By EMERSON VERMAAT
March 21, 2011 - San Francisco, CA - PipeLineNews.org - It was on February 5, 2011, that British Special Forces (SAS) in Afghanistan seized a convoy of 48 powerful Iranian rockets destined for Taliban fighters. (The story leaked to the press one month later, though). "The 122mm rockets have twice the range and twice the blast radius of the Taliban's more commonly used 107mm missiles and have not been seen in action against NATO forces for the past four years," The Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported on March 9. "The rockets have a range of more than 12 miles and shower shrapnel to a radius of nearly 100 feet." British Foreign Secretary William Hague was quoted as saying: "I am extremely concerned by the latest evidence that Iran continues to supply the Taliban with weaponry weapons clearly intended to provide the Taliban with the capability to kill Afghan and ISAF soldiers from a significant range."
It was by no means the first time that the radical Iranian Shia regime supplied weapons to the Sunni Taliban terrorists. They did so on numerous occasions before, for example in 2007 when NATO forces discovered Iranian anti-tank grenades in the Western Afghan province of Farah. And on December 18, 2010, an officer of the elite Al-Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was captured by US special forces in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. He was described as "a key Taliban weapons facilitator.'"
Wikileaks documents: "Iranian meddling is getting increasingly lethal"
Wikileaks documents (leaked US Embassy cables) clearly show continued Iranian military and political support to the Taliban. This is a matter of grave concern to US diplomats, the State Department and the Department of Defense. This issue was raised with Afghan president Hamid Karzai by US Secretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman on November 7, 2007. "Edelman asked how best to deal with Iran. The explosively-formed projectile weapons (EFPs) intercepted by British troops are worrying; even small numbers, if effectively employed against a small Ally such as the Dutch, could have a strategic effect. EFPs have been a major cause of US casualties in Iraq. Reports of MANPADS (man-potable air-defense systems, V.) coming out of Iran are also of concern. Recalling his conversation with Karzai in March on Iran, Edelman said Iranian meddling is getting increasingly lethal. He appreciated this was a complicated issue and that Afghanistan wants to avoid a two-front war, but Iranian actions, if not checked, will result in a two-front war in any event. We need to work together to put the Iranians back on their heels, adding that the USG (US Government, V.) is implementing new financial sanctions on the IRGC Quds Force. Iranian lethal assistance to the Taliban must be stopped before it reaches the levels of similar assistance to insurgents in Iraq.'
According to another Wikileaks document a man named Omar Daudzai, president Karzai's chief of staff, had what was described as "a frank conversation" in early 2010 with US Embassy officials. He said "that the Iranians no longer even bother to deny their support for the Taliban." "Iran would even support Sunni Taliban to counter Western influence in Afghanistan, so long as the Taliban factions they supported were not affiliated with Mullah Omar." (The former Taliban "chief of state" who allied himself with Osama bin Laden until the Al-Qaeda leader managed to escape to Pakistan's Tribal Areas in December 2001 where he supposedly still is; the whereabouts of Mullah Omar are currently unknown.)
"Daudzai said that two years ago when he raised with the Iranians their support for Afghan Taliban, they had flatly denied any involvement. However, over the past half year, the Iranians, including their Ambassador in Kabul, no longer deny this assertion now they remain silent, he said. Daudzai attributed the Iran change in posture to their awareness that the GIRoA (Government Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, V.) has evidence of Iranian support for some Taliban elements." "Daudzai said that on occasion young Afghan males are allowed to cross into Iran, where they are recruited and trained before returning to Afghanistan to fight against the GIRoA and Coalition Forces."
A Sunday Times reporter interviewed two Taliban commanders who visited secret Iranian training camps. One of them claimed: "Our religions and our histories are different, but our target is the same we both want to kill Americans." (Iranians as well as Taliban are Muslims, but the former are Shias whereas the latter are Sunnis.) "According to one Taliban source, emissaries traveled to Iran last year (i.e. in 2009, V.) to discuss a training program with Iranian officials. The training began during the winter. "Iran paid for the whole trip. We paid the travel fees to begin with and once we got to Iran they refunded us," one of the commanders said. "They paid for our food, our mobile phone cards, any expenses." It was a three months' training course. Iranian instructors told the Afghan Taliban how to launch complex ambushes on moving convoys, how to plant deadly roadside bombs and how to storm fixed enemy positions. "Both commanders said Iran also supplied them with weapons, often paying nomads to smuggle ammunition, mines and guns accoss the desert and mountain passes between Iran and Afghanistan's Western provinces." (The Sunday Times article was published well before the Wikileaks documents were put on the Internet.)
