Germans study claims by source tying Iran to 9/11
By John Crewdson
Tribune senior correspondent
January 23, 2004
WASHINGTON -- In sorting out which parts of the story told by Hamid Reza Zakeri are true, German federal police have their work cut out for them.
The Bundeskriminalamt, known as the BKA, has produced Zakeri as a surprise witness in the German government's troubled case against Abdelghani Mzoudi and declared that Zakeri can link Mzoudi to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But before a five-judge panel Thursday in a Hamburg courtroom, prosecutors acknowledged that BKA agents still are assessing Zakeri's credibility.
They can start with his name. As Zakeri cheerfully admitted during a telephone interview with the Tribune from a hotel room in Germany, the name is a phony one--bestowed on him, he says, during his years of service as an Iranian intelligence agent.
Other parts of Zakeri's story may prove harder to nail down, but also more consequential. Zakeri says the supreme Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the country's former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, both were fully informed well before Sept. 11, 2001, that a brutal attack on America was planned.
"They were informed by Al Qaeda," which "needed the Iranian government's help," Zakeri says.
He says he knows this because he was working for a security and intelligence unit operating out of Khamenei's office in early 2001, when Iran was visited by Osama bin Laden's chief deputy.
Then, "four months and five days before 9/11," Zakeri says, one of bin Laden's sons, Saad bin Laden, turned up in the Iranian capital, met with Khamenei and Rafsanjani and gave them the details of the Sept. 11 plot.
His account, he says, can be corroborated by the Iranian security agent who served as Saad bin Laden's bodyguard during the visit, and who now is living quietly in Najaf, Iraq.
Zakeri has much more to say: He remembers seeing Mzoudi at the Iranian intelligence headquarters "four years before 9/11."
If confirmed, Zakeri's testimony will not help the 31-year-old Mzoudi who has denied charges that he knowingly assisted the Sept. 11 hijackers in their preparations for worst terrorist attack against the U.S. Moreover, any proven link between Sept. 11 and Iran would pose a challenge for the Bush administration, which has vowed repeatedly to punish any foreign government--as it did the Taliban in Afghanistan--whose fingerprints are found on the attack.
The 11th-hour appearance of Zakeri, who says he is 40 years old and was born in the central Iranian city of Esfahan, has thrown Mzoudi's trial into disarray. Zakeri, who is keeping his whereabouts a secret because he fears retaliation from the Iranian government, nevertheless insists that he is willing to testify at the Mzoudi trial, which is taking place behind bulletproof glass in a high-security Hamburg courtroom.
Dr. Ulrich von Jeinsen, a German lawyer who represents the families of some of those who died on Sept. 11, and who would like to see Mzoudi convicted, attended Thursday's session and said he was inclined to believe what Zakeri has to say. The BKA, von Jeinsen said, had "checked his position in the Iranian secret service, and it's true. Now they will try to verify other details."
New court hearing set
The court will hear the results of those inquiries Jan. 29, at which time the five judges can either deliver a verdict in the case, as they had planned to do this week, or ask the BKA to provide more information about Zakeri's assertions--and, possibly, to produce Zakeri himself.
Ali Nouri Zadeh, a Iranian-born writer for the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat who first interviewed Zakeri more than a year ago, has mixed feelings about the man's veracity.
"What he says is partly correct--30 percent," Zadeh says. "Partly exaggerated--20 percent. And 50 percent is nonsense."
Told that some German and American intelligence officials had greeted his revelations with pronounced skepticism, Zakeri replied: "I don't know why they say that. We got lots of evidence."
At least some of what Zakeri says is inconsistent with known facts. Zakeri told the BKA, for example, that he had seen one of the hijack pilots, Ziad Jarrah, at a terrorist training camp in Iran in 1997, four years before Sept. 11.
"I did not recognize the person then," he said. Only after seeing Jarrah's picture in the wake of Sept. 11, Zakeri said, did he remember that "I had seen the person on the picture in Iran. ... I did not know his name before."
However, 1997 is the year that Jarrah arrived in Hamburg from his native Lebanon to study aircraft design at Hamburg's University of Applied Sciences. By all accounts he was the antithesis of a radical fundamentalist Muslim, spending his free time drinking, driving sports cars and living with a Turkish girlfriend. BKA interviews with Jarrah's neighbors and fellow students suggest that Jarrah didn't become radicalized until 1999, the same year he and several of the other hijackers visited an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
Zadeh says he was able to confirm, with sources inside and outside Iran, that Zakeri did work for an intelligence unit of the hard-line Revolutionary Guards, a kind of fundamentalist counterpart to the regular Iranian army, and then for a special security unit in Ayatollah Khamenei's office.
"That's where he got his information and documents," says Zadeh, who says he has examined the documents and that some are genuine "and some are not."
Zakeri said that in July 2001, two months before the Sept. 11 hijackings, he visited Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic with which the U.S. now has diplomatic relations, and gave CIA personnel at the U.S. Embassy there a letter addressed to President Bush that warned of a major impending attack on U.S. soil. Zakeri, who says he also faxed a copy of the letter to the White House, claims it described a scale model of the World Trade Center and other high-rise buildings that suddenly and mysteriously had appeared in a hallway of the Iranian intelligence service's headquarters--and which he was told by a deputy intelligence minister would be the target of the attack.
Working for CIA?
In the Tribune interview, Zakeri was unclear about how much of the information he purports to possess was obtained firsthand, and how much was garnered from friends, acquaintances and other secondary sources after he left Iran. Zakeri claims a relationship with the CIA that dates from a meeting in Canada in 1992, after which he returned to Iran as an agent of the CIA--at least in his own mind. "I was thinking I'm working for them," he said.
The relationship, Zakeri said, culminated with an acrimonious meeting with the CIA and other American intelligence services in The Hague four months ago. "I told them the same story," Zakeri says. "They want me to say a different story. I said, `This is the truth that I'm saying.'"
The CIA has declined all comment on Zakeri, citing the Hamburg trial. German news reports say Zakeri walked, uninvited, into the Berlin office of the BKA last week and proceeded to tell his story. But Zakeri claims it was the BKA that "brought me to Germany, to be a witness." He won't say from where. "I live all over," he says. "France, Canada ...."
During 5 1/2 hours of questioning Monday, Zakeri told the BKA that among the Al Qaeda figures who visited Iran was Saif Al-Adel, who is under a U.S. federal indictment in absentia for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. According to a transcript of the BKA interview obtained by the Tribune, Zakeri identifies Al-Adel as the Al Qaeda figure "in charge of the execution of" the Sept. 11 hijackings. Saudi intelligence officials believe Al-Adel, a former Egyptian military officer, gave the order--by telephone from Iran--that launched the first of several suicide bombings in the Saudi capital last May.
Zakeri also told the BKA that Mzoudi, the defendant in the trial, had been "in touch with Saif Al-Adel." Mzoudi, Zakeri said, "was involved in the logistics of the operation of 9/11/01. His area of operations was to draft and send information to liaison persons, because he knew well how to handle codes."
Up to now, the case against Mzoudi has been circumstantial, resting on evidence showing that he performed a number of logistical and "housekeeping" services for the principal hijackers before and after they left Hamburg to begin flying lessons in the U.S.
In the Tribune interview, Zakeri denied news reports that he demanded money from German authorities in return for his testimony, and also accusations that he stole large sums of money from the Iranian government before defecting to the West.
"It's not true," he said. "I'm a poor man. I'm living as a poor man." http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0401230211jan23,1,7199724,print.story?coll=chi-news-hed