Thursday, July 22, 2004

A senior CIA official has revealed that al Qaeda operatives in Iran probably had advance knowledge of recent terrorist attacks, a sign that the cooperation between Tehran and al Qaeda is continuing since September 11.

“There have been al Qaeda people who have stayed for some time in Iran … and because they have been in touch with colleagues outside of Iran at times when operations have occurred, it’s hard to imagine that they were unwitting of those operations,” the senior official said.

“And it’s not hard to make the leap that they may have had at least some operational knowledge. It’s harder to make the leap that they were directing operations like that.”

The senior official spoke to reporters on the findings of the September 11 commission. The commission’s report provides new details of Iranian government support for al Qaeda, including travel assistance to several of the hijackers involved in the 2001 airline attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

U.S. intelligence officials have said that a senior al Qaeda operations official, Sayf al-Adl, has been in Iran since 2002. He has been linked to the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in May, and to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

The commission inquiry revealed that captured al Qaeda leaders Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh disclosed to interrogators that at least eight of the September 11 hijackers “transited Iran” on the way to Afghanistan, “taking advantage of the Iranian practice of not stamping Saudi passports,” the nearly 600-page report stated.

Both terrorists said that ease of travel was the only reason the hijackers went to Iran and they denied any ties between al Qaeda and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terrorist group.

“In sum, there is strong evidence 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,” the report said.

The report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States also said senior Hezbollah terrorists knew about the al Qaeda members’ travels to Iran.

The report said no evidence was found that Iran or Hezbollah were aware of the planning of the September 11 attacks.

“At the time of their travel through Iran, the al Qaeda operatives themselves were probably not aware of the specific details of their future operation,” the report said. “After 9/11, Iran and Hezbollah wished to conceal any past evidence of cooperation with Sunni terrorists associated with al Qaeda.”

The commission concluded that “we believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”

The senior CIA official confirmed that the al Qaeda hijackers had traveled through Iran but said details of Tehran’s backing for the travel are not clear.

“I don’t think we know that this was a deliberate Iranian policy, that is, a sanctioned policy at the highest levels of the Iranian government,” the senior official said.

U.S. intelligence officials have said Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Qods Division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a unit of hard-line Islamist shock troops, are deeply involved in supporting terrorists, including al Qaeda.

The report also disclosed that “intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures after [Osama] bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan [in 1997].”

The commission report also said that captured al Qaeda terrorist Waleed bin Attash, known as Khallad, disclosed that Iran’s government “made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al Qaeda” after the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor, Yemen.

According to the report, bin Laden rebuffed the offer from the Shi’ite regime in Iran because of fears that the cooperation would alienate Sunni supporters in Saudi Arabia.

“Khallad and other detainees have described the willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of al Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan,” the report said.

Iranian border inspectors helped the terrorists by not placing travel stamps on passports, which allowed Saudi members to return to Saudi Arabia and not have their passports confiscated by Saudi authorities.

The report noted there is “evidence suggesting that eight to 10 of the 14 Saudi ‘muscle’ operatives traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001.”

Intelligence information showed that senior al Qaeda leaders in Sudan during the 1990s “maintained contacts with Iran and the Iranian-supported worldwide terrorist organization Hezbollah,” the report said.

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