The History of Iranian Sponsored Terrorism

Al-Qaida's Links to Iranian Security Services

Yael Shahar
ICT Researcher

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, terrorism has served the regime of the ayatollahs as a tool of both domestic and foreign policy. This policy was directed against Iranian citizens inside Iran, as well as against advocates of opposition views in exile. Iran's sponsorship of terrorism has bridged ideological gaps and political divides; Teheran has provided arms and training to such groups as the Gama'a al-Islamiyah, the Egyptian al-Jihad, and the Algerian G.I.A. Al-Qaida too, has benefited from Iranian support and expertise for more than a decade. More recently, this support has taken the form of free passage for al-Qaida activists seeking to establish a foothold in Lebanon. There are also signs that al-Qaida has sought the help of Iran in deepening it involvement in Palestinian terrorism against Israel.

Iran's support of Terrorism

Iran views terrorism as a legitimate means to further its ideological and strategic aims, including:

"Exporting the Revolution"

Assisting Islamic groups and organizations worldwide, especially in the Middle East

Furthering the destruction of Israel and attempting to sabotage the political process

Destabilizing the regimes of the more pragmatic Arab countries

Eliminating the Iranian regime's opposition.

Throughout the 1980s, Iranian and pro-Iranian agencies were involved in the planning and execution of attacks against Western targets, particularly in Lebanon. Under instructions from Iran, Hizballah-often operating under the name "Islamic Jihad"-carried out a series of attacks against Western interests. Among them:

The suicide bombing of the American embassy in Beirut (18 April. 83), which killed 61 people and left more than 120 wounded.

The suicide bombing of the Marines headquarters in Beirut (23 Oct.83), which killed 39 and wounded 40 people.

The suicide bombing of the French army barracks in Beirut (23 Oct. 83), which killed 74 and wounded about 15.

During the latter half of the 1980s, the Iranians directed the handling of Western hostages seized by Hizballah. The Iranian government even became involved in the negotiations for their release, via special emissaries who acted as mediators between the various Lebanese groups holding the hostages and the Iranian government. Thus, the release of citizens of Western countries being held in Lebanon by Iranian-backed groups was made contingent upon the release of Iranian or Lebanese activists arrested for involvement in terrorist activity in Western Europe.

Despite its clandestine nature, Iran's worldwide involvement in international terrorism cannot always be concealed. Occasionally, events come to light that are proof of Iranian government's involvement in terrorist activities. For instance, in March 1996 authorities in Belgium discovered a specially-built Howitzer canon that had been sent by ship from Iran to Germany to be used in a terrorist attack. A German court announced that senior Iranian officials had been involved in the assassination of Kurdish leaders in Germany, in what came to be called the "Mikonos Affair". More recently, the investigation into the 1995 Khobar Towers bombing against American forces in Saudi Arabia implicated senior members of Iran's intelligence apparatus.

It is possible that Iran was behind an attempt to disrupt the "Madrid Conference" on the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors in October 1991 by executing terror attacks during the Conference against the interests of the countries taking part in the talks. At least one of these attacks was carried out by a group supported by Iran.

Since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran has expanded and improved it capabilities to operate terrorism by proxy. Although it is often claimed that only the Iranian radicals support terrorism, the reality has proved otherwise.

The Islamic regime's determination to continue supporting terrorism has forced the Iranian Foreign Ministry to strive, under extreme international pressure, to offset the damage caused by this policy to Tehran's economic and political ties. In recent years, Iran has made considerable efforts to cast off its negative image as a state sponsoring terrorism. This has been motivated mainly by the desire for the economic advantages that can be had by altering its appearance vis-a-vis the West. Iran does not deny its adherence to Khomeini's "Islamic revolutionary ideology", which supports all radical Islamic movements worldwide. However the regime insists that Iranian support for these movements does not go beyond cultural, moral and humanitarian aid. Tehran strongly denies any military and/or financial assistance to these movements. Upon hearing these denials, it is well to bear in mind the principle of taqiyya (concealing the faith), a concept deeply embedded in the Shi'ite tradition, and according to which untruth can be used as a means of protection against the persecutors of the Shi'ite faithful.

The election of President Mohammed Khatami in May of 1997 was seen at the time as the harbinger of greater liberalization and democratization in Iran's public life, as well as the beginning of a more acceptable foreign affairs policy.

However, since Khatami's election, Iran has been enmeshed in a power struggle between the adherents of secular President Khatami on the one hand and the backers of supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei on the other. While Khatami can be said to have, to some extent, the mandate of the people, in that he was elected to his position, it is with the religious theocracy that the real power lies. The military, the police and the judiciary are all under the influence of the clerical regime. So too, are the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolution Guards, the apparatus by which Iran's "foreign policy by terror" is implemented. These forces are still under the control of Khamenei.

Khatami's influence on Iran's foreign policy has been expressed chiefly in trips abroad. These travels helped to strengthen the country's diplomatic standing, but failed to lead to palpable change of Iranian policy regarding its involvement in international terrorism.

The only change that did occur in the Iranian terrorism scene in recent years has been essentially a tactical one. Iran has been careful to adjust its terror policy to international circumstances, in the realization that such activity does not play well to a Western audience. Iran does everything possible to ensure that its own actions are not perceived to be part of international terrorism. Iranian agents rarely take an active part in terror attacks; instead, missions are "out-sourced" to proxy organizations, such as the Hizballah, a regular contractor and central player in Iran's terror strategy. Often terrorist groups active in the target country are trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and commissioned to carry out terrorist acts against common enemies.

One example is the bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996 that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. According to an indictment handed down in June 2002, the attack was carried out by an organization called the Saudi Hizballah under the direction of "elements in the Iranian government." The indictment named as one of the orchestrators of the attack Imad Mugniyeh, who has been described as Iran's chief operational director for terrorist attacks abroad. Also named was Ahmed al-Mughassil, the head of the Saudi Hizballah. Both al-Mughassil and Mugniyeh are currently believed to be in Iran. The perpetrators used the Iranian Embassy to slip troops into Lebanon for military training at Hizballah camp, and conducted surveillance of the American facilities in Saudi Arabia "at the direction of an Iranian military officer," according to the indictment.