Bribing and recruiting religious scholars and politicians
Back, therefore, to these interesting Wikileaks revelations. Omar Daudzai, Karzai's chief of staff, further told US Embassy officials that "the Iranians also recruit Afghan university students and graduates. Daudzai said that approximately 7,000 Afghans hold Iranian university degrees, including three of President Karzai's cabinet picks, who 'fortunately' Parliament did not confirm. He claimed that Iran is also offering three-year visas to Afghans who deposit USD 100,000 in an Iranian account."
"Iran grooms thousands of Afghan religious scholars. After completing their education in Iran, they return to Afghanistan to work in Madrassas, where they continue to receive 'support packages' from Iran. The support package included a monthly salary. Daudzai claimed that a man named Ibrahim directed this program from the Supreme Leader's office. (Iran's so-called "Supreme Leader" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier and a notorious human rights violator, V.) Daudzai "also asserted that in addition to financing Afghan relgious leaders, Iran provided salary support for some GIRoA deputy ministers and other officials, including 'one or two even in the (presidential) Palace. Daudzai claimed that some of these officials had been relieved of their duties because 'you can't be an honest Afghan if you receive a (Iran) package.'"
These and other Wikileaks documents show that Iran is bribing Afghan religious scholars, government ministers as well as members of parliament. There were allegations that Iranian spies were bribing Afghan MPs "in a bid to get the Afghan parliament to back 'anti-Coalition policies'," a secret US Embassy cable from Kabul claimed on March 3, 2009. "Some parliamentary staff also believe Iranian intelligence has infiltrated parliament's legal and IT offices. Mirwais Yaseni, the deputy speaker, told US diplomats that he was visited by an Iranian spy who offered him 'support' if he allowed a debate on the legal status of NATO forces in Afghanistan. When he declined, parliament's pro-Iran MPs went ahead anyway."
"Iranian Embassy officials exploit contacts with a number of Afghan politicians to influence Parliament's agenda. Many MPs accuse Hazaras (a Persian speaking Iranic ethnic Shia group living in Central Afghanistan, V.), who like Iran's leaders are mostly Shia Muslims, of having the closest ties with Iran. Moderate Hazaras insist Iranian outreach influences only conservative Hazaras, many of whom received religious educations or lived in Iran while in exile. MPs single out Sayed Hussein Alemi Balkhi (Kabul), Ahmad Ali Jebraili (Herat), and Ustad Mohammed Akbari (Bamyam), as the Hazara MPs who receive the most support from Iran. The Iranian Embassy has also cultivated deep relations with members of opposition groups (including the United Front), Tajik Sayeds, and MPs from Herat and other western provinces."
"Iranian Embassy officers frequently visit Parliament, but rarely sit in the public gallery and usually avoid high-traffic morning hours, according to Parliament watchers. After Iranian-influence allegations exploded a few years ago, the Iranian Embassy began hosting MPs more often at off-site meetings, where other MPs suspect payments are delivered in exchange for commitments to advocate Iranian policies."
"Despite Iran's ambitious lobbying efforts, there are limits to MPs' willingness to toe to the Iranian line. A Lower House debate last November (2008) on water rights quickly struck a nationalistic tone, with several MPs accusing Iran of 'stealing Afghanistan's water.' No MP spoke up to disagree."
Iran and Al-Qaeda: "Your jihad is our jihad"
Former CIA Director George Tenet claims that the CIA learned in mid-2002 "that portions of Al-Qaeda's leadership had relocated to Iran. This became much more problematic, leading to overtures to Iran and eventually face-to-face discussions with Iranian officials in December 2002 and early 2003. Ultimately, the Al-Qaeda leaders in Iran were placed under some kind of house arrest, although the Iranians refused to deport them to their countries of origin." Many of them were not arrested, but put in special safehouses run by the elitist Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Both before and after 9/11 Iran served as a transit route and safe haven for prominent Al-Qaeda members. One of them was Saif Al-Adel, who was involved in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Africa and provided military training to Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. He spent nine years in Iran, before he returned to Waziristan, Pakistan's restive tribal areas, to operate as Al-Qaeda's military chief."Hizbi Islami" leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Hikmatyar) fled to Iran in 1996 where he lived for 6 years. It was there that he tried to build bridges between Iran, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The common denominator between them was that they were staunch opponents of the United States. It was shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at end of 2001 that a group of thirty Al-Qaeda fighters traveled to Iran. One of them, a Saudi national, later claimed: "We were aware that Afghani leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who resided in Iran (at that time), was acting as an intermediary and liaison between us and Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Hekmatyar promised us accomodation in the border city of Zehdan (in southeastern Iran), where the majority of the residents are Baluchi Sunnis. There we met with Al-Qaeda commander Abu Hafs Al-Mauritani, who had earlier opposed the September 11 attacks. (Al-Mauritani) assured us that we were in a safe place, and that we would be questioned by Iranian intelligence services in Tehran, who would provide for all our needs during our stay in Iran."
