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A body is carried from the wreckage of the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 after an Al-Qaeda bombing. US prosecutors said al-Qaeda had the backing of Iran and Hezbollah in their 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden following the attacks in Kenya and at the US embassy in Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. Photo: AFP

Notes found in Osama bin Laden’s compound appear to bolster US claims of Iranian link to al-Qaeda

Supposed al-Qaeda document released by CIA depicts history of terror group’s relationship with Iran - but Tehran derides it as fake news

The CIA’s release of documents seized during the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden appears to bolster US claims that Iran supported the extremist network leading up to the September 11 terror attacks.

US intelligence officials and prosecutors have long said Iran formed loose ties to the terror organisation starting in 1991, something noted in a 19-page al-Qaeda report in Arabic that was included in the release of some 47,000 other documents by the CIA.

For its part, Iran has long denied any involvement with al-Qaeda, and its foreign minister disparaged the documents in a tweet late Thursday: “A record low for the reach of petrodollars: CIA&FDD fake news w/ selective AlQaeda docs re: Iran can’t whitewash role of US allies in 9/11.”

The report included in the CIA document dump shows how bin Laden, a Sunni extremist from Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia, could look across the Muslim world’s religious divide to partner with the Mideast’s Shiite power to target his ultimate enemy, the United States.

“Anyone who wants to strike America, Iran is ready to support him and help him with their frank and clear rhetoric,” the al-Qaeda report report reads.
In this 1998 file photo shows Osama bin Laden at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. Photo: AP

The Associated Press examined a copy of the report released by the Long War Journal, a publication backed by the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a think tank fiercely critical of Iran and sceptical of its nuclear deal with world powers. The CIA gave the Long War Journal early access to the material.

The release comes as US President Donald Trump has refused to recertify Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and faces domestic pressure at home over investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The unsigned 19-page report is dated in the Islamic calendar year 1428 – 2007 – and offers what appears to be a history of al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran. It says Iran offered al-Qaeda fighters “money and arms and everything they need, and offered them training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in return for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia.”
Then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (centre) walks past the damaged US embassy in Dar es Salaam on August 18, 1998, where a bomb exploded 11 days previously, in Al-Qaeda’s first major international attack. Photo: AFP

This coincides with an account offered by the US government’s 9/11 Commission, which said Iranian officials met with al-Qaeda leaders in Sudan in either 1991 or early 1992. The commission said al-Qaeda militants later received training in Lebanon from the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which Iran backs to this day.

US prosecutors also said al-Qaeda had the backing of Iran and Hezbollah in their 1998 indictment of bin Laden following the al-Qaeda truck bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

Al-Qaeda’s apparent siding with Iran may seem surprising today, given the enmity Sunni extremists like those of the Islamic State group have for Shiites.

But bin Laden had run out of options by 1991 – the one-time fighter against the Soviets in Afghanistan had fallen out with Saudi Arabia over his opposition to the ultraconservative kingdom hosting US troops during the Gulf War. Meanwhile, Iran had become increasingly nervous about America’s growing military expansion in the Mideast.

“The relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that the Sunni-Shiite divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations,” the 9/11 Commission report would later say.

Before the September 11, attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, Iran would allow al-Qaeda militants to pass through its borders without receiving stamps in their passports or with visas gotten ahead of time at its consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, according to the 19-page report. That helped the organisation’s Saudi members avoid suspicion. They also had contact with Iranian intelligence agents, according to the report.

This also matches with US knowledge. Eight of the 10 so-called “muscle” hijackers on September 11 – those who kept passengers under control on the hijacked flights – passed through Iran before arriving in the United States, according to the 9/11 Commission.

However, the commission “found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.”

On Thursday, Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, which is close to the hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, dismissed the CIA documents as “a project against Tehran.”

The 19-page report describes Iranians later putting al-Qaeda leaders and members under house arrest sometime after the September 11 attacks.

“They decided to keep our brothers as a card,” the report said.

That would come true in 2015 as Iran reportedly exchanged some al-Qaeda leaders for one of its diplomats held in Yemen by the terror group’s local branch.

“The repercussions … of the September 11 attacks were undoubtedly very large and perhaps above (our) imagination,” the al-Qaeda report said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Bin Laden files back up claims of Iran’s al-Qaeda ties