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
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. AsInsightmag.com 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
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,"
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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