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As U.S. steps up investigation,
Iran denies assisting Al Qaeda

By John Crewdson
Chicago Tribune senior correspondent
BreakForNews.com, 21st July, 2004

[See: Highlighted section below]

WASHINGTON -- Federal intelligence agencies are following President Bush's
directive to search for hints of Iranian involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, even as the Iranian government on Tuesday labeled such suggestions "ridiculous" and reiterated its official opposition to Al Qaeda.

The Bush administration's abrupt shift of focus from Iraq to its neighboring foe, Iran, came as an independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 hijacking plot put the final touches on a roughly 600-page report expected to outline longstanding links between the Iranian government and terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

"We're digging into the facts to determine" if there was an Iranian
connection to Sept. 11, Bush told reporters this week, adding that he had "long expressed my concerns about Iran. After all, it's a totalitarian
society where free people are not allowed to exercise their rights as human beings."

Iran has sponsored devastating terrorist attacks against U.S. interests,
served as a refuge for senior leaders of Al Qaeda and has a burgeoning
nuclear research program that is believed to be on the verge of eveloping
an atomic weapon--all offenses of which the administration at one time
suspected Iraq.

While Washington has focused extensively on Iraq, evidence linking Iran to Al Qaeda has continued to accumulate.

Virtually from the moment of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the White House began searching for substantive links between Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, according to public accounts by several past and present administration officials.

That search has proved mostly fruitless.

In a television interview, Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and chairman of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, said his panel's inquiry had found that "there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."

Earlier this month, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting a separate investigation of the administration's rationale for launching the war against Iraq, reported finding "no credible information" that Iraq possessed "foreknowledge of the 11 September attacks or any other Al Qaeda strike."

The independent Sept. 11 commission's report, scheduled for release
Thursday, is likely to raise fresh questions about whether the administration's campaign to tie Baghdad to bin Laden might have been better focused linking him to Tehran.

Iran's sponsorship of terrorism, including attacks aimed at the U.S., is
beyond dispute. Intelligence analysts are virtually unanimous in attributing the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the 1996 attack that killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia to Iranian-funded terrorist operatives.

In the hours after Sept. 11, Bush declared war not just on Al Qaeda, but on governments that support it and other terrorist organizations. The
administration, however, does not appear to have explored Iran's known and potential Al Qaeda connections with the same fervor that has marked its search for links between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

A frequent explanation for not pushing the Iranian connection harder is the administration's hope that Iran's radical Islamic government will eventually collapse from the inside, under pressure from a populace increasingly disillusioned with the stark fundamentalist doctrine espoused by the mullahs who have ruled Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

While the administration watches for signs of change in Tehran, reports of connections between Iran and Al Qaeda have persisted, and in some cases evidence has even been made public by the U.S. government.

According to a 4-year-old federal warrant issued in an Al Qaeda-related case in New York, during the mid-1990s a senior Al Qaeda figure, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, negotiated an agreement among Al Qaeda, a Sudanese group and "elements within the Government of Iran" to plan joint attacks against the U.S. and Israel.

Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who spent several years in the Middle
East, says he knows of "incontrovertible evidence" of a 1996 meeting in
Jalalabad, Afghanistan, between bin Laden and a representative of the
Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS.

Earlier this year, a former MOIS officer, Hamid Reza Zakeri, testifying in a Sept. 11 conspiracy trial in Hamburg, Germany, said he had assisted with security for two meetings in early 2001 between senior Iranian officials and their Al Qaeda counterparts.


Zakeri, who U.S. and German intelligence agencies say has a mixed record for reliability, provided the court and the German federal police with an account of a January 2001 meeting Zakeri said was attended by bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Al Qaeda leader's eldest son, Saad bin Laden. Zakeri also told of a second meeting in May 2001 attended by Saad bin Laden and Iranian officials.

