U.S. Probing Al Qaeda Ties With Iran

As the U.S. war on terrorism spreads around the globe, government officials are finding more and more evidence that Al Qaeda terrorism originating in Afghanistan has been getting plenty of help from neighboring Iran.

While Pakistan has been under scrutiny for its assistance to terror fugitives, government sources said they have obtained information that confirms Al Qaeda members traveled to Iran to receive financial assistance of approximately $25 million, $14 million of it in one fell swoop.

Two major land routes between Iran and Afghanistan are being closely monitored for fugitives. One is the drug smuggling route in the south that runs into the Iranian cities of Zahedan and Zabol. The other is in the north.

Government officials said there was substantial evidence that the northern route has been used a lot recently. Intelligence information suggests that the fugitives have been departing Afghanistan from the towns of Ghurian and Kenar-e-Kopeh, then heading to the holy city of Mashhad in the Khorasan region of northeast Iran.

Mashhad has always had a high volume of traffic traveling through it. U.S. government officials said they are using satellites to closely monitor the Iranian border.

Personal Points of Contact

Officials said U.S. human intelligence on Iran has improved dramatically in recent weeks with the defection of an Iranian intelligence official. The U.S. government also said it has evidence that Iran and Al Qaeda have planned terrorist attacks together in the past.

Information from the defector and other human intelligence sources suggest Iran has been providing military training, explosives, financial help, forged documents, and telecommunications equipment to Al Qaeda for at least the last three years.

Two weeks ago, before the defector started cooperating, U.S. government officials said they separately obtained strong information from reliable sources that Al Qaeda terrorists who made it to Tehran were able to fly to Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. Government officials said the fugitives may be hidden in various places by Hezbollah forces based mainly out of the Beka'a Valley in Lebanon.

Government officials said Iran's relationship with Al Qaeda mostly developed through the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). That organization was run by Ayman al-Zawahiri, terrorist leader Usama bin Laden's right-hand man and chief of ideology. Al-Zawahiri is considered the brains of Al Qaeda, and is believed to have planned most of the organization's sophisticated attacks.

In early 1996, bin Laden began aggressively reaching out to Hezbollah, EIJ and Iran.

Government officials said that in 1997, bin Laden met with senior officers from a wing of the Iranian government that is constitutionally charged with exporting Islamic fundamentalism. Sources said those talks continued into 2001.

In February 1998, the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders was organized to include 12 groups. Founded by EIJ and Al Qaeda, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden became partners.

Since then, U.S. government officials said a foreign intelligence service has closely monitored numerous trips by al-Zawahiri to Iran and various high-level Iranian officials traveling to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden.

Another major connection between Al Qaeda and Iranian-sponsored terrorism comes out of the 12-member World Islamic Front. The third group to join World Islamic Front was the Egyptian Gama'at. Its chief in 1996 was a senior Iranian special operations commander, Imad Mugniyeh, who met with a top aide to bin Laden in the holy city of Mashhad as recently as October. At that time, Mugniyeh also met with another intelligence official from Iran and one from Iraq.

Mugniyeh, a former intelligence consultant to Ayatollah Khamenei, is wanted internationally for directing Hezbollah's overseas operations. He is charged with masterminding the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people, the bombing of the American Marine and French paratroopers' barracks in Beirut that killed 300 soldiers and the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina that killed 92 people.

While Al Qaeda and bin Laden are Sunni Muslims and Iran is a Shi'ite Muslim country, according to court transcripts of the Kenya and Tanzania bombing cases, the two entities decided to collaborate "for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies, particularly the United States … Iran provided the explosives for the bombings which have brought us here today."

The Iranian Connection

Sources said bin Laden, either personally or through al-Zawahiri, has had regular contact with a section of the Iranian government called the "Pasdaran" or Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, charged with protecting the Islamic revolution.

Within the IRGC is the domestic intelligence service called the VEVAK, led by Iran's Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Fallahian. VEVAK has openly supported some Islamic Jihad movements.

Within the IRGC, another organization called the "Qods Force" functions as a foreign special operations and intelligence unit tasked with training Islamic fundamentalists and terror groups in facilities in Iran and the Sudan. Qods is led by Ahmad Vahidi.

U.S. officials estimated the total number of Pasdaran and Qods operatives to be near 10,000 worldwide. They have conducted additional training operations in Lebanon and have armed and trained Kurdish groups, Kashmiris, the Balochis, Afghans, Bosnians, and the Muslim separatists in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province.

Government officials said there are money trails indicating the Pasdaran helped establish Hezbollah branches in Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan, Somalia, the Sudan, and the Palestinian territories. Government officials said there is additional evidence that shows the Pasdaran helped form Islamic Jihad groups in Egypt, Turkey, Chechnya, Kosovo, and the countries in the Caucasus region of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are said to have been in contact with both Vahidi and Fallahian, and have cooperated in some of their operations.