Behind a mysterious December 22 Associated Press story about “finding of fact” by a District judge in Manhattan Friday that Iran assisted al Qaeda in the planning of the 9/11 attacks is a tapestry of recycled fabrications and distortions of fact from a bizarre cast of characters.
The AP story offers no indication of the nature of the evidence in the case except that former members of the 9/11 Commission and three Iranian defectors provided testimony. What it didn’t say was that at least two of the Iranian defectors have long been dismissed by US intelligence as “fabricators” and that the two “expert witnesses” who were supposed to determine the credibility of those defectors’ claims are both avowed advocates of crackpot conspiracy theories about Muslims and Shariah law who believe the United States is at war with Islam.
The ostensible purpose of the case brought by families of 9/11 terror attack victims was to win damages from those responsible for 9/11. Dozens of such cases involving different terrorist attacks have been brought to US courts over the years, in which “default judgments” have been made against Iran over various attacks in which Iran was allegedly involved, but there is no chance of getting any money for the families.
The only real effect of the case is to promote right-wing political myths about Iran. One of the peculiarities of such cases is that the witnesses are not subject to cross examination in court. The witnesses have every incentive, therefore to indulge in false testimony, knowing that there will be no one to challenge them.
“A Fabricator of Monumental Proportions”
The lawyers and the “expert witnesses” behind the accusation of Iran in regard to 9/11 hoped to sell the press and public on recycled claims first made by Iranian “defectors” several years ago that they had personal knowledge of Iranian participation in the 9/11 plot. The lawyers produced videotaped affidavits by three such defectors who were identified, with a dramatic flourish, as Witnesses “X,” “Y” and “Z.”
In the one public hearing held on the case, the lawyers revealed the identity of purported former Iranian intelligence official Abolghasem Mesbahi – probably a pseudonym – and described his testimony that he had received a series of “coded messages” from a former colleague in the Iranian government in the late summer and early fall of 2001 warning that a terrorist attack against the United States was being planned, and that it was a plan that had been concocted by Tehran in the late 1980s.
Although the judge and the public were being led to believe that this is somehow new information going beyond what was known by the 9/11 Commission report, it is, in fact, very old information and has long been completely discredited. Mesbahi’s story doesn’t hold up, for several reasons, and the most obvious is that, despite his claim that he was warned nearly a month before the 9/11 attacks that civilian airliners would be crashed into buildings in major US cities, including Washington and New York on September 11, he never conveyed that information to the US government before that date.
In October 2001, Mesbahi claimed to right-wing journalist Kenneth R. Timmerman, as reported in Timmerman’s 2005 book that he had tried calling the legal attaché at the US Embassy in Berlin, but was “unsuccessful in several attempts.” But he did not claim any other attempt to reach a US consulate or the US Embassy in Germany by fax, e-mail or letter before September 11, nor did he go to the US Embassy in person to convey this warning. He told Timmerman that he called an Iranian dissident contact in the United States who, he believed, had contacts with US intelligence agencies only some hours after the attacks on New York and Washington.
It wasn’t the first time Mesbahi had claimed inside information about Iranian involvement in a terrorist attack only after the attack had taken place. He had told investigators working on the December 1988 terror bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that Iran had asked Libya and Abu Nidal to carry out the attack on the personal orders of Ayatollah Khomeini. Unfortunately for his credibility, however, he had not come forward with the allegation until after the bombing had happened.
He had also provided affidavits to Argentine investigators in the case of the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, claiming his well-informed friends in Iranian intelligence had tipped him off that the decision to bomb the Jewish Community Center had been made at a meeting attended by top Iranian officials in August 1993.
But in fact, by his own admission Mesbahi had not worked for Argentine intelligence since 1988, and the FBI’s Hezbollah Office’s James Bernazzani, who had helped the Argentine intelligence service with the investigation in 1997, told me in a November 2006 interview that American intelligence officials had concluded Mesbahi did not have the continued high-level access to Iranian intelligence officials throughout the 1990s and beyond that he was claiming. They regarded him as someone who was desperate for money and ready to “provide testimony to any country on any case involving Iran,” according to Bernazzani.
Mesbahi wasn’t even consistent in the story he told about the alleged “coded messages.” In an interview with Timmerman, Mesbahi stated that he had gotten two messages from his contact, one on September 1, 2001 and a second three days later. And Timmerman wrote that his alleged contact had “phoned him again” on September 4, indicating that Mesbahi had made no reference to an elaborate scheme to send coded messages through articles in Iranian newspapers.
