In early October 2010, US forces launched a drone airstrike against a militant compound in North Waziristan, Pakistan. The intent of the strike was to kill members of a German al Qaeda cell that had plotted to assault European cities in a manner similar to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. Jihadist web sites and news accounts indicated that some members of the cell were killed in the strike. But now, more than two years later, the cell’s leaders have turned up alive — in Iran.
The New York Times reported earlier this month that Namaan Meziche and several other members of the German al Qaeda cell are “waiting in Iran, trying to return to Europe.” European intelligence officials are concerned that the cell’s members pose a threat to security, however, as they received training from seasoned terrorist operatives in northern Pakistan and reportedly intended to strike multiple targets inside Europe.
Meziche, in particular, has compiled a dossier with extensive links to notorious al Qaeda operatives, including members of al Qaeda’s 9/11 Hamburg cell.
Meziche’s ties to Hamburg cell
“German authorities began investigating Mr. Meziche in late 2001 after they discovered telephone and email communications he maintained with suspected members of al Qaeda,” the Wall Street Journal reported shortly after the October 2010 drone strike. Conspicuously, authorities discovered that Ramzi Binalshibh, the point man for al Qaeda’s 9/11 plot, “placed a 34-second phone call on Sept. 5, 2001” to Meziche’s home.
Meziche was reportedly close to Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker for the 9/11 attacks. And he is also the son-in-law of a radical cleric named Mohamed al Fazazi, whose sermons and spiritual advice guided the Hamburg cell. Fazazi was subsequently jailed in Morocco for his purported role in the May 16, 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca. Those suicide attacks hit several targets and killed 45 people.
The Casablanca bombings were reportedly ordered by senior al Qaeda leaders living in Iran at the time. In October 2003, the Washington Post reported that Saad bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden’s heirs, was suspected of providing instructions to the Casablanca al Qaeda cell while receiving safe haven in Iran. Saad bin Laden was reportedly killed in a drone strike in 2009 after returning to Pakistan from Iran, although his death has not been confirmed by al Qaeda.
In the years that followed 9/11, European officials suspected that Meziche helped recruit fighters to wage jihad on behalf of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al Qaeda branch in Iraq. Meziche himself was reportedly detained at some point in Syria while attempting to make his way to Iraq. Syria was a common transit route for jihadists following the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Leaked State Department cables make it clear that senior officials in Bashar Assad’s regime were complicit in this jihadist ratline. On occasion, European officials alerted Syrian authorities to the presence of suspected jihadists heading for Iraq, thereby leading the Syrians to detain them. It is not publicly known, however, if German officials tipped off the Syrians about Meziche’s presence.
Early in 2009, Meziche and 10 other jihadist recruits left Germany for northern Pakistan in several small groups. At least some of them, perhaps all, transited Iran on their way to Pakistan. They intended to fight alongside the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and members of the cell would later appear in IMU propaganda videos.
Whether they intended to return to Europe to launch terrorist attacks from the outset, or only came up with that plan after al Qaeda’s operatives repurposed them, is not entirely clear. But in July 2010 Coalition forces captured Ahmed Sidiqi, a member of the cell, in Afghanistan. Sidiqi, who was held in custody at Bagram, divulged the details of the Mumbai-style plot, which was reportedly ordered by deceased al Qaeda master Osama bin Laden. [See LWJ report, Report: Osama bin Laden ordered Mumbai-style attacks in Europe.]
The following month, August 2010, German authorities closed down the Taiba mosque in Hamburg after it was discovered that the mosque was once again connected to a major international terrorist plot. The mosque was previously known as the al Quds mosque and was frequented by the 9/11 suicide pilots, as well as Meziche. An imam at the Taiba mosque, both in 2001 and years later when it was closed, is a man named Mamoun Darkazanli. Darkazanli is a Syrian-German who has been suspected of serving al Qaeda since the 1990s and had close ties to the Hamburg cell. [See LWJ report, Longtime al Qaeda operative runs mosque closed by German authorities.]
CNN reported, citing German intelligence officials after Darkazanli’s mosque was closed, that both Meziche and Sidiqi are “closely acquainted” with Darkazanli.
Meziche has still other ties to the Hamburg cell, according to Der Spiegel. Sometime in mid-2010, Meziche and his fellow plotters met with Said Bahaji, who assisted Binalshibh and Atta as they prepared for the 9/11 attacks by attending to their routine matters in Germany. Bahaji went on to work for al Qaeda’s propaganda wing in Pakistan.
Binalshibh’s suspicious travels to Iran
It is not surprising to learn that Meziche has turned up inside Iran. Ramzi Binalshibh, Meziche’s compatriot, frequently used Iran when transiting to and from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In December 2000, as first reported by Newsweek, Binalshibh applied for a four-week visa at the Iranian Embassy in Berlin. On his handwritten application, Binalshibh checked a box indicating that the purpose of his visit was for tourism or a “pilgrimage” to one of Iran’s holy sites. One question on the application asked, “If you are passing through Iran in transit have you obtained entry visa for your next country of stay?” Binalshibh replied that he had not.
The Iranians granted Binalshibh’s visa request. On Jan. 31, 2001 he landed at Tehran International Airport. The German investigators who uncovered Binalshibh’s trip know little about his time in Iran, but he went on to Afghanistan to meet with al Qaeda’s leadership. Binalshibh did not return to Germany until nearly one month later, on Feb.28, 2001.
Six days before the 9/11 attacks, according to a 2004 account in the Chicago Tribune, Binalshibh returned to Tehran once again en route to Afghanistan. On the same day, Binalshibh placed his call to Meziche’s residence in Germany.
Binalshibh was captured along with other al Qaeda operatives in Karachi, Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2002. But in the year in between the 9/11 attacks and his capture, Binalshibh spent several weeks inside Iran. Binalshibh’s post-9/11 stay in Iran is discussed in a leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment.
“After the fall of Kandahar” in late 2001, the JTF-GTMO memo states, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “told [Binalshibh] and roughly 30 Saudis to retreat to Iran.” Binalshibh “spent about six weeks in Iran” but returned to Karachi “because he learned that unidentified Iranians were seeking to arrest mujahideen (Islamic fighers) in Iran, and it was no longer considered safe there.” Other senior al Qaeda operatives continued to live inside Iran, however. And some have continued to operate on Iranian soil under a “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda. [See LWJ report, Treasury targets Iran’s ‘secret deal’ with al Qaeda.]
Anonymous US officials cited by the Times described Meziche and another member of the German al Qaeda cell living in Iran, Fatih Temelli, as “lower midlevel” al Qaeda operatives. “These two have been involved in Al Qaeda external operations activities for some time now,” one US official told the Times. Both men reportedly deny any al Qaeda role.
Temelli is a member of the German Taliban Mujahideen, a group that has sought to organize Western recruits for fighting inside Afghanistan. Although he is not further identified by the Times, Temelli may in fact be Abdul Fettah al Almani, who was named the head of the German Taliban Mujahideen in 2010.
It is highly unlikely that the Iranians do not know that Meziche, Temelli, and other members of the German al Qaeda cell are living inside Iran. Meziche and Temelli communicate openly with their family members and lawyers.
“Western intelligence officials are suspicious not just of the men’s intentions, but also of Iran,” the Times reported. “While not directing these men, Iran appears to be harboring them in hopes that, when and if they leave, they will cause trouble in the West.”
The Times also cites a French intelligence official as saying that the Iranians “are basically sending the message, we could let them travel back to Europe and they might commit attacks or to Afghanistan, where they fight against NATO.” This same French official added to his interpretation of Iran’s message: “They are under our control, so don’t mess with us.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.