Iran has never stopped denying ever having sheltered or hidden Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant and operations ace, Dr Ayman al-Zuwahiri, 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 just discovered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s most reliable exclusive sources.
Zuwahiri’s importance as a linchpin and live wire of the al Qaeda network cannot be overstated. Our counter-intelligence experts stress that American special forces and intelligence agents have been hunting him since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
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 week, as the hunt drew near, they helped Zuwahiri stay a step ahead of his pursuers and leave the country by a secret tortuous route. On Sunday or Monday, August 17 or 18, 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 and carrying fake identification, out of his hiding place and across into Turkey. An Iranian spy cell buried in Turkey waited for him at the frontier 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.
Zuwahiri 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 Fergana 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, Zuwahiri 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.
In another exclusive report, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has learned that, a day or two after Zuwahiri left Iran, Iranian intelligence ministry officers came out on top of a tense tug-o’-war with Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen over control of a group of al Qaeda terrorists at an airport in the northern Iranian city of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan.
The Americans, Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, Egyptians and Israelis are well aware that eight senior Al Qaeda officials were enjoying Iran’s hospitality as late 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.
A large Revolutionary Guards contingent was about to ship three terrorists out in an attempt to begin the extradition of al Qaeda terrorists to their countries of origin, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They were leading the three to an unmarked plane parked near a side runway with its engines running to execute the Tehran-Riyadh extradition deal – when they were rudely interrupted.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources believe that one of the three 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 Zuwahiri 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 Iranian Guardsmen were suddenly 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.
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. One camp advocates reaching accommodations with Washington on nuclear issues, Iraq, the Gulf and oil, so as to avoid confrontation, military, economic and diplomatic. The other wants regards the West as the eternal enemy.
The accommodationists are led by Rafsanjani.
At the same time, the former president draws most of his clout from his closeness to hardline spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who effectively controls Iran’s intelligence services as well as its terrorist arm. Both have strong links to al Qaeda,
In one of the weird twists typical of Iranian politics, the pragmatic Rafsanjani is personal adviser to an uncompromising leader who is the most fervent opponent of any kind of accommodation with the West. But such paradoxical alliances have marked the internal balance of forces in the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary regime ever since its early days under Ruhollah Khomeini and in a curious way strengthened the national consensus.
By the same token, Khamenei and Rafsanjani make no secret of their positions; each knows where the other stands. All the top command of the Revolutionary Guards follows the Rafsanjani-Razai pragmatic line.
Razai who retains his strong influence among the officers of the Guards units is also well in with the country’s clergy and business community. His power base is broader than his boss’s.
Rafsanjani is encouraging his chef de bureau to run for president against the reformist incumbent, Mohammed Khatami, in January 2005.
Khatami’s ineffectiveness is the despair of most Iranians, who were not surprised to see him sitting on the sidelines of the regime’s debate over the handling of al Qaeda.
But the anti-accommodationist factions remain powerful enough to thwart the extraditions of al Qaeda leaders no less than four times. The most prominent leaders of this group which defers to Khamenei are General Hassan Fares Abadi, the Iranian chief of staff, and the Revolutionary Guards commander, General Yaha Rahim Safavi.
To limit the spread of Razai’s influence over his officers, Safavi has created a special unit called the Al Quds battalions charged with guarding Al Qaeda members held in Iran. Before they can move anywhere in the country – even close by their places of refuge – Bin Laden’s terrorists need a permit or a detail of bodyguards from al Quds, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources report.
Another leading hard-liner is the president of the Iranian judiciary, Mohammed Shahroudi. One of the peculiarities of the Iranian system of justice is that Shahroudi also doubles as attorney general and chief prosecutor.
Shahroudi visited Riyadh in late July to negotiate the extradition to Saudi Arabia of al Qaeda fugitives implicated in the May 12 bombings in the Saudi capital. Those talks ultimately led nowhere. But Shahroudi is a name worth remembering. An Iraqi Shiite, he spent many years in Iraq and is still looked up to by many Iraqi Shiites. His origins and background could make him a key figure in forging links between Al Qaeda and fringes of Iraq’s Shiite majority.