Irans's hand in the Afghan Mess
Ayman al-Zawahiri was released in the summer of 1997. He joined Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad and re-established his links with the Iranians secretly. By this time the Iranians had started denouncing not only the Taliban but also Al Qaeda because Arab fighters played an important role in all the major battles in northern Afghanistan.
An old friend of bin Laden and Zawahiri was, however, still getting help from the Iranians. His name: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
This Pashtun leader and ex-prime minister of Afghanistan had deadly differences with both Ahmed Shah Masood and the Taliban. He was living in Tehran under official security. He advised the Iranians not to speak against bin Laden because the Saudi dissident was also speaking against America.
I met Osama bin Laden again in May 1998. By this time he was under a lot of restriction from the Taliban and he did not speak for an alliance between the Taliban and Iran.
Then, in April 2001, an international conference on the Palestinian dispute was arranged in Tehran by the government of Iran. Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, and other militant leaders participated in that conference. I learnt during this conference that many Al Qaeda leaders of Arab origin were living in Tehran. I found it hard to believe because the Iranians were condemning the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the international press. But they were also secretly in contact with them.
In Tehran I found that the Iranian establishment was divided between the reformers and the hardliners. The reformers were led by President Mohammed Khatami while the hardliners were led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The hardliners were in control of the military and intelligence agencies and secretly supported militant groups in different parts of the world. President Khatami said many times that Al Qaeda hates Iran as much as it hates the United States, but his claim was removed from reality.
After learning these facts I decided to meet Hekmatyar in Tehran. He spoke openly in support of Osama bin Laden. I asked him, "How can you support Al Qaeda without the approval of the Iranian government?" He just smiled and ignored the question. He also presented to me a copy of his book written in Persian and published in Iran. The book was full of criticism of America.
I had no doubt in April 2001 that the Iranians were playing a double game with the Northern Alliance. They were supporting them against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but on the other hand they were also in contact with Al Qaeda and Hekmatyar.
WHY WERE the Iranians doing that?
Because Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood was in touch with both the Central Intelligence Agency and Iranian intelligence! The Iranians were probably playing a double game with a double agent.
But the Northern Alliance leadership was surprised in December 2001 after the great battle of Tora Bora. They arrested many Arab fighters who were trying to enter Iran from southern Afghanistan. February 15, 2002, was the turning point when two Palestinians and one Jordanian were arrested in Turkey. They revealed that they had been sent by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the men in America's most wanted list now, to Tel Aviv.
According to a police spokesman in Ankara, the three had fought for the Taliban and were members of the Beyyet Al-Imam organisation, which is also known as Al Tawheed. The Turkish authorities said the three members were trained by Zarqawi at a camp near Herat in western Afghanistan. They possessed fake documents, had diagrams showing how to assemble bombs, and claimed that they intended to attack targets in Tel Aviv.
Zarqawi fled from Afghanistan to Iran in December 2001 after he was injured in the US bombing campaign. He was treated in Iran, where a leg was amputated and he was fitted with a prosthesis.
Zarqawi is a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian stock. He was born in the Zarqa refugee camp near the Jordanian capital Amman. US Secretary of State Colin Powell mentioned his name for the first time on February 2, 2004, in the UN Security Council meeting as a man who had spent time in Afghanistan and was now active in Iraq. Powell remained silent, however, on Zarqawi's connection with the Iranians.
MORE EVIDENCE of the Al Qaeda-Iran collaboration surfaced during a military operation in eastern Afghanistan in March 2002. More than 40 American soldiers were killed in the Shahi Kot mountains in that operation. Several documents and lots of ammunition was recovered from caves in the mountains.
US Army sources confirmed to me in April 2002 in Kabul that unused Air Iran tickets and some bills of a hotel in Mashad were also recovered from the caves. This proved that Al Qaeda not only had training camps in Iran, but was using Iran as a safe passage to the Middle East and other parts of the world.
The Iranians are employing Al Qaeda against the US-led coalition forces not only in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq. It is no secret that Zarqawi, who was running a training camp in Iran, is now operating in Iraq. He runs a separate outfit named Al Tawheed. He is not a member of Al Qaeda, but he is an ally.
An Arab named Shadi Abdullah was arrested in Germany some time ago. He is a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. He told a German court that he had attended a training camp in western Afghanistan run by Zarqawi. According to the court documents, Zarqawi's deputy is a man named Abu Haroon, an Iranian national. Shadi Abdullah told the court that Al Tawheed had a cell in Germany that sent as much as US $40,000 a month to Zarqawi in Iran.
Zarqawi was also blamed for the killing of an American citizen, Nick Berg, in Baghdad earlier this year. A video of Berg's beheading was released on May 11, and named Zarqawi as the man who beheaded the civilian contractor.
Some Arab Al Qaeda operatives told me in Kunar province of Afghanistan in September 2003 that Zarqawi has Iranian and Uzbek passports under different names. He travelled on fake documents from Iraq to Jordan in April 2004, met his wife and children in Amman, and returned to Iraq. The Jordanians learnt of his visit only several weeks later.