The role of the Intelligence Services

While the hard-liners in the Iranian government have lost ground politically in recent years, there is little doubt that both Iranian spiritual leader Khamena'i, and former President Rafsanjani were directly involved in ordering the execution of terrorist attacks. There are several Iranian agencies involved (directly or indirectly) in terrorism abroad: the Ministry of Intelligence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Revolutionary Guards, also called the IRGC or Pasdaran. Various other Iranian organizations, cultural centers and mosques serve as an infrastructure for the recruitment of local militants and as a cover for terrorist activity.

Iran's main military tools in the Middle East are the Revolutionary Guards, backed by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). These element have been the motive force behind the training of Palestinian terrorists from Hamas and the P.I.J., as well as other Palestinian terrorist groups in Lebanon or in Iran.

Nor are these elements clearly under the direction of any one faction, but appear to have been used as a tool by various senior members of the intelligence services for their own ends. In 1998, Iran was shocked by a series of murders of opposition leaders and dissident intellectuals. The degree of professionalism with which the murders were carried out appeared to rule out mere criminals as the culprits. In January 1999, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry arrested several members of the Iranian secret police in connection with the murders.

Then, in March 2000, Said Hajjarian, editor of the country's leading reformist newspaper, Sobh-e Emrouz ("This Morning"), and a close adviser of President Mohammad Khatami, was shot at point blank range outside Teheran's municipal offices. Prior to the shooting, Hajjarian had been investigating the involvement of Iran's Intelligence Ministry in the 1998 murders. Hajjarian, who had been one of the founders of the Iranian intelligence services, had used his contacts in the ministry to provide information to Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji, who wrote a series of exposes about the murders. Iranian police later arrested "rogue" Iranian intelligence agents and found in their possession a list with the names of 200 cultural, artistic and media figures scheduled to be assassinated.[1]

Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani Sadr said in a March 24 interview that the Revolutionary Guards controlled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were responsible for the shooting of Hajjarian. Bani Sadr claimed that, in addition to the six suspects arrested by investigators assigned to the case by President Khatami, the Pasdaran themselves had arrested several others, fearing that they might implicate senior members of Iran's clerical establishment.

The role of members of the intelligence services and government officials in this affair serves as a reminder that Iranian policy is neither clear-cut nor homogenous. In the tension between radical hard-liners and moderates, the intelligence ministry and the Pasdaran serve as tools in the hands of the highest bidder.

Iranian sponsorship of terrorist groups

Iran continues to train and fund a rich variety of terrorist groups of various nationalities and outlooks, some of which even champion ideologies completely at odds with that of the ayatollahs. For example, Shiite Iran aids Sunni terror organizations such as the Hamas, as well as secular-even Marxist-Palestinian groups, such as George Habash's Popular Front and Jibril's General Command. However, it would be misleading to depict Iranian terrorist activity as focusing exclusively on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is only one aspect of Iran's ambitious and wide-ranging terrorism strategy.

Iran has gone out of its way to aid terror organization unconnected with the Palestinian conflict, such as the Gama'a al-Islamiyah, the Egyptian al-Jihad, and the Algerian G.I.A. Not only are these organizations identified with the Sunni fundamentalist stream, they are also affiliated with the "International Islamic Front" led by Osama bin Ladin, ally of the Taliban, Iran's bitter enemies. In summer of '98, it should be recalled, Iran and the Taliban went to the brink of open war following the killing of Iranian diplomats by Taliban activists. However, this did not prevent Tehran from providing material and logistic support to groups allied with the Taliban. It would appear that Iran is singularly undiscriminating in it choice of whatever tool will best serve its purposes. Iran's terrorism policy is above all supremely pragmatic.

Iran's sponsorship of terrorist organizations is based on personal ties no less than on common goals. One example is the Iranian regime's ties to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Throughout the 1990's, the leader of the Islamic Jihad, Ayman Zawahiri was a frequent guest of Iran's Minister of Intelligence and Security, Ali Fallahian, and the head of foreign terrorist operations, Ahmad Vahidi. According to various reports, Vahidi is the commander of the Quds force, a special-operations unit that conducts terrorist operations abroad.[2] In February 1998, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad joined forces with bin Laden's group to form the "World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders."


One of the chief tools for the implementation of Iran's foreign policy is its proxy army, the Hizballah. Hizballah is funded, armed, and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Prior to September 11, Hizballah was responsible for the deaths of more Americans around the world than any other terrorist organization. Hizballah was the first group to make use of suicide attacks in the Middle East. The first of these attacks was directed against the American embassy in Beirut (April 1983), followed by attacks on the U.S. Marines headquarters and the French Multinational Force (October 1983). The last two were executed simultaneously and resulted in 300 casualties and dozens of wounded. The later attack made an indelible impression on world public opinion and terror organizations alike.

Hizballah also kidnapped Western hostages in Beirut in the mid-1980s. Two U.S. hostages-William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, and Lt. Col. William Higgins, a Marine officer serving with U.N. forces in Lebanon-were tortured and killed by their Hizballah captors.

The ideological basis of Hizballah is Khomeinism and its principle goal is the establishment of a pan-Islamic republic headed by Islamic clerics. The organization's worldview was first published in its political platform in February 1985, as follows:

The solution to Lebanon's problems is the establishment of an Islamic republic as only this type of regime can secure justice and equality for all of Lebanon's citizen's.
The Hizballah organization views as an important goal the fight against 'western imperialism' and its eradication from Lebanon. The group strives for complete American and French withdrawal from Lebanon, including all their institutions.
The conflict with Israel is viewed as a central concern. This is not only limited to the IDF presence in Lebanon. Rather, the complete destruction of the State of Israel and the establishment of Islamic rule over Jerusalem is an expressed goal.

