In an unusual last-minute act before the new administration takes over the reins, acting Treasury Secretary Stuart A. Levy’s former office issued a stunning report on Friday, laying out long-standing ties between Iran and the top leadership of al-Qaida.
As undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence since that job was created in July 2004, Levy spearheaded the Treasury Department’s efforts to take the war on international terrorists to the financial battlefield, by denying individual terrorists and terrorist-support states such as Iran access to international financial markets.
Less known, until last Friday, was Levy’s involvement in tracking down fugitive al-Qaida members who have taken up residence in Iran since they fled Afghanistan with Iranian government help after 9/11.
Levy’s office revealed stunning new evidence of the close operational ties between the Iranian regime and al-Qaida when it designated four top al-Qaida officials as “international terrorists” under the terms of Executive Order 13224.
Signed just 10 days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Executive Order 13224 launched the civilian side of the global war against terror by publicly “designating” groups, individuals, and regimes as international terrorists or terrorist sponsors, and banning them from international financial markets.
By all accounts, Levy’s efforts to clip the wings of Iranian state-owned banks has been tremendously successful, with Iran scrambling to find new, covert means of continuing to fund terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
But this latest move in exposing the Iranian regime’s ties to top al-Qaida operatives could have explosive and far-reaching implications.
Sa’ad bin Laden, the oldest son of Osama bin Laden, has been in Iran since late 2001, when he moved bin Laden family members from Afghanistan to Iran, the Treasury Department now says.
“Sa’ad made key decisions for al-Qaida and was part of a small group of al-Qaida members that was involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran,” last Friday’s announcement designating Sa’ad bin Laden and three others states.
Just hours after the Treasury announcement, outgoing Director of National Intelligence Adm. Mike McConnell told reporters that the younger bin Laden had left Iran in September, and was now in Pakistan, where al-Qaida now appeared to be consolidating its leadership.
An unnamed intelligence official who appeared with McConnell at the briefing tried to convince reporters that the al-Qaida leadership had been used as “a bargaining chip” by Iran, and that they had been under house arrest for at least some of the time.
“The relationship between the two has run hot and cold,” the unnamed official said.
The subject of Iran’s relationship to al-Qaida has been a matter of hot dispute since 9/11, with the old guard at the CIA arguing vigorously that the religious difference between Sunnis and Shias prevented any effective cooperation between the two.
But as I reported in “Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran,” in 2005, the CIA missed several key opportunities to recruit walk-in Iranian defectors, including one former Iranian government agent who offered information about the impending terrorist attacks on America in July 2001.
As a result of these failures, the CIA has sought to downplay any operational relationship between Iran and al-Qaida.
The agent, known as Hamid Reza Zakeri, told the CIA that Iran was working together with al-Qaida to launch a “massive attack” on America using commercial airliners.
He also gave the exact date of the attack, and details of planning meetings held in Iran between the top Iranian leadership and al-Qaida leaders, including Sa'ad bin Laden.
But the CIA officers who interviewed Zakeri didn’t trust his information. Senior U.S. intelligence officials involved in the 9/11 investigations told Newsmax that Zakeri’s information was “never passed up the food chain” and so never caught the attention of top CIA managers back in Washington.
In addition to bin Laden’s heir apparent, the Treasury Department on Friday formally designated three other top al-Qaida operatives who have worked closely with the Iranian regime.
Mustafa Hamid, an Egyptian who married a daughter of al-Qaida military commander Sayf al-Adl, was “harbored by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which served as Hamid’s point of contact between al-Qaida and Iran,” the Treasury Department said.
“In the mid-1990s, Mustafa Hamid reportedly negotiated a secret relationship between Osama bin laden and Iran, allowing many al-Qaida members safe transit through Iran to Afghanistan,” the Treasury states.
The line from Iran to Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks is mentioned elliptically in the final report of the 9/11 Commission.
More recently, several “high-value detainees” in Guantanamo Bay have mentioned traveling through Iran to Afghanistan before 9/11 in transcripts of hearings released by the Pentagon. This information has been widely ignored by the national media.
But Mustafa Hamid’s role as go-between for al-Qaida and Iran was even more explicit and far-reaching, according to the Treasury Department report. “In the late 1990s, Mustafa Hamid passed communications between Osama bin Laden and the Government of Iran. When tensions were high between Iran and Afghanistan, Mustafa Hamid traveled multiple times from Kandahar to Tehran as an intermediary for the Taliban.”
The tension between Iran and the Taliban regime in 1998 and 1999, when Iran placed several hundred thousand troops on the Afghan border, poised to invade, has been used as a trump card argument by U.S. intelligence analysts who claim that Iran never cooperated with al-Qaida or the Taliban because of religious differences.
“In late 2001, Mustafa Hamid was in Tehran delivering messages from the Taliban to the Government of Iran,” the Treasury report states. “Hamid also negotiated on behalf of al-Qaida in an attempt to relocate al-Qaida families to Iran” after the 9/11 attacks.
Muhammad Rab’a al-Sayid al-Bahtiyti, another Egyptian-born al-Qaida operative, married a daughter of bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“After September 11, 2001, Ayman al-Zawahiri instructed Bahtiyti to take al-Zawahiri’s family to Iran,” the Treasury Department states.
“Bahtiyti reportedly traveled to Iran with al-Zawahiri’s daughters, where he was subsequently responsible for them. In January 2003, while working from Iran, Bahtiyti arranged housing on behalf of al-Qaida” operatives who came to Iran seeking refugee from U.S. trackers.
Yet another link in the chain between al-Qaida and the Iranian regime is a 38-year old Yemeni man named Ali Saleh Husain, whom the Treasury said had close relations with bin Laden himself.
Husain’s specialty was liaison with terrorist groups in Chechnya. In April 2002, while living in Iran, he was given “responsibility for operation meetings for attacks against Israel,” and was a chief al-Qaida contact in Iran for acquiring fresh travel documents for al-Qaida operatives.
Like the others, he helped move al-Qaida fighters from Afghanistan to Iran after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. “After leaving Afghanistan, Husain was responsible for smuggling al Qaida members and associates via networks in Zahedan, Iran.”
The four al-Qaida members were among a larger group of al-Qaida operatives allegedly “detained” by the Iranian regime in mid-2003, after Saudi Arabia complained forcefully that Iran had allowed al-Qaida to plot the May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh from Iranian soil.
During those attacks, al-Qaida operatives shot their way into three housing compounds and set off multiple car bombs, killing 91 people. The Saudis called the May 2003 attacks “our 9/11,” and launched a crackdown on homegrown Islamic extremists in the weeks that followed.
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