The following is a Debka report. Debka is famous for getting some important stories wrong, but on occasion they are way ahead of the rest of the media. We report, you decide. -- DoctorZin
Iran Helped Bin Laden's Lieutenant al-Zawahiri Escape
September 08, 2003
Iran consistently denies ever having sheltered or hidden Osama bin Ladens top lieutenant and operations ace, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, in the group of al Qaeda leaders present in the country. This assertion is wide of the truth. The Islamic Republic did in fact hide the bespectacled Egyptian medical doctor for close on a year.
He was granted sanctuary, a base of operation and finally provided with a safe getaway route as discovered by DEBKA-Net-Weeklys most reliable exclusive sources.
Two years after the September 11 terrorist horrors in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Zawahiris importance as a linchpin and live wire of the al Qaeda network and badly wanted quarry of American special forces and intelligence agents.
His capture is as crucial to the United States global war on terror as the apprehension of Bin Laden himself or Saddam Hussein.
The Iranians looked after him very well. Last month, as the hunt drew near, they helped Zawahiri stay a step ahead of his pursuers and leave the country by a secret tortuous route. DEBKA-Net-Weekly learns that Iranian intelligence agents were personally ordered by Iranian intelligence minister Hojatoleslam Ali Younesi to spirit the wanted terrorist chief, disguised as an Iranian Shiite cleric out of his hiding place and across into Turkey. Travelers from Iran are not required to show passports at the Turkish frontier. An Iranian spy cell buried in Turkey waited for him and conducted him to one of their own safe houses. There he stayed for two or three days before moving on to an unknown destination.
Zawahiri is as intent on keeping al Qaedas terror campaign alive as of keeping his head down. Our al Qaeda watchers therefore point to his two most likely destinations: The Ferghana Valley, a lawless territory ruled by Al Qaeda that straddles Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and China; or the wild Pankisi Gorge badland on the Chechen-Georgian border. Iranian intelligence would be able to prepare the absconding terrorist masterminds welcome in the latter place through its active channels of communication with Chechen rebels and Saudi Al Qaeda fighters focusing on Chechnya and its environs. At the Pankisi Gorge, Zawahiri would have moved on to his next stop helped by many helping hands in his own movement.
Some made their escape there in late May, when Tehran plotted the flight of some of the al Qaeda perpetrators of the massive bombings in foreigners compounds in Riyadh on May 19. Flouting insistent Saudi and American demands to hand the wanted men over, Iranian intelligence gave them transportation and money to smooth their way as far as the Pankisi Gorge.
Reporting from exclusive sources in Tehran, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has learned that, a day or two after Zawahiri left Iran, a tense tug-o-war took place between Iranian intelligence ministry officers and Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen over control of a group of al Qaeda terrorists. They confronted each other at an airport in the northern Iranian city of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan.
Eight senior al Qaeda operatives were known to have been harbored in Tehran as recently as mid-August. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported, have a list of 60 names of Al Qaeda operations officers in the Islamic Republic.
Three of those terrorists were the prize fought over by the two armed Iranian factions.
A large Revolutionary Guards contingent was about to put them on an unmarked plane parked near a side runway with its engines running to extradite them to Saudi Arabia, the start of their deportation to their countries of origin, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Suddenly, the Iranian Guardsmen were surrounded by a larger contingent of Iranian intelligence ministry officers, who demanded custody of all three Al Qaeda men. A second group of officers had meanwhile boarded the plane and ordered the pilot to switch off the engines. At one point in the four-hour standoff, according to our Iranian sources, guns were drawn and threats made. But the officers from the Tehran ministry issued a 15-minute ultimatum to hand the terrorists over or else they would open fire. The Revolutionary Guards backed down.
DEBKA-Net-Weeklys intelligence sources report that this was the third time Guards had been frustrated in attempt to send some senior Al Qaeda operatives back to their respective home countries.
DEBKA-Net-Weeklys intelligence and counter-terrorism sources believe that one of the three terrorists was Saif al-Adel, number three in the Al Qaeda hierarchy and the groups military commander. Last month, the CIA determined that al Adel, like Zawahiri an Egyptian national, had been in Iranian custody for some three weeks. They have been searching for him for ten years, since the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in 1993 in which 18 Americans were killed. He is suspected of having commanded a Al Qaeda unit fighting in Mogadishu at the time.
Now, he is named as mastermind of the Riyadh bomb blasts and was on the point of being flown out to Saudi Arabia when the Intelligence minister Younesi had managed to block the extradition while also spotlighting a deep division in the Islamic Republics ruling regime.
Shortly after the airport confrontation, we learn that Moshen Razai, chef de bureau of the still powerful former president Hashem Rafsanjani, sent an encrypted report on the incident to members of his faction in the Revolutionary Guards command. He posted it over his private, closed personal website, which DEBKA-Net-Weeklys intelligence sources were able to access. At the end of the message, Razai wrote: There are still elements within Irans intelligence services who are protecting Al Qaeda adherents and will do anything to prevent their extradition to Arab countries and thwart any progress towards better relations with them.