Part of this radical ideology is the group's use of terror as a means of attaining its goals. The Hizballah organization justifies terror attacks against these enemies as a weapon in the hands of the weak and oppressed against the stronger aggressor. In addition to American and Multinational Forces, Hizballah has also carried out high profile attacks against Israeli targets in southern Lebanon. The group sees the departure of these forces from Lebanon as a vindication of its methods.

Iran returned to the spotlight after President Bush's State of the Union address on future threats to the United States which highlighted an "axis of evil" consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made no attempt to gloss over Iran's involvement in regional terrorism. "We know Iran is actively sending terrorists down through Damascus into the Bekaa Valley where they train terrorists, then engage in acts against countries in the region and elsewhere."[3]

Al-Qaida and Hizballah

Although the Hizballah is a Shia Muslim organization, and al-Qaida is a Sunni Muslim group, theis substantial evidence of a working alliance between the two groups dating back to the early 1990s. The trial of al-Qaida militants in the States has revealed not only ideological links, but also operational connections between Hizballah and al-Qaida.

Matthew Levitt, an intelligence expert at the Washington Institute detailed the beginning of al-Qaida's links with Iran:

According to U.S. intelligence reports, Osama bin Laden's operatives approached Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) agents in 1995 and again in 1996, offering to join forces against America. In fact, phone records obtained by U.S. officials investigating the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania revealed that 10 percent of the calls made from the Compact-M satellite phone used by bin Laden and his key lieutenants were to Iran.[4]

Larry Johnson, a former State Department counter-terrorism expert says that bin Ladin was meeting with Iranian intelligence officials in Sudan at least a year before he left for Afghanistan in 1996.[5] Al Rahman Mohammed, who was arrested after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, has since testified that a Hizballah official met with al-Qaida representatives in 1996 in Sudan, under the auspices of a Sudanese sheikh named Ali Numeini. Bin Laden had extensive activity in the country at the time, as did Iranian intelligence. The meeting reportedly took place at the initiative of al-Qaida, whose leaders were impressed by the Hizballah suicide bombings in Lebanon and Argentina.[6] Court documents from the 1998 indictment of Osama bin Ladin also date the Iran-al-Qaida ties to bin Ladin's period in Sudan. According to the indictment, "Al-Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States."

What is certain is that a representative of bin Ladin reportedly met with an official of the Iranian government sometime in 1995 in order to establish an "anti-U.S. alliance." This meeting was reportedly followed by an even more important one, this time between bin Ladin and Imad Mugniyeh, the operations director of Hizballah. At least one of these meetings was held in June 1996, when Iran's Ministry of Information and Security hosted a meeting of terrorist leaders in Teheran. One of those present was described as "a senior aide to Osama bin Ladin."

Training in explosives

The bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa bear an operational resemblance to Hizballah suicide attacks against the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Ali Mohamed, who was convicted of conspiracy in the U.S. embassy bombings, testified that al-Qaida's method for driving the United States out of the Middle East was modeled on the successes of the Lebanese Hizballah organization. Referring to the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Mohamed said that his group intended to use "the same method to force the United States to pull out of Saudi Arabia."

Apparently, Hizballah did more than just serve as a source of inspiration for al-Qaida. "I was aware of certain contacts between al-Qaida and al-Jihad organization, on one side, and Iran and Hizballah on the other side," Mohamed said. "I arranged security for a meeting in the Sudan between Mughniyah, Hizballah's chief, and bin Ladin."

"Hizballah provided explosives training for al-Qaida and al-Jihad," Mohamed said, adding, "Iran also used Hizballah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks." Mohamed's statement has a ring of truth; such disguised explosives were used extensively by Hizballah against Israeli army patrols in South Lebanon. Mohamed testified that "much of this type of training is actually carried out at a training camp there, in Iran, run by the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security."

More recently, a former CIA official was cited by UPI as saying that al-Qaida relied on experts from Hizballah to build the shaped charge that badly damaged the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in October 2000. UPI reported:

A U.S. government official told United Press International that the blast was a "cone-shaped charge" that used "moldable high explosives such as SEMTEX H," shaped to create a high-speed, high temperature blast wave. During the first stage of the blast, the explosion "forces all the air out with tremendous force," creating a vacuum, but as air rushes back in, it creates another tremendous force that causes further damage. "It's a trademark of bombs made by Hezbollah and raises the question of the involvement of Iran," he said. A former CIA official agreed: "We have to start looking at Iran's involvement in the incident. The evidence warrants this."

Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, was quoted by the Jerusalem Report as saying that the suspects in the East Africa embassy bombings mentioned individuals who had gone to Lebanon for explosives training from Hizballah. "The military manuals of Al-Qa'eda showed innovation in the making of explosives including RDX and C4," he says, "but there was an admission that some of its members had gone to Lebanon to get that expertise."[7]

A footnote to this affair is the revelation in June of this year by Singapore's security services that Hizballah had once plotted to bomb American and Israeli ships at dock in Singapore using the same modus operandi as was used in the bombing of the USS Cole.

Imad Mughniyah

In seeking the key personality behind Iran's ties with al-Qaida, the most probable candidate is Imad Mughniyah. Mughniya, also named as one of the coordinators of the Khobar Towers attack, is well known to Western intelligence agencies. Described as the head of Hizballah's Islamic Jihad operational wing, he is believed to have been behind the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, as well as the suicide bombing attacks on the U.S. embassy in Lebanon and the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. He also masterminded the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner to Beirut and the kidnapping of Americans in Lebanon during the 1980's. The United States has offered a $2 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

U.S. prosecutors have obtained a still-sealed indictment against him in the TWA hijacking. In the course of the hijacking, U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem was beaten and shot dead by the hijackers in an attempt to pressure authorities to authorize the refueling of the aircraft.