But in his affidavit to the 9/11 court case, he said he had gotten three messages – on July 23, August 13 and August 27 – and that the coded messages were placed in newspaper articles. Timmerman, who referred the lawyers to Mesbahi, discretely avoided pointing out the huge discrepancy between the two stories, which clearly indicates that Mesbahi fabricated the tale of messages in newspaper articles to make it more dramatic and convincing.
The second defector, Hamid Reza Zakeri, claimed he had been an officer of Iran’s Ministry of Information and Security and had provided security for a meeting at an airbase near Tehran on May 4, 2001 attended by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Osama bin Laden’s son Saad bin Laden. He also claimed to have seen replicas of the twin towers, the White House, the Pentagon and Camp David in the entry hall to the main headquarters of the MOIS with a missile suspended above the targets, and “Death to America” written in Arabic (rather than Farsi) on the side.
Like Mesbahi, Zakeri also first told his tale to Timmerman, who recounts it in his 2005 book. Zakeri, who apparently defected from Iran in late July 2001, claimed he had told the US Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan on July 26, 2001 about the alleged meeting and replicas, warning them that he believed the Iranians and al Qaeda were planning an attack on those targets that would occur September 11. But CIA officials denied categorically to Timmerman that Zakeri had given any such warning to the Embassy and called Zakeri “a fabricator of monumental proportions” and “a serial fabricator.” Zakeri failed an FBI polygraph test in 2003, according to Timmerman.
Crackpot Hate-Islam Extremists as “Expert Witnesses”
Significantly, no reputable retired intelligence analyst on Iran was asked to help judge the testimony of the Iranian defectors. Instead, Clare M. Lopez and Bruce Tefft, both former CIA covert operations case officers, were invited to be “expert witnesses,” in large part to view the videotaped testimony of the three Iranian defectors and assess their credibility.
Based on the record of their public statements, however, they were selected for that role because they could be counted upon to endorse the defectors’ allegations of Iranian involvement in planning the 9/11 attacks and any other assertion, no matter how outlandish, that suggested Iranian guilt.
Lopez has been linked with the neoconservative faction of the Bush administration and the pro-Likud Party extreme right ever since she became Executive Director of the Iran Policy Committee in 2005. Through a series of policy papers issued that year, the Committee sought to support from outside the push by a group of pro-Likud officials within the administration for a policy of regime change in Iran.
In particular, the Committee called for using the Mujahedin-E-Khalq or MEK, the armed opposition group listed by the US State Department as a terrorist group because of its assassinations of US officials during the regime of the Shah and bombings of large civilian events in Iran. The MEK had long enjoyed close working relations with Israel, but not with the United States, and the State Department had continued to oppose delisting and alliance with the MEK against Tehran, as proposed by the Defense Department and the Vice-President’s office.
Since 2009, Lopez has been a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy founded and headed by notorious Islam-hating extremist Frank J. Gaffney. One of Lopez’s projects has been to stir up public fear over an alleged threat to America – not from al Qaeda attacks, but from subversion by Muslim-Americans. She is one of a number of authors of a book published by Gaffney’s Center in October 2010 called “Shariah: the Threat to America,” which declares, “The United States is under attack by foes who are openly animated by what is known as Shariah (Islamic Law).”
Revealing the project’s anti-Islam paranoia, the book asserts, “Shariah dictates that non-Muslims be given three choices: convert to Islam and conform to Shariah; submit as second class citizens (dhimmis), or be killed.”
In a videotaped talk she gave on February 23, 2011, Lopez said Muslims, “believe they should be in charge of the world.” The main threat from Islam, she said, is “stealth Jihad” waged by Muslims who “hide behind a moderate image,” but whose “purpose is still the same” as that of al Qaeda.
A second aspect of Lopez’s work for Gaffney has been to intimidate opponents of the hard-line policies toward Iran – and especially the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) – by accusing them of being covert lobbyists for Iran.
Tefft, who retired from the CIA’s Operations Division in 1995, is even more explicit in arguing that there is a worldwide war against Islam. “We are fighting a 14-century war against Islam and its adherents, Muslims,” he declared in an interview with the right-wing website FrontPage in October 2007. “And it is a war that they have declared on all non-Muslims….” Islamic ideology requires Muslims to “make the world Islamic under the Caliphate, and to convert, kill or enslave all non-Muslims….” When the interviewer suggested that there are “moderate Muslims,” Tefft responded, “I don’t think so….” he said. “Were there ‘good’ or ‘moderate’ Nazis?”
Tefft referred to the way “the West” had “prevailed” over Islam with the “defeat of the marauding armies of Islam at the Gates of Vienna in 1529” and added, “We need to recall that period…and again contain Islam to its existing borders.”
