Iran Helped Bin Laden’s Lieutenant al-Zawahiri Escape

Iran consistently denies ever having sheltered or hidden Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant and operations ace, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the group of al Qaeda leaders present in the country. This assertion is wide of the truth. The Islamic Republic did in fact hide the bespectacled Egyptian medical doctor for close on a year. He was granted sanctuary, a base of operation and finally provided with a safe getaway route – as discovered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s most reliable exclusive sources.
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Two years after the September 11 terrorist horrors in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Zawahiri’s importance as a linchpin and live wire of the al Qaeda network and badly wanted quarry of American special forces and intelligence agents.
His capture is as crucial to the United States global war on terror as the apprehension of Bin Laden himself or Saddam Hussein.
The Iranians looked after him very well. Last month, as the hunt drew near, they helped Zawahiri stay a step ahead of his pursuers and leave the country by a secret tortuous route. DEBKA-Net-Weekly learns that Iranian intelligence agents were personally ordered by Iranian intelligence minister Hojatoleslam Ali Younesi to spirit the wanted terrorist chief, disguised as an Iranian Shiite cleric out of his hiding place and across into Turkey. Travelers from Iran are not required to show passports at the Turkish frontier. An Iranian spy cell buried in Turkey waited for him and conducted him to one of their own safe houses. There he stayed for two or three days before moving on to an unknown destination.
Zawahiri is as intent on keeping al Qaeda’s terror campaign alive as of keeping his head down. Our al Qaeda watchers therefore point to his two most likely destinations: The Ferghana Valley, a lawless territory ruled by Al Qaeda that straddles Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and China; or the wild Pankisi Gorge badland on the Chechen-Georgian border. Iranian intelligence would be able to prepare the absconding terrorist mastermind’s welcome in the latter place through its active channels of communication with Chechen rebels and Saudi Al Qaeda fighters focusing on Chechnya and its environs. At the Pankisi Gorge, Zawahiri would have moved on to his next stop helped by many helping hands in his own movement.
Some made their escape there in late May, when Tehran plotted the flight of some of the al Qaeda perpetrators of the massive bombings in foreigners’ compounds in Riyadh on May 19. Flouting insistent Saudi and American demands to hand the wanted men over, Iranian intelligence gave them transportation and money to smooth their way as far as the Pankisi Gorge.
Reporting from exclusive sources in Tehran, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has learned that, a day or two after Zawahiri left Iran, a tense tug-o’-war took place between Iranian intelligence ministry officers and Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen over control of a group of al Qaeda terrorists. They confronted each other at an airport in the northern Iranian city of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan.
Eight senior al Qaeda operatives were known to have been harbored in Tehran as recently as mid-August. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported, have a list of 60 names of Al Qaeda operations officers in the Islamic Republic.
Three of those terrorists were the prize fought over by the two armed Iranian factions.
A large Revolutionary Guards contingent was about to put them on an unmarked plane parked near a side runway with its engines running to extradite them to Saudi Arabia, the start of their deportation to their countries of origin, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Suddenly, the Iranian Guardsmen were surrounded by a larger contingent of Iranian intelligence ministry officers, who demanded custody of all three Al Qaeda men. A second group of officers had meanwhile boarded the plane and ordered the pilot to switch off the engines. At one point in the four-hour standoff, according to our Iranian sources, guns were drawn and threats made. But the officers from the Tehran ministry issued a 15-minute ultimatum to hand the terrorists over or else they would open fire. The Revolutionary Guards backed down.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that this was the third time Guards had been frustrated in attempt to send some senior Al Qaeda operatives back to their respective home countries.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources believe that one of the three terrorists was Saif al-Adel, number three in the Al Qaeda hierarchy and the group’s military commander. Last month, the CIA determined that al Adel, like Zawahiri an Egyptian national, had been in Iranian custody for some three weeks. They have been searching for him for ten years, since the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia in 1993 in which 18 Americans were killed. He is suspected of having commanded a Al Qaeda unit fighting in Mogadishu at the time.
Now, he is named as mastermind of the Riyadh bomb blasts and was on the point of being flown out to Saudi Arabia when the Intelligence minister Younesi had managed to block the extradition while also spotlighting a deep division in the Islamic Republic’s ruling regime.
Shortly after the airport confrontation, we learn that Moshen Razai, chef de bureau of the still powerful former president Hashem Rafsanjani, sent an encrypted report on the incident to members of his faction in the Revolutionary Guards command. He posted it over his private, closed personal website, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources were able to access. At the end of the message, Razai wrote: “There are still elements within Iran’s intelligence services who are protecting Al Qaeda adherents and will do anything to prevent their extradition to Arab countries and thwart any progress towards better relations with them.”
Razai is himself a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. His boss, Rafsanjani, is thought to be the most influential of any Iranian leader among the Guards.
The next move came about several hours later from Imad al-Parsa, a close associate of Rafsanjani and Razai. He summoned his own inner circle, including a large number of senior Revolutionary Guards officers and told them: “The same elements that executed the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Teheran and took its diplomatic staff hostage, thereby foredooming Iran to bad relations with the West for a generation, are at work again.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran analysts learn from this episode that the attempt to use al Qaeda as an instrument of terror and bargaining chip to gain a respite to develop nuclear weapons has landed Tehran in hot water with regard to the regime’s internal cohesion.
The clerical leaders are now split down the middle.

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