Some top-ranking Al Qaeda figures, including bin Laden's former security chief, Saif al-Adel, Saad bin Laden, and possibly al-Zawahiri, reportedly took refuge in the aftermath of Sept. 11 in the Iranian city of Mashad, near the Afghanistan border.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency on Tuesday as saying that even if Al Qaeda operatives had crossed the Afghan border into Iran, his government did not support them.

The Iranians also claim to have arrested Al Qaeda members who have entered their country from Afghanistan and say they plan to try some of them, but not all.

Visits to Iran

An Iranian connection with some of those who would become close to the Sept. 11 hijackers first surfaced in 1997, when German intelligence was tipped off by its French counterpart that Mohammed Haider Zammar, a Syrian immigrant and resident of Hamburg, had made repeated visits to Iran.

Zammar, now held in a Syrian jail, reportedly has confessed to recruiting, on behalf of Al Qaeda, a half-dozen Hamburg students who were to become the main Sept. 11 plotters.

One of the independent commission's findings to be announced Thursday, according to Time magazine, is that "Iranian officials issued specific instructions to border guards to facilitate the travel of Al Qaeda personnel in and out of the country, including orders that their passports not be stamped."

If true, that instruction evidently included some of those directly involved
in the Sept. 11 attacks.

In December 2000, as three of the four Sept. 11 hijack pilots were
concluding their flight training in Florida, a young Yemeni named Ramzi
Binalshibh, who remained behind in Hamburg as the self-described
"coordinator" of the Sept. 11 plot, applied for a visa at the Iranian
Embassy in Berlin.

According to German police records, Binalshibh entered Iran on Jan. 31,
2001. The police say they do not know how long Binalshibh stayed in Iran or whom he saw there before returning to Germany on Feb. 28, 2001.

Six days before the hijackings, when Binalshibh fled Hamburg for the
sanctuary of Afghanistan, German police records show that he again passed through Iran.

A former Al Qaeda associate, Shadi Abdallah, who met Binalshibh in
Afghanistan while working as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, has testified in a German court that Binalshibh told him of frequent visits to Iran using a false Iranian passport.

In the summer of 2002, when police in Milan searched the apartment of the suspected Al Qaeda chief in Italy, they discovered what prosecutors
described as a letter "giving precise indications on how to reach
Afghanistan, particularly the city of Kandahar, while passing through Iran."

Post-Sept. 11 wiretaps on other Al Qaeda suspects in Milan revealed
communications with "terrorist cells" in Iran. One of those under
surveillance, Nassim Saadi, talked of visiting Iran and returning to Milan
with about $2,500 from "the person in charge of the brothers" in Tehran.

According to a subsequent indictment, Saadi was overheard expressing his wonderment "at the plentiful availability of funds that the Mujahadin
organization in Iran shows it has."

Beyond the question of whether the Iranian government has knowingly acted to assist Al Qaeda operatives lurks the larger question of whether the Iranians had some foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 hijacking plot.

Informant tipped off FBI

Five months before Sept. 11, a longtime informant for the FBI reported that Al Qaeda was planning a devastating terrorist assault in which the weapons were to be commercial airliners.

According to two sources familiar with that interview, the informant was
short on details. In particular, nothing was said about the precise timing
of the airborne attack, its location or its possible targets.

Law enforcement officials who have reviewed the April 2001 interview and at least one follow-up conversation insist that the informant's information, by itself, could not have led the bureau to the Sept. 11 plotters.

But the real significance of that information, according to a law
enforcement official familiar with the case, may lie in its source: a former
member of the Iranian intelligence service now living in the U.S. and known to his FBI handlers as "the Asset."

"His `subsource' was somebody back home" in Iran, said the law enforcement official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. In the wake of Sept. 11, the official said, it appeared that "somebody in Iran had some knowledge of something" related to Sept. 11.