However, Mughniyeh's talent for hijacking was used in at least two other lesser-known cases, including the hijacking of a Kuwait Airways airliner to Iran. It is this expertise in hijacking that has caused American authorities to redouble their efforts to lay their hands on him. There are some who see something of Mughniyeh's influence on the September 11 hijackings.

On Christmas eve, 1999, India Air Flight IC814 was seized by terrorists wielding knives and scissors who had enough flight training to take control of the cockpit. As early as 1986, there were reports that Hizballah agents were practicing hijackings at a special airfield in Iran, and that some were being trained as kamikaze pilots.

The epitome of the faceless terrorist, Mughniyeh appears in only one well-attested photograph; he is one of three hijackers pictured during the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847. In the 15 years since the hijacking, Mughniyeh is believed to have had two plastic surgeries, and Western intelligence services are unsure what he looks like now. Nor is anyone sure of his exact whereabouts. While some reports say that he currently resides in Iran, others place him in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The United States has reportedly asked Syria, Lebanon, and Iran for his extradition.

Mughniyah has eluded American attempts to capture him at least twice. In the 1980's, he slipped through the net when France let him go despite a tip off from the United States. Then in 1995, American authorities were planning to arrest him when his flight from Khartoum to Beirut made a stop at Riyadh airport. The Saudis reportedly got around tU.S. authorities' request to detain him by refusing to permit the aircraft to make the planned stopover.

Two years ago, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that Mughniyah has been appointed by Iran as coordinator of Hizballah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad activities. This contention is supported by U.S. officials; according to a former Clinton administration official, "Mugniyah got orders from Tehran to work with Hamas." Israeli officials believe that Hamas has been getting advice from Hizballah explosives experts, and that the bomb used in the March 2002 "Passover massacre" suicide bombing, was built under the direction of a Hizballah "consultant."

Iran aid to al-Qaida

Iran has also been reported to have provided safe haven to two senior al-Qaida fugitives, as well as to dozens of other mid-level al-Qaida personnel. There have also been reports that Iranian Revolutionary Guards assisted twelve al-Qaida commanders in entering Iran from Afghanistan to Iran.[8] An Arab intelligence officer was quoted as saying that some of these al-Qaida operatives were instructed to leave the country, but were told that "they may be called on at some point to assist Iran."[9]

Israeli officials say there is evidence that some Iranian officials have allowed Al-Qaida to use the country not just as a transit point after escaping Afghanistan, but as a staging area. On 15 February 2002, Turkish police arrested two Palestinians and a Jordanian who entered Turkey illegally from Iran on their way to conduct bombing attacks in Israel. According to the police spokesman in Ankara, the three fought for the Taliban, received terrorist training in Afghanistan, and were members of Beyyiat el-Imam, a group linked to al-Qaida. Turkish authorities said the men had possessed fake documents, had diagrams for bombs and claimed that they intended to attack targets in Tel Aviv on orders from a leader known as Abu Musaab.

Israeli intelligence identified "Abu Musaab" as Abu Musaab Zarqawi, a Jordanian accused of involvement in a plot to bomb the Radisson SAS Hotel in Amman during millennial celebrations. Zarqawi, who has used the alias Ahmad Fadeel al-Khalayleh, fled the Afghan city of Herat not long after the U.S. war in Afghanistan began in October 2001. American and Israeli intelligence agencies say he later turned up in Tehran under the protection of Iranian security forces.[10]

Zarqawi is now believed to be in Syria after receiving medical treatment in Iraq. He has been linked to Hizballah, as well as to a terrorist cell apprehended in Germany that had been operating under the name Tawhid and linked to Abu Qatada in Britain. German prosecutors announced that the group was planning to attack U.S. or Israeli interests in Germany. Eight men were arrested, and raids yielded hundreds of forged passports from Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Denmark, and other countries.[11]

The new information about Zarqawi's presence in Tehran raised questions about whether other al-Qaida terrorists currently in Iran have the same freedom of action.

Al-Qaida in Lebanon

Since ouster of the Taliban, Western intelligence sources say that al-Qaida is attempting to extend its involvement in the Palestinian arena and transfer its base of operations from Afghanistan to Lebanon. On 1 February, the British daily The Times reported that a senior al-Qaida operative traveled to Lebanon in January 2002, to discuss the relocation with Hizballah leaders. The operative was identified as a Yemeni national traveling under the alias Salah Hajir.

Usbat al-Ansar

Hajir's presence in Lebanon and the meetings with Hizballah leaders may provide the first indication that al-Qaida is seeking an accommodation with the Iranian-backed terror group with regard to an operational coalition in Lebanon. There have also been reports that since arriving in Lebanon, Hajir met with leaders of a radical Sunni Islamic organization called Usbat al-Ansar ('the League of Partisans') based in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon. According to U.S. and Lebanese sources, Mughniyah's collaboration with bin Laden has also been coordinated through Usbat al-Ansar.[12]

Usbat al-Ansar is a loosely organized Sunni group espousing the same Wahhabi ideology as al-Qaida. The group consists of both Palestinian and Lebanese members, many of whom have fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir. Its main power bases are the Ein al-Hilweh in south Lebanon and the Nahr al-Bared camp in Tripoli in the north. Ein al-Hilweh, Usbat's main base, is the largest of Lebanon's twelve Palestinian refugee camps. Located about 30 miles south of Beirut, it was established in 1948 with an original population of 9,000. Today, 44,133 refugees are registered in the camp, while an estimated 75,000 people actually live there. The camp is off-limits to Lebanese authorities and is run by various Palestinian factions who often settle their differences with arms.

