During the early part of 2001, Iran began providing assistance to al-Qaeda in preparation for the attacks. In the process, Iran tried to expropriate the project from al-Qaeda via an extraordinary friendly takeover. The Iranians believed that they gradually took on more and more operational support, while exercising more and more influence over al-Qaeda. But in reality, bin Laden never relinquished control over his pet project, which he called "the planes operation."
As we will see in a later posting, Iran gave al-Qaeda operational support throughout the 1990s. Probably the most important service Iran provided was assistance with travel. However, during the run-up to 9/11, the Iranian government took five specific actions that far exceeded their routine activities and that specifically supported the planes operation:
1. The meeting at Varamin to establish a joint operations center.
2. The meeting at Jamaran to order the attack.
3. The Presidential Directive from Khamenei giving specific instructions to MOIS.
4. The construction of the target wall in Sultanatabad.
5. The coordination of travel arrangements for the muscle hijackers.
The Meeting at Varamin
Ayman al-Zawahiri made his request for operational support during a four-day meeting in January, 2001. The Iranian government hosted the meeting in the town of Varamin, a suburb of Tehran. Zawahiri brought with him from Afghanistan 29 other al-Qaeda leaders. The Iranian government was represented by several men. Four are important to our story:
• Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri was a former Speaker of Parliament, and was now the head of Iran’s Office of the Supreme Leader. Nateq-Nouri’s position was equivalent in the United States to that of the White House Chief of Staff. Thus, Nateq-Nouri was acting as the personal representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the true leader of Iran.
• Mustafa Hadadian reported to Nateq-Nouri. He was head of Section 110, a group that ran intelligence operations for the Office of the Supreme Leader. This included planning for overseas terrorist attacks, and providing physical security for visiting terrorist dignitaries like Zawahiri. Hadadian had been involved in the planning and execution of the Khobar Towers bombing.
• Ali Akbar Parvaresh was an officer in the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS.) MOIS is equivalent to America’s CIA. Parvaresh had assisted in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association in Buenos Aires. He was now a member of Section 43, a branch of MOIS dedicated to carrying out foreign terrorism.
• Imad Fayez Mugniyeh (Imad Fayez Mugniyah) was an officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC.) The IRGC has no known equivalent in the United States. It is a uniformed militia dedicated to espionage and foreign intrigue, separate from the regular Army. Mugniyeh was a member of the Qods Force, a branch of the IRGC that carries out foreign terrorist attacks. He was born in Lebanon, but became a naturalized citizen of Iran. By 2001, he had become the world’s most wanted terrorist, having performed bombings, abductions, torture, and assassinations in several countries. He had been a field commander in the Beirut Marine barracks bombing, in the Khobar Towers attack, and in the assassination of Robert Dean Stethem.
What is remarkable about this roster of four men is that it represents three separate branches of the Iranian government that are each dedicated to performing acts of foreign terrorism: Section 110 of the Office of the Supreme Leader, Section 43 of MOIS, and the Qods force of the IRGC.
Zawahiri announced that al-Qaeda was planning major operations against both Israel and the United States. He asked the Iranians for special equipment, for assistance in laundering money in Dubayy, and for help with travel documents so that al-Qaeda operatives could move from Iran to Europe without being noticed by customs and immigration officials.
The four-day meeting went well. Twelve of Zawahiri’s men stayed in Iran, and set up an operations headquarters in the city of Karaj. Zawahiri and the others returned to Afghanistan.
The Meeting at Jamaran
On May 4, 2001, the Iranians hosted another meeting with al-Qaeda. This time it was a meeting between top officials. Bin Laden sent his eldest son, Saad, along with at least two body guards. The meeting was held in Jamaran, a rich suburb of Tehran. At the time, the Iranian government was run by a committee of five senior leaders. Saad bin Laden met with all of them:
• Ali Khamenei was the Supreme Leader, Iran’s Head of State. The Supreme Leader is equivalent to the President of the United States. However, the Supreme Leader is elected by the Assembly of Experts, and serves for life.
• Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a former President of Iran, and is probably Iran’s wealthiest citizen. At the time of the meeting, Rafsanjani was Head of the Expediency Discernment Council. Its purpose is to advise the Supreme Leader, and resolve conflicts between Parliament and the Council of Guardians.
• Mohammad Yazdi was Head of the Council of Guardians. The Council consists of Islamic clerics and lawyers. It interprets the constitution and determines if laws passed by Parliament are constitutional. Yazdi’s position was equivalent in part to that of the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
• Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi was Chief of the Judiciary. He too played a role similar to the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. However, he had different duties than Mohammad Yazdi. Shahroudi was born in Iraq, but became a naturalized citizen of Iran.
• Ayatollah Ali Meshkini was the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly consists of 86 experts in Islamic law. Their purpose is to elect the Supreme Leader. There is no analog for the Assembly of Experts in the government of the United States.
