An al Qaeda operative connected to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and a Mumbai-style plot against Europe has been reportedly detained in Pakistan. The operative, a French-Algerian named Naamen Meziche, had been living in Iran as of earlier this year. But Meziche was captured inside Pakistan, near the border with Iran, as he was trying to re-enter that country, according to CBS News.
Meziche not only had extensive ties to al Qaeda’s 9/11 Hamburg cell, but he was also part of a second Hamburg cell that planned to carry out terrorist attacks against European cities in 2010. Those attacks were to be modeled after the 2008 siege of Mumbai, India and were ordered by slain al Qaeda master Osama bin Laden.
The 2010 plot was also linked to an al Qaeda network operating inside Iran. That network operates, according to the US government, as part of a formerly “secret” deal between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda.
Meziche’s ties to Hamburg 9/11 cell
German authorities learned of Meziche’s ties to al Qaeda’s Hamburg cell in late 2001. They discovered that Ramzi Binalshibh, al Qaeda’s point man for the Sept. 11 operation, had placed a phone call to Meziche’s home just several days before al Qaeda’s most devastating attacks.
Meziche was reportedly close to Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, as well. 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.
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.
Meziche returned to Germany and became involved in an al Qaeda cell that was recruited at the same mosque as Atta’s Hamburg cell. That mosque was named Al Quds in 2001, but had since been renamed Al Taiba.
The second Hamburg cell
Early in 2009, Meziche and 10 other jihadist recruits left Germany for northern Pakistan in several small groups. At least some of them 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 Siddiqui, a member of the cell, in Afghanistan. Siddiqui, who was held in custody at Bagram, divulged the details of the Mumbai-style plot.
The following month, in 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. Meziche, Siddiqui, and their co-conspirators had attended the mosque.
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.] Darkazanli was also a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which led a bloody revolt against the Syrian regime in the 1980s. After the revolt was quashed by the Syrian regime, Brothers such as Darkazanli fled to Europe.
CNN reported, citing German intelligence officials after Darkazanli’s mosque was closed, that both Meziche and Siddiqui were “closely acquainted” with Darkazanli.
Meziche has still other ties to the original Hamburg cell, according to Der Spiegel. Sometime in mid-2010, after they had already become involved in bin Laden’s 2010 Mumbai-syle plot against Europe, Meziche and his fellow plotters met with Said Bahaji.
Bahaji 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.
Ties to Iran-based al Qaeda network
In May, a German court sentenced Siddiqui to six years in prison. Although the court found that there was no evidence tying Siddiqui to the Mumbai-style plot, it appears that the intelligence connecting Siddiqui to the plot was not fully presented to the court. Instead, the court case focused narrowly on Siddiqui’s ties to the IMU and al Qaeda.
During the court proceedings, Siddiqui testified that Meziche and another co-conspirator, a Syrian-German named Rami Makanesi, transited through Iran in order “to not get caught.” The pair’s trip was booked in a Hamburg travel office by an unknown Iranian. Siddiqui explained that the two could not travel directly to Pakistan because they are Arabs. Pakistani authorities would have questioned the duo’s intentions and perhaps detained them, but by traveling through Iran they avoided such scrutiny.
Siddiqui’s testimony has proven to be correct, as Meziche was subsequently captured in Pakistan after leaving Iran. Makanesi was previously captured in Pakistan.
When Makanesi and Meziche arrived in Tehran, Siddiqui explained, they called a facilitator known as “Dr. Mamoud,” who works for the IMU. The two were ushered to Zahedan, a city on the eastern border of Iran, close to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. There, Siddiqui says, Dr. Mamoud “welcomed them.”
Zahedan is a well-known hub of al Qaeda and IMU activity. The IMU has repeatedly used the city’s Makki mosque, the largest Sunni mosque in Iran, to shuttle fighters into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda has an established presence there, too. For instance, before his May 2011 suicide at Guantánamo, an Afghan detainee named Inayatullah admitted to authorities that he was al Qaeda’s emir of Zahedan, from where he delivered recruits to senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Even since Inayatullah’s capture, al Qaeda fighters have continued to travel through Zahedan, as Makanesi and Meziche did.
According to Der Spiegel, senior al Qaeda planner Younis al Mauritani instructed Meziche and another member of the second Hamburg cell, an Iranian national named Shahab Dashti, to travel to Iran where “they would be told where in Europe they were to be deployed to begin building structures for bin Laden’s organization.” Al Mauritani has since been captured by the Pakistanis and reportedly remains in their custody.
Once in Iran, al Mauritani wanted Dashti “to undergo facial plastic surgery” because he had already appeared in a propaganda video and was therefore recognizable to European authorities. However, Dashti did not get a chance to fool Western intelligence officials, because he was killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan in early October 2010, after the Mumbai-style plot was uncovered.
Initial reports indicated that Meziche was killed in the same drone strike, but that proved false. Meziche was being sheltered by the Iranians as of early 2012. The New York Times reported in January that Meziche and several other members of the cell are “waiting in Iran, trying to return to Europe.” European authorities were not eager to see them come back, as they pose obvious security risks. [See LWJ report, Leaders of German al Qaeda cell living in Iran.]
“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.” Because Meziche was reportedly making phone calls from Iran as of earlier this year, he must have left Iran in recent months.
After being detained in Pakistan in 2010, Rami Makanesi, who set off for Tehran with Meziche, was extradited to Germany. Makanesi was subsequently sentenced to nearly five years in prison last year by a Frankfurt court.
Makanesi has his own ties to Iran-based al Qaeda operatives. According to Guido Steinberg, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of the German Institute for International Security Affairs, Makanesi met a top al Qaeda operative known as Yassin al Suri in February 2010. Steinberg, in an analysis brief for IHS Jane’s, a military and intelligence consulting group, explains that Suri asked Makanesi to “accompany him to Iran.” Makanesi said that Suri “was responsible for funneling money and recruits via Iran and that he was known to cooperate with the Iranian government.”
Indeed, in July 2011, the US Treasury Department revealed that Suri operates in Iran as part of a “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda. Treasury contends that Suri’s Iranian network serves as “a critical transit point for funding to support al Qaeda’s activities.” [See LWJ report, Treasury targets Iran’s ‘secret deal’ with al Qaeda.]
In December 2011, the US government offered a $10 million reward, one of the highest ever, for information leading to al Suri’s capture. [See LWJ report, US offers $10 million reward for Iran-based al Qaeda financier.] Al Suri reportedly operates in Zahedan, Iran — the same location that Makanesi and Meziche transited through to northern Pakistan.
When the Treasury Department designated al Suri in 2011, it also designated several other members of al Qaeda who utilize the Iran-based network. One of them was Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who was subsequently killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan.
The Treasury Department explained: “Rahman was previously appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.” Makanesi seems to have at least known Rahman. According to Steinberg, Makanesi has explained that Rahman “was known to have lived in Iran for many years.”
Second Hamburg cell mostly dismantled
With Meziche’s arrest, most of the members of al Qaeda’s second Hamburg cell have been either killed or detained. A few still remain at large, including some who are either in Pakistan or Iran.
It is not known whether Meziche will remain in Pakistani custody or be extradited to Germany. In the past, Meziche’s co-conspirators, Siddiqui and Makanesi, were returned to Germany and tried. In both cases, the al Qaeda operatives received relatively lenient sentences of less than 10 years.
* Benjamin Weinthal contributed reporting used in this article. In addition, portions of this article were previously published by The Weekly Standard.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.