Zarqawi helped many Uzbek and Chechen fighters hiding in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan to slip into Iran. Most of these Uzbeks and Chechens have now joined him in Iraq. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf recently claimed that the Wana area of South Waziristan is like the headquarters of Al Qaeda because most of the militants hiding in the area are foreigners.
The Pakistani authorities arrested three Arabs with Iraqi documents in June 2004 in Islamabad. They were carrying a lot of ammunition. According to their documents, they had entered Pakistan from Iran. It is believed that Al Qaeda is now using Iran as a passage to reach Afghanistan and Pakistan from Iraq.
US officials believe that top Al Qaeda leaders are still hiding in Pakistan. They have made it clear to the Pakistani authorities that they want at least one of the top three 'high value targets' (Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Mohammad Omar) by July 25, 2004, before the Democratic national convention in Boston. US officials are sure that the arrest of any one of these three HVTs will help them unearth Al Qaeda's network spread from the Pakistani tribal areas to Iran and Iraq. Of course, it will also help George W Bush turn the tables on his challenger in this year's presidential election, Senator John Kerry.
THE NAME of the man organising Al Qaeda inside Iraq while sitting in Iran is Saif al-Adil. He is an Egyptian citizen. He was appointed Al Qaeda's new chief of military operations after the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Many people told me in Baghdad that Al Qaeda fighters were coming to Iraq from Iran and Syria to fight the Americans. I was also told by Islamic fighters in Baghdad that Adil was organising big operations against the Americans in Saudi Arabia.
I met many young Arabs in Saddam Hussein's hometown Tikrit carrying pictures of Osama bin Laden in their pockets. I cannot forget one Arab lad who told me that Sunni Iraqis would resist the Americans in Fallujah, Al-Ramadi, and Tikrit with the help of Al Qaeda and Shi-ite Iraqis would do the same in Najaf and Karbala with the help of Hizbullah.
This lad told me that he had spent time in Kunar province of Afghanistan. His father was Yemeni and his mother, Afghan. He was born in Kunar in 1987 and fled to Iran after the fall of the Taliban. He entered Iraq from Iran in the second week of April 2003.
In the first five months of 2004, it was proved that somebody had definitely organised a secret collaboration between Al Qaeda and Hizbullah in Iraq. The Americans have faced several Al Qaeda/Hizbullah-style suicide truck and car attacks.
Tomorrow: Iran's dangerous double game
Hamid Mir, the well-known Pakistani journalist and rediff.com contributor, has interviewed Osama bin Laden, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and General Richard B Myers, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, after 9/11. He travelled through Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran recently. He currently works for Pakistan's Geo TV network and is writing bin Laden's biography.
Al Qaeda and the Iranian connection
A young man with a short beard stopped me from entering the shrine of Hazrat Imam Hussein. "You have a video camera," he said. "You need permission to shoot inside."
Who is authorised to grant permission, I asked. The young man ignored the question and said that if I wanted to go in, I would have to leave my camera at the reception.
I explained that as a journalist I could not operate without a camera. But that only infuriated him and he began shouting, "Go away! Go away!"
I was secretly terrified, but informed him politely that I was from Pakistan, that I had visited Iran and Afghanistan recently for my work, and that I could not go inside without my camera.
He calmed down a little and asked for identification. I presented all my documents. He went through them for more than five minutes, then looked up and asked, "Are you the same Hamid Mir who appears on Al Jazeera to tell the world what's going on in Afghanistan?" I said yes, I was indeed the same Hamid Mir. He then instructed another young man to guide me to a hotel behind the revered shrine in Karbala.
When I entered the hotel, two men searched me. It took me only a few moments to realise that this was no hotel, but a secret office of Hizbullah, a Shi'ite organisation that is resisting the coalition troops in Iraq.
I was produced before Abu Musa, local commander of the Hizbullah fighters. He was sitting on a revolving chair behind a big office table. A nicely framed picture of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was hanging behind him.
Abu Musa questioned me about the objectives of my visit. He was particularly concerned about a special card issued to me by the Jordanian ministry of information. "They issue this card to those who are very close to them," he told me. I told him that I got the card simply because I was coming from Pakistan through Jordan, and that I was in Iraq to just report on the current situation and that I was not 'embedded' with the coalition troops.
Finally, Abu Musa was satisfied and gave me permission to enter the shrine with a camera. He also delivered a ten-minute lecture on the need for a Shia-Sunni alliance against the Americans. "Hizbullah-Al Qaeda brother brother," he proclaimed. He placed a green and white band on my head with the famous Hizbullah slogan 'Ya Allah, Ya Hussein.'
So I was entering the shrine of Hazrat Imam Hussein, grandson of the Holy Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, with an impression that Shia guerrillas trained and financed by Iran control this place. Hizbullah boys escorted me inside the shrine, and when I connected my videophone with my office in Dubai to report live from Karbala, they forced me to speak on camera with their white and green band on my head.
I visited Iraq twice after the fall of Saddam Hussein and in April this year I was sure that pro-Iran Shia militants and Al Qaeda fighters were collaborating against the US in Iraq.