The founder of Usbat al-Ansar, Hisham Shreidi, was once a senior leader of the Lebanese Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Association), a Sunni fundamentalist movement operating mainly in Tripoli, Sidon and Akkar. Like Osama bin Ladin's al-Qaida organization, al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya advocated the establishment of an Islamic political order and called for holy war (al-jihad al-muqaddas) against modern day "crusaders" such as Israel and Lebanon's Christian communities. In 1991, Shreidi was assassinated on the orders of Amin Kayid, the commander of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in Ain al-Hilweh.[13]

Shreidi was succeeded by his chief aide, Ahmad Abd al-Karim al-Saadi (a.k.a. Abu Mohjen), who has led the group ever since and is largely responsible for shaping its present ideology and aspirations. Usbat al-Ansar is affiliated with the Takfir wal Hijra movement, whose name translates as "Redemption and Flight," a reference to the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina, at the beginning of Islamic history. The movement, which originated in Egypt advocates the establishment of a "purified" society, based solely on Islamic law, or Shariah. This society is to be the core of a revolution in which all secular Islamic governments are overthrown and replaced with the rule of Shariah.

In the early 1990's, Asbat al-Ansar bombed nightclubs, theaters, and liquor stores throughout Lebanon. Since then it has been involved in clashes with Lebanese security forces and with rival militia groups.

According to American officials, Osama bin Ladin's network began providing the group with considerable financing during the late 1990's. At the same time Usbat al-Ansar arranged for dozens of Palestinian refugees to travel to bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan.[14]

This type of regional involvement is typical of how al-Qaida works. Al-Qaida is a movement for globalization; but instead of the global village and common markets, it is a movement for global Islam. Its goal is the formation of a world-spanning pan-Islamic state, based on the strictest possible interpretation of Islamic law. What makes al-Qaida so successful in marketing this idea is its ability to move into conflict areas and make the battles of local militant groups its own. Anywhere Muslims are in conflict with their governments, or with neighboring non-Islamic states, there al-Qaida can gain a foothold. In subscribing to al-Qaida's particular strain of Islam, local militants benefit from the al-Qaida network's vast store of intelligence, military expertise, and specialist personnel. The best and brightest of the local militants are chosen for training by al-Qaida. All that is required is that the local leaders pledge their loyalty to Osama bin Ladin and his cause. Al-Qaida, of course, also benefits greatly from its investment. It puts down roots in the local society, gaining new adherents to its ideology and new recruits for its wars. The local cells may later propose special projects to al-Qaida's leaders, which, if approved, may receive funding and logistic assistance from the network. The local group, while not formally part of al-Qaida, may eventually come to share not only ideology, but also communications, financial networks, and even senipersonnel. The development of Usbat al-Ansar provides a brilliant example of this al-Qaida globalization strategy in action.

There can be little doubt that the cross-fertilization of strategies and ideologies has had an effect; over the past few years Usbat al-Ansar has evolved from a regional group striving for regional goals into a champion of much wider goals. This increasing internationalization has resulted in its sending militants and resources to Chechnya to assist Muslim rebels against the Russians. Usbat al-Ansar, the Islamist splinter group in Ein al-Hilweh with ties to Osama bin Ladin, has been linked to the Jordanian group arrested in December 1999 for plotting to attack Western interests in the Kingdom. Ein Hilweh is home to about one hundred members of Usbat al-Ansar. Its cadres, numbering between 100 and 300, have reportedly fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir.

In January 2000, a member of Usbat al-Ansar engaged Lebanese security forces in a one-and-a-half hour firefight after firing a RPGs at the Russian embassy in Beirut, killing a security guard and wounding several others. The gunman was identified as a Palestinian, Ahmad Raja Abu Kharroub, from the Ein el-Hilweh camp. A note found in his pocket read "I die a martyr for Grozny." Kharroub, known as Abu Ubeida was reported by The Daily Star to be a member of the Usbat al-Ansar.

In December 1999, Western Intelligence officials confirmed a Russian report that Palestinian followers of Osama bin Ladin in the refugee camps had left Lebanon for Chechnya. The largest group was reported to be from the Ein el-Hilweh camp.

In 2001, a Jordanian official announced that Jordanian security forces, in conjunction with Lebanese forces, foiled an attack on the Jordanian, U.S., and British embassies in Lebanon by Asbat al-Ansar members.

Usbat al-Ansar was among the first eleven international terror groups to have its assets frozen by President George W. Bush in his executive order of September 23, 2001. Although Usbat has denied having links to al-Qaida, its denials were themselves couched in the language that has become typical of al-Qaida statements-full of profuse praise of Bin Laden and vitriol against Jews and "Crusaders." There is evidence to suggest that strong links exist. A number of Usbat al-Ansar operatives are believed to have returned to Lebanon in January, after fighting alongside al-Qaida members in Afghanistan.[15]

Al-Qaida supporters in Ein el-Hilwerh

The Israeli paper Ha'aretz reported in September 2002 that Damascus had allowed between 150 and 200 al-Qaida operatives to settle in Ein el-Hilweh since the start of the American offensive in Afghanistan. This was confirmed by Western intelligence agencies. According to the report, the group, including senior Al-Qaida commanders, arrived from Afghanistan through Iran and went directly to Lebanon.

In August 2002, fighting erupted when al-Qaida operatives tried to gain control over the camp. Lebanese sources said that the fighting was initiated by the Qaida men in the camps, three of whom were killed. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported no less than nineteen bombings in Ein al-Hilweh since the end of September 2002. Usbat al-Ansar is seen as the culprit behind this violence.


The presence of al-Qaida cells in Lebanon, and the cooperation with the radical Islamic terror organizations sponsored by Iran poses a potential real and immanent threat to both American and Israeli interests all over the Middle East.

The threat to Israel has also grown with Hizballah's increasing involvement in the territories ruled by the Palestinian Authorities. In particular, the organization is enhancing it cooperation with Hamas's operational infrastructure. The interrogation of some 500 Palestinian operatives from Hamas and Fatah Tanzim during the first half of 2001 indicates that Hizballah, with the backing of Iran, is working to build a terrorist infrastructure and operational cells in P.A.-controlled areas.

