(NEWSWEEK) July 16 – In its report due next week, the September 11 commission will disclose new evidence suggesting Iranian government officials may have helped facilitate the terror attacks by providing Al Qaeda members with safe passage and “clean” passports as they traveled from Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan through Iran, NEWSWEEK has learned.
Citing a recently discovered December 2001 memo buried in the files of the National Security Agency, the commission report states that Iranian border inspectors were instructed not to place stamps in the passports of Al Qaeda fighters from Saudi Arabia who were traveling from bin Laden’s camps through Iran, according to U.S. officials and commission sources familiar with the report.
The commission report does not address which Al Qaeda members specifically benefited from the clean passport policy. It also emphasizes that the panel has found no evidence suggesting that Iranian government officials had advance knowledge of bin Laden’s plans to attack the World Trade Towers and Pentagon on the morning of September 11, 2001.
But, citing the NSA memo, the report discloses for the first time that eight to ten of the so-called “muscle hijackers” on September 11 are believed to have traveled through Iran between October 2000 and February 2001—the same period of time that Iranian border guards were facilitating the movement of extremist jihadis entering and exiting the Afghan training camps.
Those same hijackers, most of whom probably had no knowledge of the September 11 mission themselves, began entering the United States in April 2001 with no stamps on their passports indicating their recent travel to Afghanistan and Iran-red flags that might have prompted heightened scrutiny from U.S. border inspectors.
The new discovery about Iran’s assistance to Al Qaeda is among the most surprising new findings contained in a mammoth, 500 page report on the September 11 attacks that is due to be released by the commission next Thursday. Officials familiar with the findings say it provides far stronger evidence of the Iranian government links to bin Laden’s organization than was found of connections between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Al Qaeda–a major bone of contention between the 9/11 panel and members of the Bush administration.
Former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke said the 9/11 report confirms a judgment that U.S. counterterrorism officials had reached soon after the attacks. At the time, the Bush administration was seeking evidence pointing to Iraqi involvement in the attacks. “See if Saddam did this,” Bush instructed Clarke on the evening of Sept. 12, 2001, according to Clarke’s book, “Against All Enemies.” “See if he’s linked in any way.”
In fact, Clarke said, while there was no evidence of Iraqi complicity, “there were lots of reasons to believe that [Al Qaeda] was being facilitated by elements of the Iranian security services. We told the president that specifically. The best evidence we had of state support [for Al Qaeda] was Iran.”
Bush did identify Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as part of the “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union speech. Iran had also long been identified by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism because of its close relationship with Hizbullah, a Shiite Muslim terror group with a major presence in Lebanon. But the president chose not to threaten military action against the Iranian regime, like he did with Iraq, in part because of a concern about possibly alienating “democratic forces’ within the country who might be in a position to modify Iranian behavior, according to Clarke.
Bush administration officials emphasized today that the 9/11 report also included contradictory information that undercut the idea of a strong relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda-and even cast some doubt on the conclusion that the Iranians were providing special favors for bin Laden’s organization.
In interviews with U.S. interrogators, two high-level Al Qaeda detainees–September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh–confirmed that some of the 9/11 hijackers had transited through Iran on their way to and from the Afghan training camps, the report says, according to knowledgable sources. But the two Al Qaeda captives insisted the hijackers did so mainly to take advantage of a general Iranian practice of not stamping “Saudi passports”—indicating that the Iranian policy may have been cast more broadly than just Al Qaeda members.
One White House official called the report “confusing” on this point. However, another U.S. official said the general understanding of the U.S. intelligence community is that Iran was specifically seeking to assist “extremist jihadi” or “Afghan Arabs” traveling to and from the Afghan camps.
Another major captured Al Qaeda operative, Tawfiq bin Attash, also known as “Khallad,” is cited in the report as telling interrogators that Iranian security services had reached out to bin Laden after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 and proposed a strengthening of their relationship. But bin Laden, according to the 9/11 report, rejected the overture for fear of alienating his Sunni Muslim base in Saudi Arabia.
The new evidence about Iran cited in the 9/11 report builds on findings contained in an interim staff report which challenged the long-held idea among many U.S. intelligence analysts that bin Laden’s Sunni Muslim populated terrorist group would shy away from collaboration with Shiite Muslim terror groups like Hizbullah that are associated with Iran.
In fact, the interim report found that in the mid-1990’s, “Bin Laden’s representatives and Iranian officials had discussed putting aside Shia-Sunni divisions to cooperate against the common enemy. A small group of al Qaeda operatives subsequently traveled to Iran and Hizbullah camps in Lebanon for training in explosives, intelligence and security. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in Hizbullah’s truck bombing tactics in Lebanon in 1983 that had killed 241 U.S. Marines.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, the panel found what it called “strong but indirect” evidence that bin Laden’s organization played a role in the 1996 bombing of a U.S. Air Force housing complex at Khobar Towers in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, an attack that killed 19 Americans injured 372 others. That attack had been previously blamed by U.S. officials on a Saudi Shia Hizbullah group that was receiving direct assistance from Iran.
But the 9/11 panel noted that there were reports in the months before the attack that bin Laden was seeking to facilitate a shipment of explosives to Saudi Arabia. On the day of the attack, the interim staff report said, “Bin Laden was congratulated by other members of the Islamic Army.”