Iran and al-Qaeda

23 July 2004: The 9/11 Commission pinpoints a continuing safe haven for terrorists in general and al-Qaeda in particular Friday, July 23, 2004 “We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.” They’re bland words tucked away in a long government document, but those bland words in Thursday’s 567-page report by 9/11 Commission couldn’t have more significance.

The words came at the end of the section headed, “Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to al-Qaida.” The flashiest information in the section made its way into news accounts earlier this week: The commission found evidence that eight to 10 of the 14 “muscle” operatives from Saudi Arabia traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001. This allowed them, according to two of the al-Qaida detainees behind 9/11, to avoid having their Saudi passports stamped as they went in and out of Afghanistan.

The commission found no evidence that Iran knew of the planning for the 9/11 attack. It’s probable that the al-Qaeda operatives themselves didn’t know the specifics of their operation at the time they traveled through Iran. But a government that facilitates terrorists in their global travels is a problem, though not the biggest one Iran presents on the international terror front. Here’s what the commission reports on Page 240:

“As we mentioned in chapter 2, while in Sudan, senior managers in al-Qaida maintained contacts with Iran and the Iranian-supported worldwide terrorist organization Hezbollah . . . al-Qaida members received advice and training from Hezbollah. Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al-Qaida figures after bin Ladin’s return to Afghanistan. Khallad [Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, 9/11 mastermind] has said that Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al-Qaida after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, but was rebuffed because bin Ladin did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia.”

In short, before 9/11, Iran wanted to work with al-Qaida after it saw what damage al-Qaeda could do. And after 9/11? “Iran and Hezbollah,” the commission says, “wished to conceal any past evidence of cooperation with Sunni terrorists associated with al-Qaida.”

Yes, Iran’s ties to terrorism require further investigation. The connection may one day require something more.