The Magazine

Iran Amok

Tehran plays host to al Qaeda.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By DAN DARLING
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Whether the government ever followed up is doubtful, given U.S. officials' frequent assurances that Iran was not involved in the 9/11 attacks--a claim not found in the 9/11 report. Yet in July 2004, the New York Times did report that "the United States was actively investigating ties between the Iranian government and al Qaeda, including intelligence unearthed by the independent 9/11 Commission showing that Iran may have offered safe passage to terrorists who were later involved in the attacks." The Times quoted President Bush as saying, "We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved."

If a serious investigation of these events was indeed launched following the publication of the commission's final report on July 22, 2004, it would seem to be in the public interest to disclose what, if anything, the inquiry turned up. What do we know about these events now that we didn't know in 2004?

Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda's relationship with Iran appears to have grown stronger. As the Washington Post reported in September 2003, "After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the locus of al Qaeda's degraded leadership moved to Iran. The Iranian security services, which answer to the country's powerful Islamic clerics, protected the leadership." The Post identified these leaders as al Qaeda military chief Saif al-Adel, chief ideologue Mahfouz Ould Walid, finance chief Abu Mohammed al-Masri, al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri's deputy Abu Khayr, propaganda chief Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and Osama bin Laden's son and heir apparent, Saad.

The al Qaeda leadership appears to have operated more or less with impunity inside Iran until May 2003, thanks to its close ties to the elite Qods Force unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Citing a European intelligence official, the Post noted that after the fall of the Taliban, Zawahiri (whose relationship with Qods Force goes back at least a decade), negotiated safe harbor in Iran for much of the surviving al Qaeda leadership. Numerous media reports listed then-future Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi among them. As a European intelligence analyst explained to the Washington Post in October 2003, Qods Force is "a state within a state, and that is why they are able to offer protection to al Qaeda. The force's senior leaders have long-standing ties to al Qaeda and, since the fall of Afghanistan, have provided some al Qaeda leaders with travel documents and safe haven." It was from Iran that al Qaeda military chief Saif al-Adel ordered the May 2003 Riyadh bombings in Saudi Arabia that killed 34, including 8 Americans.

Since late 2003, the exact status of the al Qaeda leaders in Iran has been murky at best. The Iranian government claims that any al Qaeda members on its territory are in custody. But what kind of custody? MSNBC's Investigative Unit noted in June 2005,

According to reports in the Arab media, [the al Qaeda leaders] were rounded up and taken to two locations guarded by Iran's Revolutionary Guards: one in villas in the Namak Abrud region, near the town of Chalous on the Caspian coast, 60 miles north of Tehran, and the other in Lavizan, a region northwest of the capital that also houses a large military complex.

The London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat further reported in July 2004: "More than 384 members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations are present in Iran, including 18 senior leaders of Osama bin Laden's network." The paper attributed the information to a source close to the Iranian presidency. When Tom Brokaw asked CIA director Porter Goss about the al Qaeda leaders active in Iran, Goss answered, "I think your understanding is that there is a group of leadership of al Qaeda under some type of detention--I don't know exactly what type, necessarily--in Iran is probably accurate."

Most of the reporting on the al Qaeda leaders in Iran has assumed that the individuals in question are being constrained in their activities and that the regime could be persuaded to hand them over in return for certain concessions--such as the release of the leadership of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a Marxist anti-Iranian terrorist group that was extensively supported by Saddam Hussein and many of whose members were captured by U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom.