Editor’s note: Part 1 of this series was published on May 5, 2012.
In a recently released report on Osama bin Laden’s files (“Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?”), the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point begins its discussion of the relationship between al Qaeda and Iran by noting that it “is one of the least understood aspects about al Qaeda’s history.” This is true, but the CTC’s report is of little use for understanding this relationship and gets basic facts wrong.
The CTC argues there is a “scarcity of reliable public information to elucidate the nature of this connection” and therefore “theories vary widely.” The footnote to that sentence points to the testimony of an al Qaeda operative named Jamal al Fadl, who was a key government witness during the trial of some of the al Qaeda operatives responsible for the Aug. 7, 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks were al Qaeda’s most successful operation prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
Al Fadl told authorities, as noted by the CTC, that al Qaeda members received training from Hezbollah in the early 1990s. During his testimony, al Fadl said that he spoke with two al Qaeda operatives who told him they went to Lebanon to receive Hezbollah’s training. One of the operatives, Abu Talha al Sudani, told al Fadl that “the training is very good.” Al Sudani brought back “some tapes with him” from the training, according to al Fadl, and al Sudani showed the tapes to his al Qaeda comrades. “I saw one of the tapes,” al Fadl explained, “and he tell me they train about how to explosives [sic] big buildings.”
Clinton administration officials have argued that al Fadl’s testimony provided a key window into al Qaeda’s activities at a time when intelligence was sparse. But the CTC report’s authors try to downplay the significance of al Fadl’s testimony with respect to Iran and al Qaeda, when they write: “To the authors’ knowledge, this information has not been corroborated.”
In fact, al Fadl’s information was corroborated by another key government witness: Ali Mohamed, who conducted surveillance used to plot the embassy bombings.
Mohamed corroborated al Fadl’s testimony when agreeing to a plea deal with the government. A transcript of Mohamed’s testimony is freely available online at the same web site the CTC uses to cite al Fadl’s testimony.
Mohamed was trusted by both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri to run some of al Qaeda’s most sensitive missions. During one such assignment, Mohamed handled the security for a sit down between Hezbollah’s terror chief, Imad Mugniyah, and Osama bin Laden. Mugniyah orchestrated Hezbollah’s earliest terrorist attacks against American forces in Lebanon in the 1980s, including the Oct. 23, 1983 Beirut barracks bombings. During that attack, two suicide bombers detonated nearly simultaneously at the headquarters for the US Marines and French paratroopers, killing 241 American servicemen.
Years later, in the early 1990s, bin Laden wanted to know how to replicate these attacks. And al Qaeda’s CEO asked Iran and Hezbollah for help.
Mohamed explained to authorities [emphasis added]:
I was aware of certain contacts between al Qaeda and [Egyptian Islamic] al Jihad organization, on one side, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other side. I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between Mugniyah, Hezbollah’s chief, and bin Laden.
Hezbollah provided explosives training for al Qaeda and al Jihad. Iran supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks.
Therefore, contrary to the CTC’s claim, Mohamed directly corroborated al Fadl’s testimony about al Qaeda operatives training in Hezbollah’s camps.
Mohamed further explained that al Qaeda consciously modeled its operations on Hezbollah’s: Mugniyah’s group successfully drove the US out of Lebanon in the 1980s with a series of attacks, and al Qaeda sought to force the same type of retreat from the Middle East. (The same thinking applied to America’s presence in Africa.)
I was involved in the [Egyptian] Islamic Jihad organization, and the Islamic Jihad organization has a very close link to al Qaeda, the organization, for bin Laden. And the objective of all this, just to attack any Western target in the Middle East, to force the government of the Western countries just to pull out from the Middle East.
…Based on the Marine explosion in Beirut in 1984 [sic: 1983] and the American pull-out from Beirut, they will be the same method, to force the United States to pull out from Saudi Arabia.
Clinton administration prosecutors
Based on the testimony of these two well-placed al Qaeda operatives, Jamal al Fadl and Ali Mohamed, as well as other evidence, Clinton administration prosecutors concluded that Iran, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda had struck a deal. One of the first federal indictments of bin Laden and al Qaeda reads:
Osama bin Laden, the defendant, and al Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with representatives of the government of Iran, and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.
When testifying before the 9/11 Commission years later, in June 2004, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald understood that Hezbollah’s training of al Qaeda operatives was especially important. Fitzgerald investigated the embassy bombings for the government, and took testimony from both al Fadl and Mohamed. Fitzgerald explained to the commission that “in the middle of the 1990’s, al Qaeda members received sophisticated explosives training from Hezbollah, despite the deep religious differences between the Sunni members of al Qaeda and the Shiite members of Hezbollah.”
The 9/11 Commission
The 9/11 Commission itself found that the training described by al Fadl and Mohamed took place. At the time of the sit down between Mugniyah and bin Laden, al Qaeda was headquartered in the Sudan, which was then run by the National Islamic Front’s (NIF) Hassan al Turabi – a radical Islamist ideologue. Unlike the stereotypical version of Sunni extremists so many analysts assume cannot cooperate with Shiites, Turabi “sought to persuade Shiites and Sunnis to put aside their divisions and join against the common enemy.” Turabi’s efforts proved fruitful.
The 9/11 Commission explained [emphasis added]:
In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support – even if only training – for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 US Marines in Lebanon in 1983. The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.
And when explaining how al Qaeda acquired the capability to attack American embassies in August 1998, the 9/11 Commission added:
Al Qaeda had begun developing the tactical expertise for such attacks months earlier, when some of its operatives – top military committee members and several operatives who were involved with the Kenya cell among them – were sent to Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon.
The footnote for this sentence from the 9/11 Commission report cites al Fadl’s and Mohamed’s testimony, FBI investigative reports, and “intelligence reports.” Two of the intelligence reports are dated Jan. 31, 1997 and titled “Establishment of a Tripartite Agreement Among Usama Bin Laden, Iran, and the NIF” and “Cooperation Among Usama Bin Laden’s Islamic Army, Iran and the NIF.”
Iran found liable for embassy bombings
Late last year, a DC district court reviewed the available evidence concerning Hezbollah’s training of al Qaeda operatives. Like all of the parties mentioned above, the court found that the training did take place and that al Qaeda “did not possess the technical expertise required to carry out the embassy bombings” prior to Iran’s and Hezbollah’s assistance.
The district court found that the Iranians were liable for the embassy bombings because of the training provided to al Qaeda. Iran did not contest the case, as is typical in cases involving state sponsors of terrorism, and so the court issued a default judgment. Given the well-documented record, however, it is doubtful that Iran would have prevailed in explaining away its lethal assistance even if it had contested the lawsuit.
This may seem like ancient history at this point. But as evidenced by the CTC report, many counterterrorism analysts still do not have a basic understanding of the ties between Iran and al Qaeda. This makes putting new evidence, such as a small sample of files captured in Osama bin Laden’s lair, into context much more difficult.
None of Osama bin Laden’s files pertaining to the embassy bombings, if they exist, have been released to the public. US intelligence officials tell the Long War Journal that bin Laden’s files go back to the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Even without those files we can be sure that Hezbollah’s training of al Qaeda operatives took place, despite the CTC’s doubts. The evidence for this fact was good enough for two federal courts, the FBI, the 9/11 Commission, and Clinton-era federal prosecutors.
It is also obvious that al Qaeda’s embassy bombings were modeled after Hezbollah’s 1983 attacks, as Ali Mohamed explained. Both, for example, relied on the same modus operandi – suicide truck bombers striking multiple targets nearly simultaneously.
The 1998 embassy bombings marked the first time al Qaeda employed such methods – after receiving help from Iran and Hezbollah.