Sunday, June 26, 2005

On September 12, 2001, commanders from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards gathered in Tehran. General Mohammad Ahayi began his speech with a verse from the Koran: “Whosoever battles with Allah, Allah will do battle with him.”

General Ayahi then turned to his fellow commanders. Did you see how we (banging his fist into his chest) brought them down? How we brought America to its knees?

Colonel B, a Revolutionary Guards officer, was in the audience. Just the year before, he had been assigned to a terrorist training camp northeast of Tehran, and had seen with his own eyes the Lebanese, Libyans, Azeris, Chechens, Iraqis, and others who had come to Iran to learn the disciplines of murder.

He turned to a friend, the intelligence director of the Qods battalion, the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas action arm responsible for terrorist attacks and assassinations. Did we have anything to do with this event?, he asked.

His friend smiled and admonished him with a shake of his finger. Don’t dig into details. Leave it alone. You don’t want to know more.

How come I wasn’t told about any of this before?, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz asked.

The date was October 26, 2001. Mr. Wolfowitz had just learned from a Defense Intelligence Agency briefer about the al Qaeda “rat line” that operated between Afghanistan and Europe, with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Iranian government. Once they crossed the border into Iran, al Qaeda operatives were welcomed at special camps outside the eastern Iranian city of Mashad, then given fresh travel documents so they could travel on to Europe and America without arousing suspicion, the briefer said. The level of cooperation between Iran and al Qaeda was stunning, and went against everything Mr. Wolfowitz thought he knew.

The briefer mumbled some excuse to Mr. Wolfowitz’s question. But the real reason was that DIA higher-ups had forbidden the analysts from presenting the briefing to Mr. Wolfowitz earlier because it contradicted “the Concept” — the intelligence community’s firm belief that Iran had no operational ties to al Qaeda and had gotten out of the terror game with President Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1997. It also violated the doctrine that had become a matter of faith among Middle East analysts and “experts” on Islam that there could be no cooperation between the Shia and Sunni fundamentalists.

Whenever intelligence personnel or journalists turned up evidence that al Qaeda was working with Iran, those analysts made sure the reports were discredited. Bucking the conventional wisdom was an invitation to ridicule, as the briefer’s colleagues at the DIA’s tiny Iran unit at Bolling Air Force Base knew well. They had gotten approval to brief Mr. Wolfowitz only because he had explicitly tasked the DIA to examine the possibility of Iran/al Qaeda ties — a possibility their political bosses at the DIA’s policy support office in the Pentagon had discounted long ago.

Al Qaeda had been working with Iran since at least 1992, when Iranian general Mohammad Bagr Zolqadr was running a Revolutionary Guard training camp in the Sudan, the briefer said. Zolqadr’s ties to Osama bin Laden had been brokered by Ayman al-Zawahri — the Egyptian terrorist known as “the Doctor.”

Zawahri and his Egyptian Islamic Jihad group provided the muscle men for al Qaeda, giving bin Laden access to a virtually unlimited pool of manpower. Zawahri was the man with the Iran contacts. Throughout the 1990s, he traveled repeatedly to Iran as the guest of Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Fallahian and the head of foreign terrorist operations, Ahmad Vahidi. Vahidi was the commander of the Qods Force and the man who supervised the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing.

In the months before Sept. 11, Egyptian Islamic Jihad commanders transited in large numbers through Mashad en route to Afghanistan to join bin Laden’s ranks, the briefer said. They had solid reporting and hard evidence from human sources and from national technical means confirming the rat line.

Bin Laden preferred the Iranian route because he believed that U.S. intelligence officials were monitoring Pakistani airports and were responsible for the arrest of several of his top operatives during the last six years.

Seven to ten days before the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran suddenly closed the Mashad rat line to the Egyptian jihadis, the briefer said. Some sources believe it was because the Iranians knew a major terrorist attack was about to occur and didn’t want to give the United States cause for military retaliation against Iran.

The latest piece of the puzzle was still being evaluated, he said. Just one week ago, the DIA had reports that the notorious terrorist Imad Mugniyeh had come to Mashad with HosseinMosleh,Vahidi’s deputy. According to one source, the two met with Iraqi intelligence chief Taher Jalil Haboosh.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of “Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran,” from which this is excerpted.

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