Iran and al-Qaeda were unlikely partners. Iran is predominantly Persian; al-Qaeda is Arab. Iranians speak a language called Farsi; members of al-Qaeda speak Arabic. Most Iranians are Shiite Muslims; al-Qaeda members are Sunni. Initially, these cultural and religious differences caused friction between Iran and al-Qaeda. However, they soon put aside their differences for the most ancient of reasons: their possession of a common enemy. That enemy is us.
Early Contacts in Sudan
In the early 1990s, Iran and al-Qaeda began to reach out to each other. In 1992, for instance, an IRGC general, Mohammad Baqr Zolqadr, was running a Revolutionary Guards training camp in Sudan. He began communicating with al-Qaeda through Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's second in command. It is conceivable that Zolqadr wanted to copy the organization and curriculum of al-Qaeda’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had been in Sudan since 1991, where his construction company was working on projects for the Sudanese government. It is possible that Zolqadr was put in touch with Zawahiri by the government of Sudan.
Perhaps as a result of these initial meetings, throughout the 1990s, Zawahiri, traveled frequently to Iran as a guest of Ali Fallahian and Ahmad Vahidi. Fallahian is the Iranian Minister of Information and Security (MOIS.) Vahidi is the commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force. Section 43 of MOIS and the Qods Force are dedicated to conducting foreign terrorist attacks.
Sometime during the early 1990s, a group of Iranian clerics began meeting regularly in Sudan with another al-Qaeda founder, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim. In 1994, Imad Fayez Mugniyeh also came to Sudan to meet with Salim. The purpose of these meetings was to cement the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda. Presumably, this was to facilitate joint operations sometime in the near future.
The Islamic Underground Railway
In order to attack us, terrorists from the Muslim world — whether foot soldiers or coordinators — must do a lot of traveling. They must consult with each other, often in several countries. Eventually, some of them must fly to the United States. But men flying from Muslim nations directly into America are carefully scrutinized by Western immigration and customs officials. In order to evade detection, Muslim extremists tend to travel into central Europe, where air transport to America is easily obtained and less carefully watched.
In order to facilitate this travel, people who sympathize with the terrorists have built a network of clandestine paths made up of airline routes, roadways, and safe houses. Some of these paths go from one Muslim country to another. Others link Muslim countries to central Europe. Some of the way stations along these paths lie inside Muslim-dominated regions of Western nations.
Iran is a relatively large country located at the geographic center of the Muslim world. It happens to have a totalitarian government that is hostile to the West. It should hardly be surprising, then, that many of these clandestine trails pass through Iran and are managed by the Iranian government. The foot soldiers and coordinators of 9/11 made frequent use of them.
The Iran-Hamburg Trail
During the five years leading to 9/11, Iran managed the first leg of an al-Qaeda trail that proceeded through Afghanistan, Chechnya, Macedonia, Bosnia, and finally, Hamburg, Germany. Many of the 9/11 conspirators used it. For example:
• From 1998 through 2000, Mohammad Haydar Zammar — the Tabligh who recruited 9/11 pilots Mohammad Atta and Ziad Jarrah, and attack coordinator Ramzi Binalshibh — used the Iran-Hamburg trail to travel to Iran in order to coordinate his activities with al-Qaeda.
• During the same period, Ramzi Binalshibh used the trail to get into Afghanistan in order to confer with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
• Each of the pilots had to meet with bin Laden in Afghanistan in order to receive his approval. It is likely that the Hamburg pilots used the Iran-Hamburg trail for this purpose. However, on other occasions they used a trail managed by Mohammad Haydar Zammar that went from Hamburg, through Turkey and Pakistan, to Afghanistan.
The Herat-Kurdistan Trail
On Bin Laden’s orders, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Ahmed Fadil Nazzal al-Khalayleh) developed a second trail. This one led from Herat, Afghanistan, to Mashhad, Iran, to Tehran, and finally into northeastern Iraq: the region known as Iraqi Kurdistan. After 9/11, this trail was used to evacuate al-Qaeda and hundreds of al-Qaeda foot soldiers and their families from Afghanistan.
The Egypt-Afghanistan Trail
A third trail was created by the Iranians to ferry large numbers of Egyptian Islamic Jihad commanders through the Iranian city of Mashhad into bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan. Originally, the purpose of this conduit was simply to supply jihadists for the Afghan insurgency against the Russians. It may also have been used during the run-up to 9/11: a few days before September 11, the Iranians suddenly shut down this path, presumably to cover up their support of the attacks.
The Saudi Arabia-Iran Trail
A fourth trail went from Saudi Arabia, through Beirut, and into Iran. Fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Imad Fayez Mugniyeh used this fourth trail to transport many of them to Iran for training.
It should now be clear that Iran had been supplying operational support to al-Qaeda well before 9/11. Face-to-face meetings occurred regularly between high-ranking officials of the Iranian government and al-Qaeda. Iran was already deeply involved in supporting Muslim insurgents throughout the region. It already possessed a well-oiled bureaucratic apparatus for supporting foreign terrorism: no fewer than three government ministries were dedicated to this task. Iran managed a number of clandestine paths through its territory so that jihadists could move easily from their home nations into bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. When Ayman al-Zawahiri came calling in January 2001 to request support for 9/11, the infrastructure he needed was already in place.