An al Qaeda cell slated to take part in one of the final plots ordered by Osama bin Laden made use of an Iran-based terror network that, according to the Obama administration, operates “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” That revelation has emerged from legal proceedings in Germany, including the trial of Ahmad Wali Siddiqui, an al Qaeda recruit who took the stand for the first time last week in Koblenz.
We observed two days of Siddiqui’s testimony. Thus far, prosecutors have allowed the gregarious defendant to do most of the talking. Cleanshaven, he has sought to present a sharply different demeanor than the one he displayed as a bearded jihadist in propaganda films shown to the court. Still, his disturbing narrative provided an extraordinary window into the inner workings of al Qaeda and allied organizations.
The alleged terror recruit, with dual German and Afghan citizenship, has discussed the time he and his fellow plotters spent at the same mosque attended by al Qaeda’s 9/11 Hamburg cell, as well as his own transformation into a violent jihadist. “We wanted to fight . . . against Americans,” Siddiqui told the court. Wiretapped conversations played by prosecutors have provided additional insight into Siddiqui’s extremist worldview. During one telephone call to his mother he explained the difference between living in the West and living, as he was then, among the believers: “Life in Germany is not good. You live with gays, lesbians, and Jews. Islam rules here.”
Siddiqui initially joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a terrorist organization closely allied with al Qaeda, in northern Pakistan. He quickly migrated to al Qaeda itself.
According to the indictment, senior terrorists decided to send Siddiqui back to Germany to take part in a potentially devastating attack intended “to weaken Europe’s economy.” In the fall of 2010, Western intelligence officials learned that Osama bin Laden had ordered attacks in several cities that were supposed to mirror the November 2008 siege of Mumbai. After Siddiqui was captured in Afghanistan, he revealed the nascent plot.
In testimony before the court, Siddiqui described how he and his co-conspirators planned different travel routes in order to avoid suspicion beginning in early 2009. But their travels had a common theme: Iran was their principal gateway to jihad.
According to Siddiqui, two of his co-conspirators—Rami Makanesi and Naamen Meziche—traveled from Vienna to Tehran in order “to not get caught.” Their trip was booked in a Hamburg travel office by an unknown Iranian. Siddiqui explained that the pair could not travel directly to Pakistan because they are Arabs. Pakistani authorities would have questioned the duo’s intentions and perhaps detained them, but by traveling through Iran they avoided such scrutiny.
When Makanesi and Meziche arrived in Tehran, Siddiqui explained, they called a facilitator known as “Dr. Mamoud,” who works for the IMU. The two were ushered to Zahedan, a city on the eastern border of Iran, close to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. There, Siddiqui says, Dr. Mamoud “welcomed them.”
Zahedan is a well-known hub of al Qaeda and IMU activity. The IMU has repeatedly used the city’s Makki mosque, the largest Sunni mosque in Iran, to shuttle fighters into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda has an established presence there, too. For instance, before his May 2011 suicide at Guantánamo, an Afghan detainee named Inayatullah admitted to authorities that he was al Qaeda’s emir of Zahedan, from where he delivered recruits to senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Even since Inayatullah’s capture, al Qaeda fighters have continued to travel through Zahedan, as Makanesi and Meziche did.
Meziche has long been known to European counterterrorism officials. His father-in-law, Mohamed al-Fazazi, was a radical preacher whose sermons and spiritual advice guided al Qaeda’s 9/11 Hamburg cell. Meziche was reportedly close to Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker in the 9/11 attacks, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, al Qaeda’s point man for the 9/11 operation. Bin al-Shibh reportedly tried to call Meziche just days before the 9/11 attacks. Meziche was later implicated in Al Qaeda in Iraq’s operations after European officials found that he had been recruiting fighters for the organization.
According to Der Spiegel, senior al Qaeda terrorists instructed Meziche and another member of the cell, an Iranian national named Shahab Dashti, to travel to Iran where “they would be told where in Europe they were to be deployed to begin building structures for bin Laden’s organization.” Once in Iran, Dashti “was to undergo facial plastic surgery” because he had already appeared in a propaganda video and was therefore recognizable to European authorities. However, Dashti did not get a chance to fool Western intelligence officials, because he was killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan in early October 2010, after the Mumbai-style plot was uncovered.
Initial reports indicated that Meziche was killed in the same drone strike, but he survived it and is now being sheltered by the Iranians. The New York Times reported in January that Meziche and several other members of the cell are “waiting in Iran, trying to return to Europe.” European authorities are not eager to see them come back, as they pose obvious security risks.
Anonymous U.S. officials interviewed by the Times described Meziche and one of his Iran-based compatriots as “lower midlevel” al Qaeda operatives. “These two have been involved in al Qaeda external operations activities for some time now,” one official said. Citing multiple intelligence sources, the New York Times explained that “Iran appears to be harboring them in hopes that, when and if they leave, they will cause trouble in the West.”
Rami Makanesi, who set off for Tehran with Meziche, was not as fortunate. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 and sentenced to nearly five years in prison last year by a Frankfurt court.
Makanesi has his own ties to Iran-based al Qaeda operatives. According to Guido Steinberg, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of the German Institute for International Security Affairs, Makanesi met a top al Qaeda operative known as Yassin al-Suri in February 2010. Steinberg, in his analysis brief for IHS Jane’s, a military and intelligence consulting group, explains that Suri asked Makanesi to “accompany him to Iran.” Makanesi said that Suri “was responsible for funneling money and recruits via Iran and that he was known to cooperate with the Iranian government.”
Indeed, in July 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department revealed that Suri operates in Iran as part of a “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda. Treasury contends that Suri’s Iranian network serves as “a critical transit point for funding to support al Qaeda’s activities.” In December 2011, the U.S. government offered a $10 million reward, one of the highest ever, for information leading to Suri’s capture.
When the Treasury Department designated Suri in 2011, it also designated several other members of al Qaeda who utilize the Iran-based network. One of them was Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was subsequently killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan. The Treasury Department explained: “Rahman was previously appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.” Makanesi seems to have at least known Rahman. According to Steinberg, Makanesi has explained that Rahman “was known to have lived in Iran for many years.”
When exposing al Qaeda’s Iran-based network in 2011, the Obama administration highlighted its role in the Iraq and Afghan wars. But this same network has delivered recruits to al Qaeda who were slated to take part in attacks in the West. Iranian officials may or may not have known the specific details of Osama bin Laden’s 2010 plot. But we do know this: Al Qaeda’s Iranian network has a global reach, capable of delivering trained terrorists to Europe’s doorstep.
Thomas Joscelyn and Benjamin Weinthal are fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.