This infrastructure would be invaluable for al-Qaida, allowing its operatives to infiltrate, recruit new operatives, and build new sleeper cells that would combine forces with the Islamic Militant organizations already operating in the Palestinian arena. All of these groups share a common ideology and methodology of terrorism. If al-Qaida is able to establish a foothold in Lebanon, this would allow the organization's members to infiltrate directly from Lebanon or indirectly through Jordan in order to join forces with the well-organized platform of the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in carrying out terror attacks inside Israel.

According to Israeli officials, the possibility exists that Israel may be the target of an unconventional attack by members of Osama bin Laden's organization. Nabil Ukal, a Palestinian member of al-Qaida arrested in Israel in 2000, told interrogators that he was planning to poison Israeli water sources. Israel has learned that bin Laden's men have trained in chemical and biological warfare.

Al-Qaida's bombing of an Israeli hotel in Kenya and its attempt to bring down an Israeli charter plane are proof that the threat must be taken seriously. Up to now, Israeli security forces have been preoccupied with groups such as Hamas and Hizballah, which due to their local infrastructures, were seen as the greater threat. This argument may already be null and void; al-Qaida, thanks to Iran appears to already have a firm foothold in the region. 


  1. The Iran News (Teheran), 12 March 2000.
  2. Kenneth R. Timmerman, "Iran Cosponsors Al-Qaeda Terrorism." Insight on the News, 12/03/01
  3. Associated Press. 15 November 2002
  4. Matthew Levitt, "New Arenas for Iranian-Sponsored Terrorism: The Arab-Israeli Heartland." Policywatch, #605, 22 February 2002
  5. Barbara Slavin, "Name of most dangerous terrorist might not be bin Laden." USA TODAY, 22 December 2000.
  6. Ha'aretz, 1 September 2002.
  7. Isabel Kirshner, "The Changing Colors of Imad Mughniya." Jerusalem Report. 25 March 2002.
  8. Intelligence Online website, 27 January 2002.
  9. "Untangling the Terror Web: Al-Qaeda is not the only Element." Matthew Levitt. Policywatch, Number 671, 28 October, 2002. Washington Institute.
  10. "A Secret Iran-Arafat Connection Is Seen Fueling the Mideast Fire." New York Times, 24 March 2002
  11. "Untangling the Terror Web: Al-Qaeda is not the only Element." Matthew Levitt. Policywatch, Number 671, 28 October, 2002. Washington Institute.
  12. Gary C. Gambill and Bassam Endrawos, "Bin Laden's Network in Lebanon." Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol 3 No. 9, September 2001.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. "Ein el-Hilweh: Lebanese Tinderbox." Jonathan Shanzer. Policywatch, Number 676, 12 Nov 2002. Washington Institute.

Iranian Defector On Iran's Collaboration with Iraq, North Korea, Al-Qa'ida, and Hizbullah 

Top Iranian Defector On Iran's Collaboration with Iraq, North Korea, Al-Qa'ida, and Hizbullah
MEMRI  2-21-03

The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards official Hamid Reza Zakiri recently defected. In an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Zakiri disclosed information regarding the cooperation of the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian intelligence apparatuses (1) with Saddam Hussein's regime, terror organizations such as the Palestinian and Egyptian Jihad organizations, Al-Qa'ida, and Hizbullah. Zakiri also discussed the 1998
political murders in Iran, which were committed by the Iranian security apparatuses, and stated that Iran has nuclear installations. (2)

According to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Zakiri had worked as a supervisor and director of intelligence for the Revolutionary Guards, and had then moved to the Security Ministry, where he served in several positions for a number of years. Later, he joined the security apparatus of the Leader's Office, where he was a supervisor in charge of the apparatus's
secretariat, and learned of the secret links between the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian security apparatuses, and revolutionary forces in the region.

In the interview, conducted outside Iran, Zakiri said that Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Jihad organization and Osama bin Laden's deputy, established close ties with current deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier-General Muhammad Bakr Dhu-Al-Qadr, and with current commanders of the Iranian and Al-Quds Forces, part of the Revolutionary Guards; commanders include Ahmad Vahidi and Hussein Muslih, who was former commander of the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon. Zakiri told of bin Laden's stay in the Sudan, during the period when the Iranian Revolutionary Guards maintained an extensive presence there. According to him, Hizbullah and the Palestinian Islamic
Jihad, under the leadership of Fathi Shiqaqi, had a massive presence in the special training camps supervised by Guards officers such as Dhu-Al-Qadr.

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat further noted that Zakiri said he was shocked when he read the political assassination file and learned of the security personnel's part in committing these and other acts. (3)

The paper also said that Zakiri revealed details of Imad Mughnia's (leading Hizbullah operative stationed in Iran with connections to Al-Qa'ida) role in some of the joint operations funded by Iranian intelligence and carried out by Islamic Jihad and other fundamentalist organizations.

The following is Al-Sharq Al-Awsat's entire interview with Hamid Reza Zakiri, as well as a response by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and news reports about other top-ranking Iranian defectors.

Personal Details

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "Who are you?"

Zakiri: "My name is Hamid Reza Zakiri, and I was born in 1962 in the city of Najafabad in the Isfahan district. From the outbreak of the Revolution until 1985, I worked with the revolutionary committees and the [Revolutionary] Guards in Isfahan. Later, I moved to Tehran, where I was in charge of the [Revolutionary] Guards in the capital's 10th District. At that time, the regional commander was Mahdi Mubligh. That district was considered the central command, and was headed by Mohsen Rezai (later the Guards commander and now Expediency Council secretary). I was also in close contact with Hajj Morteza Rezai (head of Revolutionary Guards intelligence), and upon his instructions I carried out dangerous missions at the fronts of the war on Iraq and its agents during that time. In 1986 I was part of a group of 400
[Revolutionary] Guards officers attached to the new Security Ministry, established at that time."

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "What was your position at the Security Ministry?"