Razai is himself a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. His boss, Rafsanjani, is thought to be the most influential of any Iranian leader among the Guards.
The next move came about several hours later from Imad al-Parsa, a close associate of Rafsanjani and Razai. He summoned his own inner circle, including a large number of senior Revolutionary Guards officers and told them: The same elements that executed the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Teheran and took its diplomatic staff hostage, thereby foredooming Iran to bad relations with the West for a generation, are at work again.
DEBKA-Net-Weeklys Iran analysts learn from this episode that the attempt to use al Qaeda as an instrument of terror and bargaining chip to gain a respite to develop nuclear weapons has landed Tehran in hot water with regard to the regimes internal cohesion.
The clerical leaders are now split down the middle. http://www.debka.com/article.php?aid=562
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Israel Keeping Eyes on Iran's Nuke Program
JERUSALEM Sept. 9
Israel has hinted at possible military action to stop what it calls a nightmare scenario nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran but for now is waiting for U.S. diplomatic pressure and closer international scrutiny to do the job.
On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is investigating suspicions of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program, demanded full disclosure from Tehran, including acceptance of snap inspections.
Iran insists its nuclear programs are only for generating electricity as oil supplies dwindle. It also has said its equipment was "contaminated" with enriched uranium by a previous owner.
But Israel estimates Iran is just two to three years from having nuclear weapons.
An Israeli government official said Iran does not yet have the right amount of enriched uranium, as well as some other chemicals, needed to build a nuclear bomb, but it has the "know-how" and the ability to develop the materials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The delivery method the long-range Shahab-3 missile was successfully tested in July, and experts said Iran is to begin serial production within two years.
If diplomacy fails, Israel, which is about 600 miles to the west of Iran, has made clear a military operation is feasible.
Israeli security officials said Iran's nuclear program is a focus of the army's five-year strategic plan, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered the Mossad spy service to keep a close eye on the developments in Tehran.
"Any Iranian regime knows of course that Israel has the capability, the wherewithal, to deal with a military threat," said Zalman Shoval, an aide to Sharon. "Hopefully, a military threat can be avoided, nipped in the bud ... before it begins and this is where the United States comes in."
Israel has never confirmed being a nuclear power, but it is widely believed to have nuclear weapons.
In 1981, a fleet of Israeli warplanes flew some 460 miles over Middle Eastern deserts and mountains to Baghdad sticking close to the ground throughout the flight to avoid being picked up by radars.
The warplanes let loose a string of bombs, knocking out Baghdad's nuclear reactors and halting Saddam Hussein's progress in obtaining nuclear weapons.
At the time, the operation was internationally condemned, even by Israel's staunchest ally, the United States.
However, the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States have changed the rules.
U.S. troops have overthrown regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, both on Iran's borders, in less than two years. Tehran is aware that as a member of President Bush's "axis of evil" it could be next in line.
"Iran must cooperate fully. Iran has pledged not to develop nuclear weapons and the entire international community must hold that regime to its commitments," Bush recently said.
Iran apparently believes the attack could come from the United States or Israel and announced it was increasing its defense spending this year.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi recently warned Israel against embarking on an "adventure" similar to the 1981 strike, saying "it will pay dearly" if it does so.
The United States and Israel would most likely choose to carry out pinpoint strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, rather than a large-scale assault if forced to take military measures, said Ephraim Kam, a researcher with Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Kam released a study last week on Iran's nuclear capabilities.
"A combination of nuclear capabilities and long-range missile capabilities...combined with their position that Israel should not exist is a real threat," Kam said.
Suspicions about Iran's nuclear activities prompted IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei in February to tour Iran's nuclear facilities, including the incomplete plant in Natanz, about 300 miles south of Tehran. Diplomats said he was taken aback by the advanced stage of a project using hundreds of centrifuges to enrich uranium.
Another, larger uranium enrichment facility, is to be completed within the next few years, Western intelligence agencies discovered with the help of Iranian opposition groups.
ElBaradei has said that Iran's nuclear program has been going on far longer than the agency had realized and that it's possible Tehran had bought nuclear components on the "black market."
"I would urge Iran in the coming weeks to show proactive and accelerated cooperation, and to demonstrate full transparency by providing the agency with a complete and accurate declaration of all its nuclear activities," he said Monday in Vienna, Austria.
The United States is pushing the IAEA to report to the U.N. Security Council that Iran is violating nuclear safeguard regulations, opening the door to economic sanctions. Tehran recently signaled that it is open to negotiating terms for snap U.N. inspections of its nuclear sites. http://abcnews.go.com/wire/World/ap20030909_122.html
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