An Iranian intelligence officer tried to recruit him, saying: "You and us, we are both fighting the same enemy. The American (enemy), as well as everyone who supports him and helps him to remain in the region. Your jihad is our jihad, and a joint jihad operation of this kind is incumbent upon us all." "(You will receive) a monthly salary of $ 10,000, an Iranian passport, and military training with Hezbollah in Lebanon." The Al-Qaeda member in question claims he refused the offer. Other Al-Qaeda members, though, may have been lured into the Iranian trap. This story sounds quite credible, also what is being said about the role of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a "global terrorist" with $ 25 million on his head.
Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, a former governor of Herat Province and currently a Guantánamo Bay (Gitmo) detainee, served as the Taliban's liasion to Iran. He personally knew Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Khairkhwa "and three other Taliban officials attended a meeting with Iranian and Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin Hikmatyar faction officials," says a document from the US government's unclassified files on Gitmo detainees. "Present at the meeting were Afghan Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin leader, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, and Ayman Al-Zawahiri. (Bin Laden's deputy, V.) Topics of the discussion included United States intervention in the region, restoration of peace in Afghanistan and strengthening the Taliban's ties with Iran government." (Khairkhwa admitted "there was a meeting with the Taliban delegation on Iran's soil," but denied there were "Gulbuddin representatives.") After the 9/11 attacks, in November 2001 that is, the document claims Khairkhwa "met with an Iranian diplomatic mission. The Iranian government was prepared to offer anti-aircraft weapons to the Taliban for use against the United States and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan." Khairkhwa denied this, saying: "This never happened. This talk took place in the first meeting." Presiding officer: "The meeting in January 2000?" Detainee (Khairkhwa): "It only happened in the first meeting. The Iranians offered to buy weapons for us because we were on restriction and could not buy them. That is the truth." He did not deny Al-Zawahiri was there.
Although the questioning of a number of Gitmo detainees took place under dubious circumstances, the above statement could very well be a true version of events. It is, at least, quite plausible, and "this talk," as Khairkhwa called it, did probably take place, either in January 2000 or in November 2001, and Zawahiri could have been there (in Iran), too.
Zawahiri's possible visit to Iran is confirmed by another source, an Iranian defector. In his book Countdown to Crisis, New York Times bestselling author Kenneth R. Timmerman quotes Iranian defector Hamid Reza Zakeri who "walked into the US Embassy in Baku on July 26, 2001." Zakeri was working for the newly formed Intelligence Office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He "handled security arrangements for the nation's top leaders and most senior intelligence operators," Timmerman writes. "That is how he got to meet Osama bin Laden's chief deputy, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and bin Laden's eldest son, Saad. 'I organized the security for their meetings,' Zakeri told me." Zakeri claimed that "Zawahiri came to Iran in early 2001." "He had been coming to Iran for more than a decade." This is not conflicting with Khairkhwa's statement that Zawahiri visited Iran in January 2000. He may have visited Iran twice, but there is no evidence that he made frequent visits to that country, as Zakeri and Timmerman assert. Timmerman further claims that both Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden visited Iran in late 2004. But this was not based on Zakeri's information as the former Iranian intelligence officer defected in 2001. Timmerman only refers to unspecified "sources with direct knowledge of these meetings." There is no evidence that Zawahiri or Bin Laden visited Iran in December 2004. Indeed, it is not very likely they did.
A secret Iranian May 2001 memorandum on cooperation with Al-Qaeda: Is it authentic?
