The Magazine

Iran Amok

Tehran plays host to al Qaeda.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By DAN DARLING
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"IRAN CONTINUES TO HOST senior al Qaeda leaders who are wanted for murdering Americans and other victims in the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings. We have called repeatedly for these terrorists to be handed over to states that will prosecute them and bring them to justice. We believe that some al Qaeda members and those from like-minded extremist groups continue to use Iran as a safe haven and as a hub to facilitate their operations."

So said a high State Department official in a speech in Washington on November 30. The assertions by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns were nothing new. Though often overlooked, they have been the position of the U.S. government for some time. As discussion of Iran's nuclear program and its hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intensifies, Iranian aid to al Qaeda should not be allowed to drop off the radar screen.

A careful review of what is known about this matter--even a review confined to public sources--shows that Iran has long maintained ties to al Qaeda and has assisted the group in refining its terrorist capabilities. During the years of Taliban rule, Tehran allowed al Qaeda members, including some future 9/11 hijackers, to transit its territory en route to and from Afghanistan. Nor has this support waned since the Taliban's fall. To this day, much of the surviving al Qaeda leadership is based in Iran, enjoying the protection of the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Tehran has been supporting terrorist groups ever since the mullahs came to power in 1979. According to the State Department's annual report Patterns of Global Terrorism, the Shiite regime has aided outfits as ideologically and religiously diverse as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, GIA, GSPC, and Hizb-e-Islami--all of them Sunni Muslim--along with the Marxist groups Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK)--that last, despite Iran's concern over any move towards autonomy on the part of its own Kurdish minority. Clearly, the mullahs do not consider ideological or religious purity a prerequisite for cooperation.

It is not surprising, then, to find the 9/11 Commission Report tracing Iranian involvement with al Qaeda as far back as the early 1990s. "In late 1991 or early 1992," the report says,

discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support--even if only training--for actions carried out against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives.

Contrary to much academic opinion, the commission noted that "Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations."

More training took place in Lebanon. Says the 9/11 report, "In the fall of 1993, another such [al Qaeda] delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon," a longtime stronghold of Hezbollah, "for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983," the heaviest U.S. loss in a single engagement since the Vietnam war. According to Rohan Gunaratna's Inside Al Qaeda, among the al Qaeda members who traveled to Lebanon was Saif al-Adel, a senior leader who would later emerge as a key figure in Iran's relationship with Osama bin Laden's group.

Contacts between "Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures [persisted] after bin Laden's return to Afghanistan" in 1996, according to the 9/11 report. In particular, there is "strong" evidence of Iranian involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing of June 1996, in which 19 Americans died, as well as "signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown," in that attack. Two years later, the Clinton administration's formal indictment of bin Laden charged that he was allied with both Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. After the USS Cole bombing in 2000, the 9/11 report says, Iran made a "concerted effort" to "strengthen relations with al Qaeda."

More ominously, the 9/11 Commission describes as "strong" the evidence, provided by al Qaeda operatives in U.S. custody, that "Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers. There is also circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000." While finding no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for the 9/11 attack, the commission concluded that "this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government."