Issue: 06/24/03

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Defector Alleges IranianInvolvement in Sept. 11 Attacks

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Zakeri's letter in Farsi(jpeg file)

Zakeri's letter inEnglish

Zakeri list of 149MOIS operatives involved in international terrorism (requiresFarsi fonts in browser)


An even more devastating terrorism charge could be laid on Iran'sdoorstep if intelligence reports linking Iran to al-Qaeda areconfirmed. Insight has learned of new links between top Iranianintelligence officials and the al-Qaeda leadership that suggestdirect Iranian government involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks on theU.S. mainland. Documents and information provided to this magazine bya recent Iranian defector, if confirmed as authentic, could open anew front in the war on terror.

The defector, Hamid Reza Zakeri, says he worked in theintelligence office of Supreme Leader Ali Khameini and personallyhandled security at two meetings in Iran between top al-Qaedaoperatives and Iranian officials just months before Sept. 11. Zakerispoke to Insight about these ties last week by telephone from anundisclosed location. His information dovetailed with an earlierreport on Iran's ties with al-Qaeda, produced by the DefenseIntelligence Agency, that this magazine first revealed in November2001 [see "Iran Cosponsors al-Qaeda Terrorism"].

Zakeri backed up his account of the two meetings between al-Qaedaand Iran with a document signed by Hojjatoleslam Ali AkbarNateq-Nouri, who heads the Ministry of Information and Security(MOIS) for Khameini. The letter, dated May 14, 2001, carriedinstructions from Khameini to MOIS regarding relations with al-Qaeda.In it, Nateq-Nouri quoted Khameini as ordering MOIS to "strike at[America's] economic structure, their reputation - and theirinternal peace and security." Above all, Khameini said, "we should bevery careful and very clever, so as not to leave behind any evidencethat could negatively impact our future standing or policies."

In closing the letter, Nateq-Nouri instructed his counterpart atMOIS, Hojjatoleslam Mustafa Pourghanad, to work to "improve ourplans, especially in coordination with fighters of al-Qaeda andHezbollah to find one objective that is beneficial to both sides."Above all, he added, "the Leader mentioned that we should limit ourrelations with al-Qaeda to just two people, as before - Imad Mugniyehand Ayman al-Zawahiri - and deal only with them."

The letter from Nateq-Nouri was written just days after the secondof two recent top-level meetings between an al-Qaeda delegation andthe Iranian leadership, Zakeri tells Insight.

The first meeting took place in January 2001, when top Osama binLaden deputy al-Zawahiri traveled to Iran from Afghanistan for afour-day meeting, accompanied by 29 other al-Qaeda leaders. "Zawahiritold my boss, Musfafa Hadadian, that they were planning a 'majoroperation' against the United States and Israel," Zakeri tellsInsight. That meeting was held at a special mountain guest house nearthe town of Varamin outside Tehran. Zakeri says he handled securityfor the meeting.

According to Zakeri he did not speak with the Arabs who attendedthe meeting, but bases his account on what he was told by his bossand his colleagues in Iranian intelligence. "After the meeting, 12 ofthem stayed on in Iran," he says. "They were talking about their'plans for the future,' and that they had the 'same enemy' as theIranians. They said they were trying to build up one movement tocooperate together, and were asking Iran for operational support,equipment and money-laundering help in Dubai, as well as assistancewith travel documents to help them travel from Iran to Europe. Aymanal-Zawahiri told my boss that al-Qaeda was 'very soon' going to makea major operation against the United States." Zakeri says thatNateq-Nouri, a former speaker of the Iranian parliament and top aideto Khameini, led the Iranian delegation and was assisted by Ali AkbarParvaresh, the former education minister cited in the AIMA bombingcase. Parvaresh was a member of Section 43, the planning unit of theintelligence ministry, Zakeri says.

A U.S. intelligence official who tracks Iran confirmed the role ofParvaresh and of Section 43 in planning terrorist operations.

The talks with al-Zawahiri went so well that bin Laden dispatchedhis eldest son, Saad bin Laden, on a return trip to Iran exactly fourmonths and seven days before Sept. 11, according to Zakeri. Theyounger bin Laden was flown from the Tayebat border crossing withAfghanistan to the Damavand air base outside Tehran. "He came withthree other people," Zakeri says. "They were not introduced to me andspoke Arabic amongst themselves. But Saad spoke good English." Zakerisays he stayed in Iran for three weeks but held just one officialmeeting, which took place at 3 a.m. at Khomeini's former meetinghouse in Jamaran, on the slopes of the Elburz Mountains in Tehran'snorthern suburbs. Present were all five members of the LeadershipCouncil, Zakeri says: Khameini, former president Hashemi Rafsanjaniand ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi, Mahdavi Kani and Ali Meshkini.

It was at that meeting, on May 4, 2001, that final plans for theattack on the U.S. mainland were made, Zakeri believes. Shortlyafterward, he recalls seeing a striking exhibit in the entry hall tothe main headquarters of the MOIS in Tehran. "It was a model of theWorld Trade Center, the White House, the Pentagon and Camp David," hesays. "From the ceiling, a missile was suspended, as if to strike thebuildings. 'Death to America' was written on its side in Arabic, notFarsi."

Zakeri says the intelligence ministry frequently displayed in thesame entry hall photographs of Iranian dissidents it planned toassassinate. It also was used as a prayer room and amphitheater."Everyone saw it, and after 9/11, everybody understood what itmeant," he says.

As a trusted security official, Zakeri had a diplomatic passportwith permanent visas, allowing him to leave the country at will. Hetells Insight he traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, where he met withofficials at the U. S. Embassy on July 26, 2001, including the CIAstation chief. I warned them that something big was going to happenon Sept. 10. I didn't know what it was, we argued and I left. The CIAsaid they didn't want to work with me," Zakeri says.

A U.S. intelligence official categorically denied that Zakeri haddelivered such a warning. "We have no record that he made such aclaim. He is a fabricator of monumental proportion." The official didnot deny that the meeting had taken place. A spokesman for the StateDepartment's Office of Counterterrorism, Joe Reap, referred Insight'sinquiries about Zakeri's July 26 warning to the Joint IntelligenceCommittee in Congress that is investigating the Sept. 11 attacks."You're asking me to reveal intelligence information," Reap saidtestily. "I'm not going to do that."

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.

For more on this story, read"Evidence Fuels Iran Terror Debate."