Zakeri claims he showed the CIA a memorandum from Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the Director of the (Supreme) Leader's Intelligence Organization. It was addressed to Moustapha Pourghanad, the Director of Section 43 of MOIS (Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security). The Memorandum, dated May 14, 2001, is also reprinted and translated into English in Timmerman's book. It is, Timmerman claims, "laying out the guidelines established by the Supreme Leader (Ali Khamenei, V.) for joint operations with Al-Qaeda." (Nateq Nouri is a former Iranian Interior Minister and former parliamentary speaker and became the Director of the Supreme Leader's Intelligence Organization in 2001, V.) The memorandum "was the equivalent of a Presidential Decision Directive in the United States, the top-secret documents that guide policy makers in developing specific operational plans," Timmerman writes. "In the memorandum, written in Persian, Nateq Nouri says that Khamenei personally has seen the latest report 'regarding support and help for the future plan' of Al-Qaeda. Any attack, Khamenei ordered, must 'strike at (America's) economic structure, their reputation and their internal peace and security.' 'Our emphasis should be on the struggle with the Great Satan and Israel,' Khamenei said. 'This is our main agenda.'" "In closing the letter, Nateq Nouri instructed MOIS to work to 'improve our plans, especially in coordination with fighters of Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah to find one objective that is beneficial to both sides.' Above all, he stressed, 'the Leader mentioned that we should limit our relations with Al-Qaeda to just two people as before Imad Mugniyeh and Ayman Al-Zawahiri and deal only with them.'"
"We need to set aside our ideological differences," the memorandum further says, "and analyse the problems that would hamper us from reaching our goal. In particular, we should examine the expansion and coordination with Al-Qaeda (Shabbakeh) group and Hezbollah to reach our common objective."
Who was Imad Mugniyeh? He was a senior Hezbollah terrorist who was killed on February 12, 2008 by a car bomb. "He is the most dangerous terrorist we've ever faced," says former CIA operative Robert Baer. "He's a pathological murderer." "He is the master terrorist, the grail that we have been after since 1983." (Beirut barracks and US Embassy bombings.)
It was on October 20, 2000, that Ali Mohamed, a U.S. citizen of Egyptian origin and a former operative of Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad Organization, confirmed in a plea bargain that Al-Qaeda and the Egyptian Al-Jihad Organization were in touch with Iran. He also mentioned Iman Mugniyeh who, so he claimed, met Osama bin Laden, when the latter was still in Sudan: "I was aware of certain contacts between Al-Qaeda and Al-jihad Organization, on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah (an Iranian terrorist group) on the other side. I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between Imad Mugniyeh, Hezbollah's chief, and bin Laden. (Mugniyeh had masterminded the 1983 attack on US marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 US soldiers.). Hezbollah provided explosives training for Al-Qaeda. Iran supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons I was involved in the (Egyptian) Islamic Jihad Organization, and the Islamic Jihad Organization had very close links to Al-Qaeda." (This group would, at Zawahiri's instigation, merge with Al-Qaeda in 1998, with Zawahiri subsequently being promotedd to Osama bin Laden's deputy, a position he has held ever since.)
I do not know if Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri's memorandum is authentic, but I do not rule it out either. However, the memorandum does not prove that Iran was directly implicated in the 9/11 plot, as Timmerman and Zakeri assert. It only shows that there is some form of cooperation between fighters of Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda and that ideological differences must be set aside. This is in line with what Ali Mohamed, Khairkhwa and the above mentioned Al-Qaeda member who received the lucrative Iranian offer of a $ 10,000 monthly salary and receive military training from Hezbollah.
Concluding comments: do not exaggerate
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also believes that Iran is training Al-Qaeda operatives. He writes: "In her recent book The Surge, the American military historian Kimberley Kagan describes how over time Al-Qaeda and Iran began to work together to unhinge the fragile democratic structures in Iraq. According to her account, by the middle of 2007, Iran was both funding and training Al-Qaeda operatives. On several occasions from April through to July 2007, the Americans tried to reach out to Iran to get an accomodation. The Iranians talked happily. But their actions didn't change."
It is undeniable that Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah were and still are cooperating with each other. The 9/11 Commission report, which goes, inter alia, into "Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to Al-Qaeda," says: "Senior managers in Al-Qaeda maintained contacts with Iran and the Iranian-supported worldwide terrorist organization Hezbollah which is based mainly in southern Lebanon and Beirut. Al-Qaeda members received advice and training from Hezbollah." "Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and and senior Al-Qaeda figures after bin Laden's return to Afghanistan. Khallad (a high level Al-Qaeda operative currently in Guantánamo Bay, V.) has said that Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with Al-Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, but was rebuffed because bin Laden did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia." The Iranians followed the "practice of not stamping Saudi passports." That is "why several of the 9/11 hijackers (at least eight, according to Binalshibh) transited Iran on their way to or from Afghanistan." (In Afghanistan they met Osama bin Laden and received further instructions regarding the 9/11 plot.) Ramzi Binalshibh, although a Yemeni citizen, also traveled via Iran. He was a key Al-Qaeda operative in the 9/11 plot.