Zakiri: "I underwent special training and I studied abroad because I was an alumnus of the Imam Baqer College (a college belonging to the Security Ministry, attended by security personnel). Naturally, my area was espionage and counter-espionage, and administration of domestic security matters. After a few years, I completed a prestigious course
at the [Department] of Strategic and Security Affairs."

On Iranian - North Korean Relations

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "You said that you participated in teaching and training courses abroad. Where was this?"

Zakiri: "I went to North Korea twice, as our relations with it are special. Over the years, we sent a number of groups of Revolutionary Guards personnel and security [forces personnel] to North Korea. Among those who received combat training were Revolutionary Guards Commander Rahim Safavi and his deputy Dhu-Al-Qadr. Among the personnel of the
[Revolutionary] Guards were units of pilots who received training in flying and parachuting operations, among them Brigadier-General Kalibaf (now military forces commander). Our group included intelligence officers. The first time I went for 40 days and participated in special courses on psychological warfare and counter-espionage, and the second
time, I stayed in North Korea again for 40 days and participated in a special course for protecting nuclear and other secret installations."

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "What are the nuclear installations for? Are there really nuclear installations?"

Zakiri: "I don't intend to talk about them. These are matters relating to the security of my country. I am against the [conservative] minority but I am not against Iran. Iran is a great country and there is no doubt that its defense needs demand a solution that will prevent external aggression against it. We have sacrificed half a million Shahid [martyrs] and there are hundreds of thousands of cities... destroyed by Iraq."

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "What was your position before you left Iran?"

Zakiri: "After the election of President Khatami, and after I learned about the role [played] by the Security Ministry in the [1998] assassinations, I could no longer remain in the Security Ministry. I supported reform and I supported Khatami, and when I learned that the [Security] Ministry was responsible for loathsome, inhuman plots against Khatami and the reformists, I decided to join one of the country's civilian apparatuses. But the Acting Director of the Special Office (the intelligence office of the Leader of the Revolution), Hadadian, called me in to his office and gave me a mission that
prepared me for working for his ministry."

Iran's Security Apparatuses

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "How many security apparatuses are there, and why isn't the basic law relating to the Security Ministry implemented fully - that is, the merging of all the security apparatuses in the ministry?"

Zakiri: "Before Khatami, there was full coordination between the security apparatuses, except for the security [responsibilities] that were entrusted with military intelligence and the [Revolutionary] Guards. The Security Ministry oversaw all security matters during the two eras [i.e. terms] of Muhammad Rayshahri and 'Ali Falahian [as ministers] and the brief time after Khatami, in which Dari Nafajabadi received the Ministry [of Security]."

"Here I will tell you a secret: Before the presidential elections in May 1997, we received strict instructions from the Security Minister directed to us, our families, our relatives, and our acquaintances, to vote for the candidate [supported by] the Leader [Khamenei], 'Ali Akbar Natiq Nouri, who was then the Majlis speaker. [Revolutionary] Guards personnel and government officials received similar instructions. However, over 90% of the security [forces] personnel, the
[Revolutionary] Guards, and the state apparatuses voted for Muhammad Khatami, and ignored the [Security] Minister's instructions."

"Back to your question. After the affair of the political murders and the appointment of 'Ali Yunessi as Security [and Intelligence] Minister, the Security Ministry ceased to be under the Leader [Khamenei's] and the conservatives' control and went under the cabinet's oversight. So the conservatives established their own special security ministry. On the one hand, the security office of the Leader [Khamenei] was expanded and a higher council for security was established; on the other hand, the areas of activity of the Revolutionary Guards intelligence and the Judiciary's Intelligence [Department] were expanded. These apparatuses are today in shameful violation of the law when they arrest the reformists, close down
newspapers, and beat and kill people."

Iranian-Al-Qa'ida Relations

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "You say that you were in important security centers. It is natural that people ask you whether there really is a connection between Iran and Al-Qa'ida. And what do you say about Sa'ad Osama bin Laden (Osama bin Laden's son) being in Iran?" (4)

Zakiri: "The subject of the connection of the intelligence of the [Revolutionary] Guards, not of the [Iranian] government, with the Al-Qa'ida organization and other fundamentalist groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad goes back to the 1980s. After the assassination of [Egyptian president] Anwar Sadat, a number of Egyptians who were responsible for the crime came to us, and the [Revolutionary] Guards intelligence established relations with them. Later, we went to Lebanon, where we got acquainted with many non-Shiite revolutionary activists."

On Iranian Support of Hizbullah's Actions Against the U.S.

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "You mean you went [to Lebanon]?"

Zakiri: "I have visited most of the countries in the region, but I meant that the [Revolutionary] Guards established bases in Lebanon, and used them for recruiting and training the revolutionaries and gradually bringing them into [carrying out] their schemes against the Americans, such as blowing up the Marines headquarters in Beirut [1983] and attacking the American Embassy. Imad Mughnia and some of the [Revolutionary] Guards commanders had a major part in these actions. Imad Mughnia and some of the [Revolutionary] Guards officers commanded the operation of hijacking the American TWA airplane and the killing of one of its passengers. Mughnia remained liaison officer with Dr. Ayman
Al-Zawahiri and with commanders of other fundamentalist organization."

Al-Qa'ida Request for "Help to Carry Out a Most Important Mission in the Land of the 'Great Satan'" - Turned Down

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "Did you know about the plans to attack the World Trade Center in New York?"

Zakiri: "No, but we had in our headquarters models of the [WTC] two towers, the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA building at Langley. Thus, Imad Mughnia came to Iran, met with a number of top officials in the security apparatus of the Leader [Khamenei] and gave them a letter from Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, which said: 'We need your help to carry out
a most important mission in the land of the 'Great Satan.'' The issue was presented but his request was denied. Afterwards, it was decided by the head of our department and Natiq Nouri's deputy, head of the investigations section in the Leader's [Khamenei's] Office and his representative in the Higher Council for Security, to entrust Mughnia with keeping the relations with Al-Zawahiri and his comrades, provided he did not get involved in their activity."

