Obama Declines Iran Offer of al-Qaida Members
Tuesday, April 28, 2009 10:33 AM
By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
When Iranian government official Ahmad Samavati arrived in Washington, D.C., in February at the head of a five-man negotiating team, he thought he had an offer the Obama administration couldn’t refuse.
The Iranian regime was going to turn over scores of top al-Qaida operatives, including some on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list.
To Samavati’s surprise, the State Department officials he met declined the offer. “They told him they did not want any al-Qaida people. They told him they didn’t want them in the United States,” an Iranian source familiar with the negotiations told Newsmax.
The decline, and the very fact that the Iranian regime sent Samavati to Washington in the first place, shows the profound policy shift that has occurred in both Tehran and Washington since Barack Obama became president.
But Washington seems to be going in one direction and Tehran in another.
In the annual report on terrorism it released last April, the State Department blasted Iran for its unwillingness to cooperate in arresting, rendering, or controlling al-Qaida members operating from its territory.
“Iran has repeatedly resisted numerous calls to transfer custody of its AQ [al-Qaida] detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for interrogation or trial. Iran also continued to fail to control the activities of some AQ members who fled to Iran following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan,” the report stated.
Obama’s determination to shift gears on Iran is no secret.
He announced his intention to negotiate with the regime during the presidential campaign, and he has repeated that determination many times since taking office.
But no one at Foggy Bottom will comment on why the State Department refused the Iranian offer in February, despite numerous phone messages and e-mails entreaties.
To piece together this story, which goes beyond the public policy statements from the administration, Newsmax has sought out Iranians with personal knowledge of the secret negotiations, including some who work closely with the Iranian government and current and former U.S. officials in the military and intelligence community.
Persian-language Web sites also have detailed leaks from Tehran.
At the time Samavati came to Washington, the State Department was still in the throes of a “policy review” concerning Iran.
So on one level, his offer was premature. But beyond that, the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, may be simply too disorganized to coordinate a government-wide response to such a forward-leaning proposal, a source close to the negotiations suggested.
“Hillary Clinton is very much against these negotiations,” another source familiar with the U.S.-Iran talks told Newsmax.
“In Tehran, they don’t understand this,” said a third source who recently returned from Iran after discussing the Iranian and American proposals. “When the ruling factions actually agree on a policy, they put the whole government apparatus behind it.”
Tehran now believes that the al-Qaida operatives it is sheltering in Iran have become a liability. Some, such as al-Qaida military chief Saif al-Adel and Ahmed Mughassil, who has been indicted for the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, figure on the FBI’s Most Wanted List of terrorists and have American blood on their hands.
Other more low-level operatives have married into Iranian families in Tehran and have become a security challenge for the regime, a source knowledgeable of the U.S.-Iran negotiations told Newsmax.
“The Iranians want to get rid of the al-Qaida people who are now in Iran,” the source added. “That is absolutely clear. They have been training and providing support to al-Qaida operatives, but now find they have become an embarrassment.”
Al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been a liaison for the Iranian intelligence minister, the Revolutionary Guards, and Osama bin Laden since the early 1990s, when they were together in the Sudan.
Newsmax has received numerous reports over the past four years from former Iranian intelligence officers who claim that since the 9/11 attacks al-Zawahiri spends most of his time in Iran.
And yet, in a video posted last week on radical Islamist Web sites, al-Zawahiri warns the United States against any rapprochement with the Tehran regime.
"The more you cooperate with Iran, the more hatred you will generate from Muslims,” al-Zawahiri says in the video.
Even before 9/11, the Iranian government was careful to give the impression in the West that it was at war with radical Sunni Muslim groups, even as it trained terrorists from those groups in secret camps in Iran, according to former Iranian intelligence officers who were personally involved in the training.
The most celebrated case of this was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq until he was killed during an American military raid in 2006.
Al-Zarqawi declared war against Iraqi Shiites; and yet, he and his group, initially known as Ansar al Islam, were funded, trained, and equipped by the Iranian regime, which inserted them into Iraq in 2002.
Asked whether the U.S. intelligence community would like to see al-Qaida terrorists such as Saif al-Adel rendered to the United States, a U.S. intelligence official responded without ambiguity: “The U.S. intelligence community would very much like to see them taken off the streets. After all, they’re hardened terrorists.”
The type of al-Qaida operatives now being sheltered in Iran “have knowledge of the terrorist group’s current activities,” and thus have current intelligence value to the United States, the official added.
But such a desire on the part of U.S. intelligence officers who are still engaged in fighting a global war against radical Islamic terrorist groups flies in the face of the oft-expressed desire of President Obama to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison, where such terrorists would undoubtedly wind up.
“If you’re talking about individuals against whom there are no criminal charges, then it gets complicated,” former CIA Director R. James Woolsey told Newsmax. “If you close down Gitmo, where are you going to keep them?”
Woolsey said he could see no reason why the Obama administration wouldn’t take terrorists who are facing U.S. criminal charges. “To me, it would be extremely unwise not to take them out of circulation.”
The lack of criminal charges was the reason used by the Clinton administration to reject a 1996 offer by the government of Sudan to render Osama bin Laden to the United States, Woolsey recalled.
The Iranian government helped evacuate hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists and their families from Afghanistan in the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks, establishing a “rat line” using fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and hundreds of four-wheel drive vehicles, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
Since then, the regime has sheltered these and other al-Qaida members at safe houses in and around Tehran and provided them military training, equipment, and “hajj” passports so they can travel to the annual Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca.
The National Security Agency intercepted a communication from al-Qaida military chief, Saif al-Adel, giving the orders to an al-Qaida cell in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to launch the deadly attacks on May 12, 2003 that killed more than 90 people.
When the Bush administration realized that al-Adel was in an Iranian government safe house at the time he gave the order for the terrorist attacks, they cut off back-channel negotiations with Iran then being conducted by U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad.
In January, Undersecretary of State Stuart A. Levy released a report laying out the extensive support the Iranian government has provided top al-Qaida members, including Saad bin Laden, the Saudi terrorist’s eldest son and heir apparent.
For more on this, read "Top al-Qaida Operatives Worked Closely with Iran — U.S. Treasury."
Just hours after the Treasury announcement, outgoing Director of National Intelligence Adm. Mike McConnell told reporters that the younger bin Laden had left Iran in September and was now in Pakistan.
But a former Iranian intelligence officer who maintains access to the Iranian intelligence community recently showed Newsmax photographs of Saad bin Laden and a wheelchair-bound aide, which he claimed had been taken at a safe house in the Tehran area this March.
Some sources believe the regime is sheltering Osama bin Laden himself, as Newsmax reported recently. For more on this, read "Did Bin Laden Find Safe Haven in Iran?"
The State Department has not responded to repeated requests for comment on this story.
“The State Department’s lack of response is worrisome, especially since the president has said we’re going to Afghanistan to get al-Qaida,” said retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, now a Fox News contributor. “It would be of great interest, for example, to know of any relationship between the Iranian nuclear program and al-Qaida.”