When asked by this writer in a phone interview last week if he had been aware of the advocacy of Islamophobe arguments by Lopez and Tefft, Thomas Mellon, Jr., one of two lead lawyers in the case, did not answer directly, but said, “To the extent that you are accurate, we would say, fine, take them out.” He insisted that the lawyers for the case had not relied on any one of the ten “expert witnesses” listed on the case.
Also playing a central role in weaving the tale of Iranian complicity in the 9/11 attacks for the court case was the right-wing author and anti-Iran activist Kenneth R. Timmerman. According to the lawyers’ brief on the case, it was Timmerman who sought out one of the attorneys, Timothy B. Fleming, and brought to his attention the three Iranian “defectors” who claimed personal knowledge that Iran was involved in the planning of 9/11.
Like Lopez, Timmerman has been linked with hardline pro-Likud organizations and involved in efforts to overthrow the regime in Tehran. Along with Joshua Muravchik, and a group of Iranian exile foes of the Islamic regime, he established the “Foundation for Democracy in Iran” in 1995.
Timmerman has also expressed views sympathetic to the Hate-Islam movement. His 2003 book, “Preachers of Hate: Islam and the War against America,” portrays the United States and Israel as innocent victims of a vicious campaign against the West by whole Islamic societies that refuse to accept the US-Israeli narrative on terrorism. And his new novel, “St. Peter’s Bones,” has been praised by notorious Islam-hater Robert Spencer for revealing the “long-hidden origins of Islam.”
The “Material Support” and “Save Haven” Ploys
The most egregious allegations of Iranian complicity in 9/11 come from three former staff members of the 9/11 Commission – Daniel Byman, Dietrich Snell and Janice Kephart. They had all worked on the section of the 2004 report that had given heavy emphasis to the fact that Iran had not stamped the passports of Saudis who had later become hijackers in the 9/11 attacks when they entered Iran. The section had suggested that this and other evidence could indicate Iranian complicity in the plot, even if it could not yet be proven.
In their affidavits to the court, those three former staffers, two of whom (Snell and Kephart) are lawyers, argue that Iran’s failure to stamp the passports of the al Qaeda operatives constituted provision of “material support” to al Qaeda in executing the 9/11 attacks. US anti-terrorist law specifies that the provision of “material support” to terrorists includes any “service” to terrorists if the provider is “knowing or intending that they are to be used in preparation for, or in carrying out” a terrorist action.
However, a key piece of information in a different chapter of the 9/11 Commission report shows that Iran’s failure to stamp passports was not intended to aid al Qaeda. On page 169, the report says that, in order to avoid the confiscation by Saudi authorities of passports bearing a Pakistani stamp, the Saudi al Qaeda operatives, “either erased the Pakistani visa from their passport or traveled through Iran, which did not stamp visas directly into passports.” In other words, the Iranian practice of not stamping visas directly into passports applied to everyone. And since, as the Commission report acknowledged, there was no evidence of Iranian foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, the existence of that policy did not support the thesis of Iranian “material support” for the al Qaeda plot.
The Commission staff went back to the two senior planners of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, in July 2004, to ask them specifically about the Iranian failure to stamp the passports of the hijackers, but, strangely, the Commission report gives no indication of what they said about whether the Iranian practice was intended to assist al Qaeda. Either the staff never asked the question, or the answer was ignored because it contradicted the line that those staff members were pushing in 2004 and are still pushing today.
The former Commission staffers also joined right-wing activists in highlighting the intelligence Commission report statements that “an associate of a senior Hizbullah operative” was on the same mid-November flight from Beirut to Tehran as a group of future hijackers, and that Hezbollah officials in Beirut and Iran had been “expecting the arrival of a group [from Saudi Arabia] during the same time period.” The former staffers insist that these could not have been coincidences and that they had to mean that Iran was involved in the al Qaeda plot.
The argument that the presence of an “associate” of a top Hezbollah official on the same flight as future al Qaeda hijackers could not have been a coincidence is absurd. There were obviously many “associates” of top Hezbollah officials, most whom would have had occasion to travel to Iran frequently. The statistical likelihood that one of them would be on the same flight as the future hijackers would not be so small as to merit suspicion.
And the very same section of the Commission report provides a clear explanation of the anticipation of a group traveling from Saudi Arabia to Iran that reveals the conspiratorial interpretation as dishonest. It says that a senior Hezbollah operative – said to have been Imad Mugniyeh – visited Saudi Arabia in October 2000 to “coordinate activities” there, that he planned to assist a group traveling to Iran in November, and that intelligence reports showed the planned visit to Iran involved a “top Hezbollah commander” and “Saudi Hezbollah contacts.”
