Terror Watch: More Evidence of an Iran-Al Qaeda Connection

Just eight months before the September 11 terror attacks, top conspirator Ramzi bin al-Shibh received a four-week visa to Iran and then flew to Tehran--an apparent stop-off point on his way to meet with Al Qaeda chiefs in Afghanistan, according to law-enforcement documents obtained by NEWSWEEK.

German government documents showing the previously undisclosed trip by bin al-Shibh, a captured Al Qaeda operative who played a crucial coordinating role in the 9/11 plot, is the latest evidence that the World Trade Center conspirators frequently used Iran as a safe transit point in their travels to and from Afghanistan.

The final report of the 9-11 Commission, which is due out tomorrow, contains significant new information about a possible "Iran connection" to the plot, including a U.S. intelligence analysis indicating that Iranian border inspectors were instructed not to stamp the passports of Al Qaeda members entering and exiting their country. Although the information has been known to the U.S. intelligence community for some time, President Bush told reporters this week that the U.S. government was "digging into the facts to determine if there was" a possible Iranian connection to the September 11 attacks.

The president's comments were touched off by news reports, by NEWSWEEK and other news organizations, that the 9/11 panel will reveal this week that as many as 10 of the so-called "muscle hijackers" traveled through Iran between the fall of 2000 and February 2001. U.S. intelligence officials emphasize they have no evidence that the Iranian government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 plot and, in recent days, an Iranian government spokesman has called "ridiculous" reports that there was any Iranian involvement with Al Qaeda. Still, the trip by bin al-Shibh adds to the picture and, according to some U.S. investigators, raises new questions about whether some Iranian security officials may have been actively assisting Al Qaeda operatives while they were traveling through their country.

The bin al-Shibh evidence is contained in the thousands of pages of documents compiled by Germany's BKA, or Federal Criminal Office, in the course of its investigation into the so-called "Hamburg cell," one of whose members, Muhammad Atta, became the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers. Bin al-Shibh, a Yemeni national, was Atta's roommate in Hamburg and, when he was unable to obtain a visa to enter the United States, became a key coordinator of the plot, relaying instructions between 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Atta, according to the 9/11 commission. Another member of the Hamburg cell, Mounir el-Motassadeq, was convicted by a German court last year of being an accomplice in the attacks and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The German documents show that, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, German investigators first sought information from the Iranian Embassy in Berlin about bin al-Shibh's travels to their country. The Iranians appear to have cooperated, turning over a copy of a two-page visa application form filled out in bin al-Shibh's handwriting and an attachment showing his passport photograph. The document shows that on Dec. 20, 2000--during a crucial stage of the 9/11 plot--bin al-Shibh applied for a four-week tourist visa to Iran, marking a box stating that his reasons for visiting the country were "tourist or pilgrimage." One question on the form was, "If you are passing through Iran in transit have you obtained entry visa for your next country of stay?" Bin al-Shibh wrote an X in the box for "nein." He also stated on the form that he planned to take $2,000 with him on his trip.

A German law-enforcement report on the matter concludes that bin al-Shibh's visa request was approved and that on Jan. 31, 2001, he flew to Iran, landing at Tehran International Report. The report states he likely flew from Amsterdam since banking documents show he withdrew money from there just a few days earlier. The report concludes however that the Germans were unable to learn any more from the Iranians about bin al-Shibh's activities in Iran and whether he engaged in an "illegal border crossing to Afghanistan--although such a trip was highly likely.

That bin al-Shibh used the trip to cross the border and visit with Al Qaeda chiefs in Afghanistan is highly likely given his indispensable role in the unfolding 9/11 plot, U.S. investigators say. In laying out bin al-Shibh's role in an interim staff report last month, the 9/11 commission noted that bin al-Shibh first visited Al Qaeda's Kandahar training camp in Afghanistan in late 1999--about the same time as Atta and two other 9/11 plotters from the Hamburg cell, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah. At that time, bin al-Shibh pledged "bayat," or allegiance, to Osama bin Laden in a private meeting. It was during this trip that the men from Hamburg first discussed the 9/11 plot and that bin al-Shibh, along with Atta and Shehhi, later met with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Karachi to discuss details including "how to read airline schedules."

Bin al-Shibh remained in continuous contact with Mohammed and, according to the commission's report, was the 9/11 mastermind's main link to Atta in the United States. Bin al-Shibh also served as a financial conduit, wiring $10,000 to the hijackers from Germany, as well as another $14,000 in early August 2001 to Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who was at the time taking flight lessons in Oklahoma. Bin al-Shibh, who was captured more than two years ago, has told U.S. interrogators that he understood that Moussaoui was supposed to be part of the 9/11 plot, but Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has insisted instead that Moussaoui was supposed to participate in a planned "second wave" of attacks on the West Coast.

Commission sources acknowledge they have been unable to resolve key questions about what precisely the 9/11 plotters did while they transited through Iran and, in particular, whether they were receiving active assistance from Iranian security officials, who appear to have maintained relations with Al Qaeda. But investigators say there is mounting evidence about Al Qaeda-Iranian relationships that appear to have been overlooked by a Bush administration that was far more focused on finding connections between bin Laden's organization and the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Indeed, during the trial of another alleged Hamburg cell member, Abdelghani Mzoudi, prosecutors produced a last-minute witness, Hamid Reza Zakeri, who said he was a former officer of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Zakeri testified there was a meeting at an airbase near Tehran on May 4, 2001, between top Iranian leaders--including supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani--and one of Osama bin Laden's elder sons, Saad, at which plans for 9/11 were discussed.

Zakeri also reportedly claimed he had earlier helped arrange security for a January 2001 meeting between Saad bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's principal deputy. He also claimed that he met with a CIA officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, in July 2001 and passed on a warning to the United States about the forthcoming 9/11 attacks.

U.S. and German authorities have never been able to corroborate Zakeri's claims about the involvement of top Iranian officials, and some officials have questioned his credibility. German government efforts to use Zakeri as a witness against Mzoudi proved ineffective; the defendant, unlike the previously convicted Motassadeq, was acquitted of charges of being an accomplice to the 9/11 hijackers.

But U.S. officials say they are concerned about the increasing evidence of possible Iranian connections to the 9/11 attacks, noting that as many as 10 top Al Qaeda operatives, including Saad bin Laden and another top bin Laden deputy, Said Al-Adel, fled to Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. The Al Qaeda operatives are believed to be in some sort of government custody, most likely house arrest. But the Iranian government has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. entreaties to turn over the Al Qaeda leaders, and some U.S. intelligence officials believe they may be still supervising terror operations--especially in Saudi Arabia--through the use of couriers. "This is an evolving story," said one U.S. official about the evidence of possible Iranian ties to Al Qaeda.

Terror Watch, written by Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball appears online weekly