Talking to `the Asset'

Although the Asset has lived in the U.S. 25 years and speaks some English, the FBI has had trouble understanding him in the past. To guard against any misunderstanding, the two FBI agents assigned to interview him in April 2001 brought along an FBI translator fluent in his native language, Farsi.

The interview followed the standard FBI format. The agents posed their
questions in English, which were then translated into Farsi. The Asset's
replies were translated back into English as the agents took notes.

According to the law enforcement official, "there was talk about terrorists
and planes," but no mention of when or where the attacks might take place.

It was the FBI agents' impression, the official said, that the target of the
attacks could be "possibly here, but more probably overseas." The Asset also reported having heard a rumor that a plane would be hijacked to Afghanistan, the official said.

The FBI's translator, a former Iranian police colonel named Behrooz Sarshar, does not recall any mention of a hijacking to Afghanistan. But Sarshar, then a career FBI employee assigned to the translation section of the bureau's Washington field office, does remember the Asset saying the attacks might take place in the U.S. or Europe, and also that the terrorist-pilots were "under training."

After checking his notes from the interview, Sarshar said that, in addition
to sources in Iran, the Asset had mentioned picking up information from
Afghanistan and Hamburg.

Sarshar describes the Asset as part of an informal worldwide network of
former Iranian intelligence officers who have remained in close touch after abandoning their homeland for Europe, Asia and the U.S., where many found work with Western police and intelligence services.

Some members of the network still travel back and forth to Iran, Sarshar
said, or maintain contact with colleagues there via telephone and e-mail
while waiting for the revolutionary Iranian government to fall.

According to Sarshar, the two FBI agents who interviewed the Asset were not visibly surprised by his report. It was his impression, Sarshar said, that the agents weren't sure whether to believe their informant, and that even the Asset wasn't convinced his information was true.

A few weeks after the initial interview, however, the agents and Sarshar
paid a second visit to the Asset, who Sarshar said repeated essentially the same story.

Despite the coincidence of timing, none of the Asset's statements appear to have formed the basis for a controversial CIA briefing paper given to President Bush on Aug. 6, 2001.

"There was other sourcing for that," the law enforcement official said.

Headlined "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," the briefing paper,
declassified in April, reported "patterns of suspicious activity in this
country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of
attacks."

Sarshar retired from the FBI in 2002 after an FBI agent complained to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility that Sarshar had discussed, "outside a secure setting," a federal anti-terrorist prosecution in Los Angeles on which he had worked.

Since leaving the FBI, Sarshar has been questioned by staffers for the
Senate Judiciary Committee and the committee's leading Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He also has been interviewed by the Justice Department's inspector general, who is looking into alleged irregularities in the FBI's Washington translation operation.

Translator answers questions

In February, Sarshar spent several hours answering questions in a secure conference room with staff members of the Sept. 11 commission. FBI Director Robert Mueller, who expected to be asked about the case during an appearance before the commission in April, was surprised when the commissioners never raised the question, according to aides.

At 67, Behrooz Sarshar still carries himself like the Iranian police
commander he once was and moves with the confident, controlled stride of the 4th-degree judo black belt he still is.

In a recent two-hour interview, the first he has granted, Sarshar emphasized that he admires the FBI's professionalism and has no wish to damage that agency or his adopted country. Nor, he says, has he sought personal publicity.

His only interest, Sarshar said, is in helping "create a better system to
confront such a thing in the future."

Sarshar agrees that the information from the Asset, by itself, could not
have led FBI agents to the Sept. 11 plotters, who by April of 2001 had taken up residence in Florida and New Jersey and were in the final planning stages for the attack.

But he sees it as a vital piece of a puzzle that was never fully assembled. A few months after Sept. 11, Sarshar sought out the Asset for a final conversation. The man was "very proud" of the information he provided to the FBI, Sarshar said. "But he was also very angry," Sarshar says, that the puzzle had not been completed in time.


Copyright C 2004, Chicago Tribune
Reproduced here under Fair Use
only for educational purposes

 

 


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