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "Where is Imad Mughnia today?"

Zakiri: "He is still in Iran and is continuing his activity. I think that he planned the escape of dozens of Al-Qa'ida men to Iran, some of them with their families. Before that, bin Laden's wife arrived, the young Yemenite woman with her son, and we handed them over to Yemen. Perhaps Sa'ad Osama bin Laden [too] entered Iran through Mughnia."

On President Khatami

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "Does President Khatami know about the activity of these [people]?"

Zakiri: "I feel sorrow and concern for President Khatami. He is an educated and loyal man who came [to his post] to reform the situation and to defend the country towards progress and widening of [individual and civil] freedoms."

"Unfortunately, he did not manage to utilize the overall support he had from the Iranian people. His ministers and confidants were jailed, there were assassination attempts on his closest advisors (Sa'id Hajjarian), and there were several plans to assassinate Khatami himself."

"Look at Iran today: 'Abbas 'Abdi, Khatami's friend and advisor, faces cruel punishment on charges of forgery (spying for the U.S.). 'Abdi's crime was holding a survey in which the Iranians said that they wanted to renew relations with the U.S. They also expressed their opinion [on the question] of who was the most popular of the high-ranking officials.5 Khatami's plan was the last chance to save the regime. The supreme [security] leadership, which is under the conservatives
control, pulled the rug under [Khatami's] feet by thwarting his plan and harming the reformists. The students, women, and most of the Iranian people lost hope of accomplishing change and a gradual progress."

On Relations Between Iraqi and Iranian Intelligence

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "It was mentioned that there are close connections between the [Revolutionary] Guards intelligence and Iraq. Is this true? Weren't the Guards in the first rank of the war against Iraq?"

Zakiri: "After the [Gulf] war, the [Revolutionary] Guards, commanded by Morteza Rezai, established commercial companies in order to provide work for the Guards personnel and the Basij [paramilitary units loyal to Khamenei that operate together with the Revolutionary Guards."

"These companies have been cooperating with the Babil Company, headed by Qusay, Saddam's son, since the mid-1990s. Along with smuggling Iraqi oil and marketing it, these Iranian companies smuggled Iraqi dates. The
cooperation between the intelligence of the Guards and Iraq in smuggling and in trade stopped about a year ago. But the Guards intelligence still maintains relations with Uday Saddam's other son and with the Iraqi intelligence, and coordination between the parties on matters such as the siege on the Kurds and confronting the U.S. continues. For example, the Ansar Al-Islam organization in Iraqi Kurdistan won the support and protection of the Guards intelligence and
of the intelligence apparatuses of the Iraqi regime."

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "There are many more questions concerning activities and secrets that you have not so far revealed."

Zakiri: "I ask to put off these questions for a while. After I arrange my situation and that of my family, and set myself up in a safe place, I will be willing to answer all your questions."

The Iranian Foreign Ministry Responds

A source in the Security and Intelligence Ministry in Tehran denied Zakiri's claims regarding the Iranian intelligence apparatuses' relations with Al-Qa'ida and with Osama bin Laden's deputy Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The source, who according to the paper wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that Zakiri "was expelled from the ministry because of his behavior, his dubious connections, and his activity in other centers without the knowledge of the Security and Intelligence Ministry." In an attempt to verify Zakiri's identity and statements, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat called Khamenei's office, but an official there refused to discuss the matter, stating that it was an internal office matter. The official also accused Zakiri of "spying, conspiring against Islam and the Islamic Revolution, and collaborating with Zionism and world arrogance [i.e. the U.S.]" The Iranian Foreign Ministry denied that Zakiri was a member of the Iranian security apparatuses, and said that it knew nothing of the recent defection of any top Iranian security official. (6)

More News Reports of Other Top-Ranking Defectors

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported further that the Iranian reformist daily E'temad posted on the website Yek Khabar, established by 'Ali Ara Muhammadi, former top security official and deputy director of the Iranian broadcasting authority, an item according to which three top Iranian security system officials had defected recently and taken with them many documents, including video recordings with protocols of investigations of security officials knowledgeable of the assassinations.

Islamic Documents Center head Rouhallah Husseinian, a reform opponent and former high-ranking official of Iranian intelligence services, accused a leading official in President Khatami's office of conspiring with Zakiri, because, he said, Zakiri's being abroad is the ultimate proof that Iranian activists hostile to the Islamic regime are aiding people such as Zakiri. (7)

(1) The apparatuses are close to the Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei and carry out his decisions.
(2) Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 18, 2003.
(3) This refers to the role played by high-ranking activists in Iranian intelligence in explosions in the tomb of the Eighth Imam Reza in the city of Mashhad, before the election of President Muhammad Khatami during the term of President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Iranian intelligence blamed Sunni resisters, but it turned out that the ones who had planned the operation were former intelligence minister 'Ali Falahian and his deputy Said Emami, who committed suicide in 1999 following his arrest in connection with the political assassinations.
(4) On February 12th, the London based Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quoted a diplomatic source in Rome as stating that "Sa'ad, the elder son of Osama bin Laden, was sighted in Iran. The same source said it was not clear whether other leaders of Al-Qa'ida were accompanying Sa'ad bin Laden, but insisted that Osama bin Laden himself was not in Iran. The source stressed the accuracy of the information and considered it an important lead for tracking the leaders of Al-Qa'ida. Several sources agree that the role of Sa'ad bin Laden has expanded following the war in Afghanistan, and said that he has become his father's right arm following the exodus of Al-Qa'ida from Afghanistan
and the death or arrest of several of its leaders. This report is considered the first of its kind concerning the existence of an Al-Qa'ida leader in Iran."
(5) Khamenei received 6% of support in the poll.
(6) Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 18, 2003.
(7) Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 18, 2003.