But that didn’t stop the lawyers for the case from twisting the Commission report to fit the desired narrative: “The ‘activities’ that Mughniyah went to coordinate,” clearly revolved around the hijackers’ travel, their obtaining new Saudi passports and/or US visas for the 9/11 operation, as several of them did, as well as the hijackers’ security, and the operation’s security.”
Paul Pillar, who was the CIA’s senior intelligence officer on the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 and had previously been the senior analyst at the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, was categorical about the matter when I interviewed him in 2006. The facts detailed in the Commission Report about passports, travel of the hijackers through Iran, and the presence of a Hezbollah official on one of the flights “don’t show Iranian collusion with al Qaeda,” he told me.
The lawyers’ brief refers to “the existence of a secret network of travel routes and safehouses” worked out from the mid-1990s onward as being “confirmed by al Qaeda military chief Saef al Adel in a May 2005 interview.” That implies that secret arrangements on such “travel routes and safehouses” were made between al Qaeda and the Iranian government. But al-Adel said nothing of the sort. He made it clear in his interview with a Saudi journalist that the Iranians who helped them with housing and logistics were not connected with the Iranian regime.
The “expert witnesses” and the lawyers carefully skirt the fact that in the latter half of the 1990s – at a time when the United States was officially still “neutral” on the civil war in Afghanistan – Iran was providing funding, arms and other support to the Northern Alliance, the non-Pashtun forces seeking to overthrow the Taliban regime which bin Laden and al Qaeda were helping to keep in power.
That Iranian support for the Northern Alliance was still ongoing when the organization’s chief, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated September 10, 2001 by two Arabs posing as journalists. The leader of the CIA’s post-9/11 covert paramilitary team in Afghanistan, Gary Schroen, reported that there were two IRGC Colonels attached to the Commander of the Northern Alliance, Bismullah Khan, when the CIA team arrived. Nevertheless, Lopez and Tefft as well as Israeli journalist Ronan Bergman, a former intelligence officer in the Israeli Defense Forces who boasts of his “close personal contacts” with senior Israel intelligence and military officials, cite reports supposedly originating with German intelligence that Iran helped al Qaeda operatives carry out the Massoud assassination.
All the “expert witnesses” insist vehemently that Iran continued to provide “safe haven” for al Qaeda operatives who fled from Afghanistan to Iran after 9/11, allowing them to direct terrorist activities against Saudi Arabia in particular. But that accusation merely recycles the claim first made in early 2002 by Bush administration officials seeking to prevent negotiations between the United States and Iran and push for the adoption of a regime change strategy in Iran.
The central pretense of the neoconservative “safe haven” ploy was that, if any al Qaeda operatives were able to function in Iran, Iran must have deliberately permitted it. But the United States has been unable to shut down al Qaeda’s operation in Pakistan after a decade of trying, despite the cooperation of the Pakistani intelligence service and the drone coverage of the tribal areas. If the same criteria applied to Iran were to be applied to the Bush administration and the government of Germany, they could be accused of having provided “safe haven” for al Qaeda operatives prior to 9/11.
In fact, after US complaints about al Qaeda presence in Iran in late 2001, Tehran detained nearly 300 al Qaeda operatives, and gave a dossier with their names, passport pictures and fingerprints to the United Nations. Iran also repatriated at least 200 of those detainees to the newly formed government of Afghanistan.
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker revealed last year that, in late 2001, the Iranians had been willing to discuss possible surrender of the senior al Qaeda officials it was detaining to the United States and share any intelligence they had gained from their investigations as part of a wider understanding with Washington. But the neoconservative faction in the administration rejected that offer, demanding that Iran give them the al Qaeda detainees without getting anything in return.
Iran’s crackdown on al Qaeda continued in 2002-03 and netted a number of top officials. One of the senior al Qaeda detainees apparently detained by Iran during that period, Saif al-Adel, later told a Jordanian journalist that Iran’s operations against al Qaeda had “confused us and aborted 75 percent of our plan.” The arrests included “up to 80 percent” of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group, he said, and those who had not been swept up were forced to leave for Iraq.
In further negotiations with the Bush administration in May 2003, Iran again offered to turn over the senior al Qaeda detainees to the United States in return for the MEK captured by US forces in Iraq. The Bush administration again refused the offer.
By 2005, a “senior US intelligence official” was publicly admitting that 20 to 25 top al Qaeda leaders were in detention in Iran and that they were “not able to do much of anything.”
In 2008, one US official told ABC news that administration officials had not been raising the al Qaeda issue publicly, because “they believe Iran has largely kept the al Qaeda operatives under control since 2003, limiting their ability to travel and communicate.”
But in the world of the right-wing Islam-hating extremists and others pushing for confrontation with Iran, reality is no obstacle to spinning tales of secret Iranian assistance to al Qaeda.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.