For three hours, Saad bin Laden described the current plan for the forthcoming attacks. The five leaders then ordered Section 43 of the MOIS to cooperate with al-Qaeda and implement the plan. Bin Laden remained in Iran for three weeks meeting with operational leaders of Section 43.
The Presidential Directive from Khamenei
On May 14, 2001, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dictated a Presidential Directive to Nateq-Nouri that was then conveyed to Section 43. In it Khamenei said that:
• Iran must “…strike at [America’s] economic structure, their reputation…and their internal peace and security.”
• Iran should “…not leave any evidence behind that can impact negatively on us in the future.”
• MOIS should improve al-Qaeda’s plan, especially the coordination between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah operatives.
• The interface between Iran and al-Qaeda should be limited to two people: Mugniyeh for Iran and Zawahiri for al-Qaeda.
Hamid Reza Zakeri, one of the former Iranian intelligence officers who warned the CIA of the plot, has in his possession an original of Khamenei’s letter. It is printed on high-rag-content paper with a repeating watermark. The watermark contains the seal of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Farsi name of the Intelligence Section of the Supreme Leader’s Office. (Farsi, not Arabic, is the predominant language spoken in Iran.)
The Target Wall in Sultanatabad
Iranian military and internal security forces are headquartered in the northern suburbs of Tehran. One of these regions, Sultanatabad, houses a prison that also serves as the headquarters of the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS.) In the entry hall of this building is a display area where MOIS and the IRGC post photographs of Iranian dissidents who have been targeted for assassination.
During the summer of 2001, a huge display was erected along the target wall. It included three-dimensional models of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the White House; and photographs of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and the Presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland. Suspended from the ceiling was a 9-foot-long model missile, with a black warhead, aimed directly at the model of the Pentagon. The words, “Death to America!” were printed in Arabic along its side.
It was now apparent that Iran had greatly expanded the scope of bin Laden’s original plan. It wasn’t enough to topple the World Trade Center. Nor was it enough to destroy the Pentagon. War is a conversation. The combatants speak to each other through their actions. The attack was to be a fiery diatribe against the West. Here is the lengthy, detailed message Iran wanted to send to Americans:
• By destroying the World Trade Center, Iran would be saying: “These towers symbolize your economic colonialism, the prevalence of rich Jewish merchants in your economy, their financial support of Israel, and their worldwide Jewish conspiracy against Muslims. We reject your support for the Zionists.”
• By destroying the Pentagon, Iran would be saying: “This building symbolizes your military imperialism, your support for the state of Israel, and the arrogance of your military. We have once more revealed to the world that you are weak, cowardly, and stupid.”
• By destroying the White House, Iran would be saying: “This building represents the arrogance and imperial aspirations of George W. Bush, and of the entire Bush dynasty. By killing the President, we reject their continual interference in our affairs, and their support for the State of Israel.”
• By destroying Camp David, Iran would be saying: “We reject the Camp David Accords of 1978, which resulted in a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and those of 2000, which resulted in a road map to peace between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.”
• By destroying CIA headquarters, Iran would be saying: “We hereby repay the CIA for the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq.” (We will discuss Mosaddeq and the coup that overthrew him in a later posting.)
This kind of hysterical tongue-lashing is not typical of Sunni Islam, al-Qaeda, or bin Laden. But as we will see, it is consistent with the Iranian national character. On May 9, 2006, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote an open letter to President Bush. It is full of the same rambling rhetoric.
The 15 Saudi Musclemen
Beginning in the second half of 2000, bin Laden began recruiting the muscle hijackers. These were unmarried, unemployed men with no more than a high school education who were between 20 and 28 years of age. All but one of them were Saudis. Two were already in the United States, having failed to make the grade as pilots. (Actually, one of them, Khalid al Mihdhar, left the United States in June 2000 without permission from al-Qaeda, but returned in July 2001.) Their job was to overpower and if necessary kill any passengers or crew members that resisted the hijackings. They also brought a lot of money (perhaps as much as $50,000.00 each) to the conspirators who were already in America. In all, al-Qaeda attempted to obtain as many as 25 musclemen, but they managed to send only 15.
Like the pilots before them, the musclemen needed extensive logistical support, particularly with travel. Iran facilitated their journey. The Iranians helped the muscle hijackers to travel from Saudi Arabia to and from Afghanistan via Iran for training. When the trainees were ready, the Iranians flew them through various routes from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Afghanistan through Pakistan and Iran to Dubayy in the United Arab Emirates. There they boarded planes bound for the United States. Much of this travel was facilitated by Imad Fayez Mugniyeh.
It is notable that Zawahiri requested help in attacking not only the United States, but also Israel; and that Khamenei’s letter mandates cooperation with Hezbollah. Hezbollah was created and has been financed exclusively by Iran. It is Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon. Iran frequently uses Hezbollah to bomb targets in Israel. These facts strongly suggest that al-Qaeda and Iran intended to attack Israel and the United States on the same day. Why no attacks materialized in Israel is an open question.