The “Material Support” and “Save Haven” Ploys
The most egregious allegations of Iranian complicity in 9/11 come from three former staff members of the 9/11 Commission – Daniel Byman, Dietrich Snell and Janice Kephart. They had all worked on the section of the 2004 report that had given heavy emphasis to the fact that Iran had not stamped the passports of Saudis who had later become hijackers in the 9/11 attacks when they entered Iran. The section had suggested that this and other evidence could indicate Iranian complicity in the plot, even if it could not yet be proven.
In their affidavits to the court, those three former staffers, two of whom (Snell and Kephart) are lawyers, argue that Iran’s failure to stamp the passports of the al Qaeda operatives constituted provision of “material support” to al Qaeda in executing the 9/11 attacks. US anti-terrorist law specifies that the provision of “material support” to terrorists includes any “service” to terrorists if the provider is “knowing or intending that they are to be used in preparation for, or in carrying out” a terrorist action.
However, a key piece of information in a different chapter of the 9/11 Commission report shows that Iran’s failure to stamp passports was not intended to aid al Qaeda. On page 169, the report says that, in order to avoid the confiscation by Saudi authorities of passports bearing a Pakistani stamp, the Saudi al Qaeda operatives, “either erased the Pakistani visa from their passport or traveled through Iran, which did not stamp visas directly into passports.” In other words, the Iranian practice of not stamping visas directly into passports applied to everyone. And since, as the Commission report acknowledged, there was no evidence of Iranian foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, the existence of that policy did not support the thesis of Iranian “material support” for the al Qaeda plot.
The Commission staff went back to the two senior planners of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, in July 2004, to ask them specifically about the Iranian failure to stamp the passports of the hijackers, but, strangely, the Commission report gives no indication of what they said about whether the Iranian practice was intended to assist al Qaeda. Either the staff never asked the question, or the answer was ignored because it contradicted the line that those staff members were pushing in 2004 and are still pushing today.
The former Commission staffers also joined right-wing activists in highlighting the intelligence Commission report statements that “an associate of a senior Hizbullah operative” was on the same mid-November flight from Beirut to Tehran as a group of future hijackers, and that Hezbollah officials in Beirut and Iran had been “expecting the arrival of a group [from Saudi Arabia] during the same time period.” The former staffers insist that these could not have been coincidences and that they had to mean that Iran was involved in the al Qaeda plot.
The argument that the presence of an “associate” of a top Hezbollah official on the same flight as future al Qaeda hijackers could not have been a coincidence is absurd. There were obviously many “associates” of top Hezbollah officials, most whom would have had occasion to travel to Iran frequently. The statistical likelihood that one of them would be on the same flight as the future hijackers would not be so small as to merit suspicion.
And the very same section of the Commission report provides a clear explanation of the anticipation of a group traveling from Saudi Arabia to Iran that reveals the conspiratorial interpretation as dishonest. It says that a senior Hezbollah operative – said to have been Imad Mugniyeh – visited Saudi Arabia in October 2000 to “coordinate activities” there, that he planned to assist a group traveling to Iran in November, and that intelligence reports showed the planned visit to Iran involved a “top Hezbollah commander” and “Saudi Hezbollah contacts.”
But that didn’t stop the lawyers for the case from twisting the Commission report to fit the desired narrative: “The ‘activities’ that Mughniyah went to coordinate,” clearly revolved around the hijackers’ travel, their obtaining new Saudi passports and/or US visas for the 9/11 operation, as several of them did, as well as the hijackers’ security, and the operation’s security.”
Paul Pillar, who was the CIA’s senior intelligence officer on the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 and had previously been the senior analyst at the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, was categorical about the matter when I interviewed him in 2006. The facts detailed in the Commission Report about passports, travel of the hijackers through Iran, and the presence of a Hezbollah official on one of the flights “don’t show Iranian collusion with al Qaeda,” he told me.