But we should not exaggerate Iran's role in Al-Qaeda. When Zakeri claims that "the Iranian intelligence service was really behind the 9/11 attacks and had employed Al-Qaeda to carry them out," we do need more evidence. "We have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attacks," the 9/11 Commission Report says. The principal architect of the 9/11 attacks was, the report reiterates, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He cooperated closely with Ramzi Binalshibh, a key member of the Hamburg Al-Qaeda cell led by Mohammed Atta. Binalshibh traveled to Afghanistan via Iran, a normal route for many Al-Qaeda operatives.
There is no evidence either that Osama bin Laden ever visited Iran. He could have been in touch with Hezbollah when he was still in Sudan (between 1992-1996). Ali Mohammed's assertion that bin Laden met senior Hezbollah operative Imad Mugniyeh sounds credible. Bin Laden's deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri could have paid several visits to Iran. As a former chief of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Organization he was also in touch with Hezbollah and Hezbollah may have paved the way for later visits to Iran. But there is no evidence that the Iranians co-conspired with him with respect to the 9/11 plot.
Recent findings show that Iran once again actively tries to court and recruit Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in line with the dictum: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Keep in mind, however, that the Iranian regime is not monolithic. Ali Alfoneh, a resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute, shows in a recent interesting article in the Middle East Quaterly that there are rivalries and frictions between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is a "troubled relationship" between them. Such rivalries and frictions were also common in Nazi Germany where the top leadership was deeply divided, and where "Supreme Leader" Aldof Hitler had to mediate between the rivals for power, or play one top Nazi off against the other.
Emerson Vermaat is an investigative reporter in the Netherlands specialized in terrorism and crime. Website: emersonvermaat.com.
The Telegraph (London), March 9, 2011 ("SAS seize Iranian rockets destined for Taliban fighters"); De Volkskrant (Amsterdam), March 11, 2011, p. 3 ("Iraanse raketten voor Taliban onderschept") (early February).
The Telegraph, December 24, 2010 ("Iranian soldier captured in Afghanistan").
US embassy cables: Iran "busy" trying to undermine the US in Afghanistan, guardian.co.uk, December 2, 2010. (Wikileaks document on Edelman's conversation with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.).
US embassy cables: Karzai insider on how US could "open the door" to Iran, guardian.co.uk, December 2, 2010. (Quotes from Omar Daudzai, Karzai's chief of staff.)
The Sunday Times (London), March 21, 2010 ("Taliban fighters being taught at secret camps in Iran").
US embassy cables: Iranian influence at Afghanistan's parliament, guardian.co.uk, December 2, 2010. (Iranian intelligence.)
George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm. My Years at the CIA (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), p. 244.
Al-Qaeda Member's Account of his Stay in Iran, MEMRI/Free Republic, November 9, 2007.
Spiegelonline (Germany), October 25, 2010 ("Saif Al-Adel back in Waziristan: A top terrorist returns to Al-Qaida fold").James Fergusson, Taliban. The true story of the world's most feared guerrilla fighters (London: Bantam Press, 2010), p. 239 ("Hekmatyar, a 'global terrorist' with $ 25 million on his head...")
Unclassified Summary of evidence for Administrative Review Board in the case of Khairkhwa, Khirullah Said Wali, 7 October 2005, http://projectsnytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/579khirullah-said-walikhairkhwa#10, p. 11, 23, 24.
Kenneth R. Timmerman, Countdown to Crisis. The coming nuclear showdown with Iran (New York: Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishing Group, 2006), p. 11 (Zakeri), p 16, 17 (Nateq Nouri's secret memorandum on cooperation with Al-Qaeda; Zawahiri), p. 241 (Zawahiri's visit to Iran early 2001), p. 272 (Zakeri's defection), p. 310, 311 (Bin Laden in Iran), p. 334, 335 (Text of Nateq Nouri's memorandum in Persian and translated into English). Kenneth R. Timmerman was one of the first American authors who wrote about Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda training camps back in 1998, that is. Zawahiri's name is spelled by him as Zawahri.
CBS News 60 Minutes, May 1, 2002 ("Shadow Warriors"). (Quote from Robert Baer.)
Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I know. An oral history of Al-Qaeda's leader (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 143 (Ali Mohamed's plea bargain.)
Tony Blair, A Journey (London: Hutchinson, 2010), p. 469.
The 9/11 Commission Report (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 240, 241.
Profile: Hamid Reza Zakeri, History Commons, January 22, 2004. ("The Iranian Intelligence Service was really behnid the 9/11 attacks and had employed Al-Qaeda to carry them out.")
Ali Alfoneh, Khamenei's Balancing Act, in: Middle East Quaterly, Winter 2011, p. 73-77.
©2011 Emerson Vermaat. All rights reserved.