The Hidden Hand
The Obama administration finally highlights Iran’s key role in supporting al Qaeda
The training provided by Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah would prove crucial in al Qaeda’s evolution from a ragtag band of veterans from the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan to a sophisticated global terror network. On August 7, 1998, al Qaeda detonated two truck bombs nearly simultaneously at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The twin attacks, which left hundreds of victims dead (mainly Muslims), were al Qaeda’s most successful terrorist operation prior to 9/11. According to the 9/11 Commission, al Qaeda began developing the “tactical expertise” for this operation in the early 1990s—in Hezbollah’s Lebanese training camps. Osama bin Laden’s “particular interest” in the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks had paid off. Iran and Hezbollah showed al Qaeda how to execute the same type of attack.
When the Clinton administration’s federal prosecutors indicted al Qaeda members for the embassy bombings in late 1998, they specifically referenced the deal between Iran and al Qaeda. The indictment reads: “USAMA BIN LADEN, the defendant, and al Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with representatives of 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.” During the trial, U.S. authorities learned that Saif al Adel, a top-ranking member of al Qaeda’s military committee, was one of the operatives who received training from Hezbollah.
At the same time, Taliban leader Mullah Omar sought to improve relations with Iran. In 1998, a Taliban attack in Mazar-e-Sharif killed visiting Iranian diplomats and nearly resulted in armed conflict. To defuse those tensions, Mullah Omar appointed one of his most trusted commanders as governor of Afghanistan’s Herat province, which borders Iran. The governor, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, was tasked with opening a backdoor for negotiations with the Iranians. It worked.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, there are strong suggestions that the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda not only improved but strengthened. Shortly before the commission released its final report, staffers tapped into a large cache of intelligence linking Iran and Hezbollah to al Qaeda. The intelligence showed a series of suspicious flights taken by the muscle hijackers. Some of the flights were routed through Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based and controls the airport. Interestingly, most of the muscle hijackers also transited through Iran en route to the United States. The commission did not make any definitive judgments, but concluded: “We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”
If there was further investigation, its results have never been made public.
After the 9/11 attacks, Iran sought to distance itself from al Qaeda—at least in public. But behind the scenes, the story was different. As the Taliban’s Afghanistan fell to American-led forces in late 2001, al Qaeda and Taliban leaders scrambled to find new safe havens. Many of them resettled in Pakistan, both in rough tribal areas and in cities such as Quetta, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, and Karachi. Since the start of the Afghanistan war, many of the high-profile captures and kills of senior al Qaeda operatives have occurred inside Pakistan’s borders.
One of those captured was Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, the man Mullah Omar assigned to seek better relations with Iran. Over the course of his detention at the U.S. facility at Guantánamo Bay, Khairkhwa has told interrogators about his work toward that aim. Court documents earlier this summer revealed that Khairkhwa “has repeatedly admitted that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he . . . met clandestinely with senior Iranian officials to discuss Iran’s offer to provide the Taliban with weapons and other military support in anticipation of imminent hostilities with U.S. coalition forces.” That meeting occurred in October 2001. In other words, Iran decided nearly a decade ago to support the Taliban’s war against American forces.
As the fighting in Afghanistan intensified in the fall of 2001, not all of al Qaeda’s most senior operatives went south to Pakistan. Many went west—to Iran. In January 2009, the Treasury Department issued its first designation of al Qaeda terrorists living in Iran. Four al Qaeda members were fingered: Saad bin Laden, one of Osama’s oldest sons; Mustafa Hamid, who was described as the “primary interlocutor between al Qaeda and the Government of Iran”; Muhammad Rab’a al Sayid al Bahtiyti, the son-in-law of the new al Qaeda chieftain, Ayman al Zawahiri; and Ali Saleh Husain, who “facilitated the move of al Qaeda-associated fighters, including an al Qaeda military commander, from Afghanistan to Iran” in late 2001.
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