The lawyers’ brief refers to “the existence of a secret network of travel routes and safehouses” worked out from the mid-1990s onward as being “confirmed by al Qaeda military chief Saef al Adel in a May 2005 interview.” That implies that secret arrangements on such “travel routes and safehouses” were made between al Qaeda and the Iranian government. But al-Adel said nothing of the sort. He made it clear in his interview with a Saudi journalist that the Iranians who helped them with housing and logistics were not connected with the Iranian regime.
The “expert witnesses” and the lawyers carefully skirt the fact that in the latter half of the 1990s – at a time when the United States was officially still “neutral” on the civil war in Afghanistan – Iran was providing funding, arms and other support to the Northern Alliance, the non-Pashtun forces seeking to overthrow the Taliban regime which bin Laden and al Qaeda were helping to keep in power.
That Iranian support for the Northern Alliance was still ongoing when the organization’s chief, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated September 10, 2001 by two Arabs posing as journalists. The leader of the CIA’s post-9/11 covert paramilitary team in Afghanistan, Gary Schroen, reported that there were two IRGC Colonels attached to the Commander of the Northern Alliance, Bismullah Khan, when the CIA team arrived. Nevertheless, Lopez and Tefft as well as Israeli journalist Ronan Bergman, a former intelligence officer in the Israeli Defense Forces who boasts of his “close personal contacts” with senior Israel intelligence and military officials, cite reports supposedly originating with German intelligence that Iran helped al Qaeda operatives carry out the Massoud assassination.
All the “expert witnesses” insist vehemently that Iran continued to provide “safe haven” for al Qaeda operatives who fled from Afghanistan to Iran after 9/11, allowing them to direct terrorist activities against Saudi Arabia in particular. But that accusation merely recycles the claim first made in early 2002 by Bush administration officials seeking to prevent negotiations between the United States and Iran and push for the adoption of a regime change strategy in Iran.
The central pretense of the neoconservative “safe haven” ploy was that, if any al Qaeda operatives were able to function in Iran, Iran must have deliberately permitted it. But the United States has been unable to shut down al Qaeda’s operation in Pakistan after a decade of trying, despite the cooperation of the Pakistani intelligence service and the drone coverage of the tribal areas. If the same criteria applied to Iran were to be applied to the Bush administration and the government of Germany, they could be accused of having provided “safe haven” for al Qaeda operatives prior to 9/11.
In fact, after US complaints about al Qaeda presence in Iran in late 2001, Tehran detained nearly 300 al Qaeda operatives, and gave a dossier with their names, passport pictures and fingerprints to the United Nations. Iran also repatriated at least 200 of those detainees to the newly formed government of Afghanistan.
US Ambassador Ryan Crocker revealed last year that, in late 2001, the Iranians had been willing to discuss possible surrender of the senior al Qaeda officials it was detaining to the United States and share any intelligence they had gained from their investigations as part of a wider understanding with Washington. But the neoconservative faction in the administration rejected that offer, demanding that Iran give them the al Qaeda detainees without getting anything in return.
Iran’s crackdown on al Qaeda continued in 2002-03 and netted a number of top officials. One of the senior al Qaeda detainees apparently detained by Iran during that period, Saif al-Adel, later told a Jordanian journalist that Iran’s operations against al Qaeda had “confused us and aborted 75 percent of our plan.” The arrests included “up to 80 percent” of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group, he said, and those who had not been swept up were forced to leave for Iraq.
In further negotiations with the Bush administration in May 2003, Iran again offered to turn over the senior al Qaeda detainees to the United States in return for the MEK captured by US forces in Iraq. The Bush administration again refused the offer.
By 2005, a “senior US intelligence official” was publicly admitting that 20 to 25 top al Qaeda leaders were in detention in Iran and that they were “not able to do much of anything.”
In 2008, one US official told ABC news that administration officials had not been raising the al Qaeda issue publicly, because “they believe Iran has largely kept the al Qaeda operatives under control since 2003, limiting their ability to travel and communicate.”
But in the world of the right-wing Islam-hating extremists and others pushing for confrontation with Iran, reality is no obstacle to spinning tales of secret Iranian assistance to al Qaeda.
Republished with the author’s permission from Truthout.