Al Qaeda is using Iraq as a new base for organising attacks against the US and its allies after September 11. US Secretary of State Colin Powell had repeatedly claimed in the UN Security Council that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction, but one year after the invasion of Iraq it was disclosed that actually it was the Iranians who were making WMDs, including nuclear bombs and missiles, since the last 18 years, not Saddam Hussein.
The Americans have now started Saddam Hussein's trial, but, surprisingly, allegations about the possession of WMDs are missing from the charge sheet. Bush and Powell were embarrassed internationally because the Central Intelligence Agency was concentrating on Iraq instead of Iran.
Interestingly, the CIA was getting disinformation about Hussein's WMDs from Iranian intelligence through a double agent, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi was an indirect contact of Iran with the US. The Iranians used the US indirectly against their old enemy Saddam Hussein and now they are using Al Qaeda against the US in Iraq. They are playing a classical double game, not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan.
THREE years ago Ahmed Shah Masood, chief of the Northern Alliance, was working both for Iran and the US in Afghanistan. He was killed by Al Qaeda two days before September 11.
After Masood's death, Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Dr Abdullah Abdullah were the two main contacts of the US in the Northern Alliance. They were receiving open support from the US and covert support from Iran.
When the Taliban and Al Qaeda vacated Kabul in November 2001 and the Northern Alliance took control of the big cites like Kabul and Kandahar, the Iranians tried their best to instal the Persian-speaking Tajik leader Burhanuddin Rabbani as the new interim president of Afghanistan.
But the US preferred Pashtun loyalist Hamid Karzai. After the fall of the Taliban, the Iranians were supporting Fahim and Dr Abdullah in Kabul, Karim Khalili in Bamiyan, and Ismail Khan in Herat. They also gave refuge to hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters who fled Afghanistan.
Very few people know that Al Qaeda was actually in contact with the Iranians even before September 11. It was March 1997 that I first interviewed Osama bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan for Daily Pakistan. In that interview bin Laden proposed an alliance between the Taliban and Iran because of their anti-US stance.
That proposal was a surprise to me because the Taliban were against Iran at the time and that was the main reason for the US State Department's overt and Pakistan's covert support to them.
After the interview I talked to some other Al Qaeda operatives present in the hideout. One of them told me, "We want a broad-based alliance against the US and that's why we are in touch with the Iranians since many years."
Further investigation revealed that the main contact of Al Qaeda with Iran was Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri. He and his comrades in the Jamaat Islamia had organised the assassination of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat in 1981 with the help of Iranian intelligence.
When Osama bin Laden moved to Sudan in 1994, al-Zawahiri re-established his old contacts with Iranian intelligence. Many Iranian officials and leaders of Hizbullah met the Al Qaeda leadership in Khartoum. Although the Hizbullah is a Shia outfit and Al Qaeda is a Sunni group, they decided to unite against the United States.
In coming years, Al Qaeda adopted Hizbullah's methods against US targets. Hizbullah organised the suicide bombing at the US embassy in Beirut with trucks (April 18, 1983), which killed 61 people. Al Qaeda repeated the same kind of suicide bombing at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, which killed more than 200 people.
It is also worth mentioning that Osama bin Laden came back to Afghanistan in May 1996. He landed in a special plane with some of his close comrades at Jalalabad airport and was received by Maulvi Younus Khalis, Haji Deen Muhammad, and some others. Another plane of the Ariana Air Lines also landed at Jalalabad airport the next day with his family and big cargo. Afghanistan's official airline was helping bin Laden on Burhanuddin Rabbani's orders. He was the prime minister in Kabul when bin Laden was allowed to enter Afghanistan as a special guest.
THE TALIBAN only controlled some provinces in southern Afghanistan in those days. Pakistan was supporting the Taliban because Rabbani was close to Iran and India; the Pakistani embassy in Kabul was attacked by a mob that was guided by Northern Alliance commanders.
When the Taliban invaded Jalalabad and Kabul in September 1996, bin Laden switched sides and assured the Taliban of his cooperation. American and Pakistani intelligence agencies were aware of bin Laden's presence in Jalalabad, but they never objected because they were hoping that the experienced Arab fighters of Al Qaeda would help the Taliban push the Northern Alliance into Iran.
Those were the days when bin Laden tried his best to bridge the gap between the Taliban and Iran, but the Taliban refused to heed his proposal. The Taliban depended on Pakistani help and the Pakistani establishment was helping them because their opponent, the Northern Alliance, was close to Iran. Then Pakistani interior minister Major General Naseerullah Khan Babar was responsible for providing logistics and monetary support to the Taliban. He admits that 'we were supporting the Taliban to save Afghanistan from Iranian interference because the Iranians were playing a double game with us. They were claiming that we are your Muslim brothers, but actually they were encouraging people who were involved in anti-Pakistan activities inside Afghanistan.'
When the Taliban refused to cooperate with Iran, Osama bin Laden decided to help them quietly because Dr al-Zawahiri was not with him. He had been detained in Dagestan by the Russian authorities. The Russians were unaware of his real identity because he had travelled to the area on a fake Sudanese passport. Zawahiri was Al Qaeda's main link with Iran, and the link was missing.
2 good articles. (#9 & 10)