SOMETIME BEFORE SEPTEMBER 2001 security officers in Tehran met with an emissary from al-Qaeda. He delivered a letter from top al-Qaeda operative Ayman Al Zawahiri that began: "We need your help to carry out a most important mission in the land of the 'Great Satan.'" For the meeting the emissary, together with Iranian officials, set up props: models of the World Trade Center, the White House, the Pentagon, and CIA headquarters.
So says a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer whose defection first came to light last month. Hamid Reza Zakiri, one of an elite officers corps that reports directly to Iran's ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, was present at that meeting and other planning sessions. His testimony -reported in an interview with the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat-suggests not only that Iran's Islamic rulers had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, but also that they could be hiding information about future attacks and the dispersed web of terrorists who are planning them.
Iran, which shares with Iraq a 600-mile border that the two nations fought over during the 1980s, publicly is playing peace broker over Baghdad. Iran's Foreign Ministry last week called for a United NationsÐsupervised referendum leading to a transition of power in Iraq while stifling U.S. military intervention.
But at the same time the country's ruling Islamic clerics have longstanding ties to terrorist organizations and anti-American violence. After all, Iran is where fundamentalist Islam gave birth to revolution in 1979. The country officially remains an Islamic state, the envy of Middle East terrorists. Yet its role in aiding terror organizations has been overlooked as confrontation with the enemy next door looms larger.
Imad Mughnia, a Lebanese Shiite, ran the Tehran meeting accompanied by replicas of U.S. government buildings. He also delivered the letter from Ayman Al Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who has long been considered a deputy to Osama bin Laden. Iranian officers at the meeting decided "to entrust Mughnia with keeping the relations with Al Zawahiri and his comrades, provided he did not get involved in their activity," said Mr. Zakiri.
Mr. Zakiri's account confirms that al-Qaeda went shopping for state sponsors to underwrite its massive attack on U.S. landmarks. After the United States went to war in Afghanistan, Iran also provided a way of escape for terrorists. Imad Mughnia, he said, "planned the escape of dozens of al-Qaeda men to Iran." He also smuggled to Iran the youngest of Osama bin Laden's four wives, "the young Yemenite woman with her son." Iranian security officers "handed them over to Yemen."
Reports surface weekly that Osama bin Laden could be in Pakistan, Yemen, or Iran. Deputy Al Zawahiri, too, is believed to be in hiding. As for Mr. Mughnia, he "is still in Iran and is continuing his activity," said Mr. Zakiri.
Imad Mughnia, 40, is a longtime wanted man. Mr. Mughnia (whose name is also spelled "Mughniyah," "Mughaniyah," and "Mugniyah") was secretly indicted for the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, where U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem was killed. He was never apprehended, but in October 2001 suddenly appeared on the FBI's most-wanted list of terrorists. A senior Hezbollah operative, he has also been tied to the bomb blast of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 250 Americans.
In June 1996 Ayatollah Khameini announced in a Friday sermon that Hezbollah must reach "all continents and all countries." According to terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky, Tehran's clerics soon after named three men to head that effort: Imad Mughnia, Islamic Jihad leader Ahmad Salah Salim, and Osama bin Laden.
Imad Mughnia is Shiite. Ahmad Salah Salim and Osama bin Laden are both Sunnis. Their alliance suggests that the factions that fought one another in Lebanon 20 years ago are now united in a war of terror on the West. That convergence was first reported widely a week after 9/11 when a Jane's Foreign Report raised the possibility that Mr. Mughnia co-directed the World Trade Center attack together with Mr. Al Zawahiri. The report, citing Israeli military intelligence sources, said the men acted with Iraqi sponsorship.
If this latest testimony by Mr. Zakiri is true, Iran's sponsorship of terror has not only continued since it first supported Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon in the 1980s; it has widened to support the nefarious web spun from the fall of Afghanistan that is currently forcing U.S. officials to issue Code Orange alerts.
Iran's ties to international terrorists began in the 1980s with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. "A number of Egyptians who were responsible for the crime came to us," said Mr. Zakiri, who was then one of 400 Revolutionary Guard officers attached to the Security Ministry. The Guards, he said, "established relations with them."
The Guards went on to establish bases in Lebanon, where Mr. Zakiri said they met Mr. Mughnia. They used the bases "for recruiting and training the revolutionaries and gradually bringing them into their schemes against the Americans, such as blowing up the Marine headquarters in Beirut and attacking the American embassy." Imad Mughnia and Revolutionary Guard officers, he said, "had a major part in these actions."
Neither the death of the popular Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini nor, more recently, parliamentary elections changed the Security Ministry's close ties to terrorists. In fact, the new ayatollah-Ali Khameini-moved to establish an independent security bureau reporting directly to him, after Iranians overwhelmingly elected a moderate leader, Mohammed Khatami, as president in 1997.
Fundamentalist clerics led by the ayatollah, who favor strict Islamic government, control Iran's Guardian Council. In spite of the polls, they oversee elections, certify candidates, and control the police. The Guardian Council thwarts Mr. Khatami's reforms in parliament and still controls the all-important judiciary. Lawmakers who speak out against the court system are regularly imprisoned. Police reverse parliamentary decisions to open independent presses and allow women to receive education abroad, and they invoke other restrictions.
According to defector Zakiri, Ayatollah Khameini's security ministry controls the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence officers of the judiciary. "These apparatuses are today in shameful violation of the law when they arrest reformists, close down newspapers, and beat and kill people," said Mr. Zakiri.
And what about ties to Iraq? The Revolutionary Guards and paramilitary units under them set up smuggling operations, said Mr. Zakiri, to export and sell Iraqi oil and dates in violation of UN sanctions. Until about a year ago, when the trade ceased, they shared proceeds with an Iraqi company headed by Saddam Hussein's son Qusay. Iraqi and Iranian security bureaus also cooperated to establish and protect Ansar al Islam, a terrorist organization operating in northern Iraq that has sheltered al-Qaeda fugitives.
Mr. Zakiri would not answer some questions because his family is not yet secure, he said. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat would not disclose his whereabouts. Neither the State Department nor the White House have officially commented on his statements. Mr. Bodansky, an adviser to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, told WORLD that Mr. Zakiri is "a good source." Defectors, however, "are never perfect, never error-free in what they can say," he said. Imad Mughnia, he said, "remains a large threat, a major threat," whose whereabouts, officially, are unknown.