al-Zawahiri went so well that bin Laden dispatched his eldest son, Saad bin Laden, on a return trip to Iran exactly four months and seven days before Sept. 11, according to Zakeri. The younger bin Laden was flown from the Tayebat border crossing with Afghanistan to the Damavand air base outside Tehran. "He came with three other people," Zakeri says. "They were not introduced to me and spoke Arabic amongst themselves. But Saad spoke good English." Zakeri says he stayed in Iran for three weeks but held just one official meeting, which took place at 3 a.m. at Khomeini's former meeting house in Jamaran, on the slopes of the Elburz Mountains in Tehran's northern suburbs. Present were all five members of the Leadership Council, Zakeri says: Khameini, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi, Mahdavi Kani and Ali Meshkini.

It was at that meeting, on May 4, 2001, that final plans for the attack on the U.S. mainland were made, Zakeri believes. Shortly afterward, he recalls seeing a striking exhibit in the entry hall to the main headquarters of the MOIS in Tehran. "It was a model of the World Trade Center, the White House, the Pentagon and Camp David," he says. "From the ceiling, a missile was suspended, as if to strike the buildings. 'Death to America' was written on its side in Arabic, not Farsi."

Zakeri says the intelligence ministry frequently displayed in the same entry hall photographs of Iranian dissidents it planned to assassinate. It also was used as a prayer room and amphitheater. "Everyone saw it, and after 9/11, everybody understood what it meant," he says.

As a trusted security official, Zakeri had a diplomatic passport with permanent visas, allowing him to leave the country at will. He tells Insight he traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, where he met with officials at the U. S. Embassy on July 26, 2001, including the CIA station chief. I warned them that something big was going to happen on Sept. 10. I didn't know what it was, we argued and I left. The CIA said they didn't want to work with me," Zakeri says.

A U.S. intelligence official categorically denied that Zakeri had delivered such a warning. "We have no record that he made such a claim. He is a fabricator of monumental proportion." The official did not deny that the meeting had taken place. A spokesman for the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism, Joe Reap, referred Insight's inquiries about Zakeri's July 26 warning to the Joint Intelligence Committee in Congress that is investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. "You're asking me to reveal intelligence information," Reap said testily. "I'm not going to do that."

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.

For more on this story, read "Evidence Fuels Iran Terror Debate."