Pakistani officials have reportedly captured Naamen Meziche, an al Qaeda operative with an extensive dossier. Meziche plays a significant role in an article (“Al Qaeda’s Network in Iran”) that I co-authored with my colleague Benjamin Weinthal earlier this year. Reading through the articles describing Meziche’s capture that have been published so far, at least two aspects of his story are being either missed entirely or underreported in the American press.
First, Meziche was slated to take part in a 2010 Mumbai-style attack on Europe that was ordered by Osama bin Laden himself. Meziche and his co-conspirators were recruited for this plot at the same mosque that gave us the 9/11 Hamburg cell. Indeed, Meziche has extensive ties to the original Hamburg cell.
It was at the Al Taiba mosque in Hamburg (previously named Al Quds) that Meziche and others involved in the second Hamburg al Qaeda cell coalesced. Once their ties to the mosque and the Mumbai-style plot became known in 2010, German authorities ordered the mosque to be shuttered. This is significant because the mosque was allowed to operate even after it gave us the likes of Mohammed Atta (lead hijacker for 9/11), Ramzi Binalshibh (al Qaeda’s point man for the 9/11 attacks), other members of the Hamburg cell, as well as an unknown number of other terrorists. The mosque was not a place of legitimate worship for Muslims, but instead an al Qaeda recruiting center.
That mosque was headed by a man named Mamoun Darkazanli, who is easily one of the most intriguing figures we have come to hear about in the post-9/11 world. Darkazanli, like other senior members of al Qaeda in Europe at the time of 9/11 was originally a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB). After the Brotherhood’s uprising was quashed by the Assad regime in the early 1980s, Darkazanli and others scurried to Europe where they found refuge. The extent of Darkazanli’s ongoing ties to the SMB at the time of 9/11 and thereafter is unknown. However, Darkazanli ended up working for a firm called Tatex Trading, which (ironically enough) was partly owned by the former head of Syrian intelligence. (None of this has ever been fully explained.)
Second, the 2010 Mumbai-style plot has extensive ties to al Qaeda’s Iran-based network. And these ties came to light as a result, in part, of the trial of one of Meziche’s fellow al Qaeda operatives in Koblenz, Germany.
According to the Obama administration’s Treasury Department, the Iran-based network is headed by an al Qaeda leader named Yassin al Suri and operates as part of a formerly “secret” deal between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda. A $10 million reward has been offered for information leading to al Suri’s capture.
Meziche and his co-conspirators utilized this Iran-based network. In 2009, Meziche and one of his compatriots traveled from Vienna to Tehran and then onto Zahedan – a known hub for al Qaeda activity in eastern Iran, along the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Suri has been based in Zahedan, as well as other Iranian cities, for quite some time.
The Iranians were, according intelligence sources cited by the Times, keeping their options open with respect to Meziche. Referring to Meziche and one his al Qaeda accomplices, an official said:
“These two have been involved in al Qaeda external operations activities for some time now.” Citing multiple intelligence sources, the Times added that “Iran appears to be harboring them in hopes that, when and if they leave, they will cause trouble in the West.”
Meziche was reportedly attempting to return to Iran when he was captured inside Pakistan.
There are additional ties between Meziche’s cell and Iran. For instance, according to Der Spiegel, a senior al Qaeda terrorist named Younis al Mauritani (since captured) 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 plot was uncovered.
Still other members of Meziche’s cell met with Yassin al Suri and senior al Qaeda operatives involved in the Iran-based network.
The question the press and the U.S. government should be asking is: What did the Iranian regime know about the cell’s activities prior to the 2010 plot being broken up?
Even absent any intelligence that can be used to answer that question, however, it is clear that Iran’s deal with al Qaeda has allowed some deadly operatives targeting the West to move about freely.
These operatives have not had the same freedom of movement even in Pakistan, an often duplicitous ally in the fight against terrorism.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.