9/11 Panel Links Al Qaeda, Iran
Bin Laden May Have Part in Khobar Towers, Report Says
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2004; Page A12
While it found no operational ties between al Qaeda and Iraq, the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has concluded that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network had long-running contacts with Iraq's neighbor and historic foe, Iran.
Al Qaeda, the commission determined, may even have played a "yet unknown role" in aiding Hezbollah militants in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, an attack the United States has long blamed solely on Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors.
The notion that bin Laden may have had a hand in the Khobar bombing would mark a rare operational alliance between Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups that have historically been at odds. That possibility, largely overlooked in the furor of new revelations released by the commission last week, comes amid worsening relations between the United States and Iran, which announced on Thursday that it would resume building equipment necessary for a nuclear weapons program.
The Sept. 11 panel's findings on Iran have been eclipsed by the continuing political debate over Iraq, which the commission said had not developed a "collaborative relationship" with al Qaeda despite limited contacts in the 1990s. That appeared to conflict with previous characterizations made by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials in their justifications for launching the war against Saddam Hussein.
In relation to Iran, commission investigators said intelligence "showed far greater potential for collaboration between Hezbollah and al Qaeda than many had previously thought." Iran is a primary sponsor of Hezbollah, or Party of God, the Lebanon-based anti-Israel group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
The commission's Republican chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean, also said in a television appearance last week that "there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."
But perhaps most startling was the commission's finding that bin Laden may have played a role in the Khobar attack. Although previous court filings and testimony indicated that al Qaeda and Iranian elements had contacts during the 1990s, U.S. authorities have not publicly linked bin Laden or his operatives to that strike, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen. A June 2001 indictment of 14 defendants in the case makes no mention of al Qaeda or bin Laden and lays the organizational blame for the attacks solely on Hezbollah and Iran.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads the Washington office of Rand Corp., said that although bin Laden's then-fledgling group was an early suspect in the blasts, "the evidence kept pointing to an Iranian connection, so people tended to discount a bin Laden connection."
"What the commission report is raising is that the relationship might have been much tighter and was in fact operational and not just spiritual," Hoffman said.
U.S. officials who have worked on the Khobar case are more skeptical. A law enforcement source with knowledge of the case, who declined to be identified because of the ongoing criminal investigation, said authorities searched carefully for an al Qaeda connection but found no basis for it.
The broader notion of links between bin Laden's group and Hezbollah or hard-line elements in Iran's security forces has been a hot topic in U.S. law enforcement and intelligence circles for years. Many analysts have viewed such an alliance as dubious, largely because of ancient animosities between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Several leaders of al Qaeda, a Sunni organization, have issued rabidly anti-Shiite proclamations.
Nonetheless, the United States previously compiled evidence of limited contacts between Iranian interests and al Qaeda. U.S. officials alleged that Iran was harboring al Qaeda militants who had fled neighboring Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion there.
Iran has denied that al Qaeda was operating from its territory, and announced earlier this year that it would put on trial a dozen suspected members of the terrorist group.
The original U.S. indictment of bin Laden, filed in 1998, said al Qaeda "forged alliances . . . 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."
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