Al Qaeda’s Network in Iran / Revelations from a German courtroom (WEEKLY STANDARD) APR 2, 2012, VOL. 17, NO. 28 • BY BENJAMIN WEINTHAL AND THOMAS JOSCELYN Koblenz, Germany)
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An al Qaeda cell slated to take part in one of the final plots
ordered by Osama bin Laden made use of an Iran-based terror network
that, according to the Obama administration, operates “under an
agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” That
revelation has emerged from legal proceedings in Germany, including
the trial of Ahmad Wali Siddiqui, an al Qaeda recruit who took the
stand for the first time last week in Koblenz.
We observed two days of Siddiqui’s testimony. Thus far, prosecutors
have allowed the gregarious defendant to do most of the talking.
Cleanshaven, he has sought to present a sharply different demeanor
than the one he displayed as a bearded jihadist in propaganda films
shown to the court. Still, his disturbing narrative provided an
extraordinary window into the inner workings of al Qaeda and allied
The alleged terror recruit, with dual German and Afghan citizenship,
has discussed the time he and his fellow plotters spent at the same
mosque attended by al Qaeda’s 9/11 Hamburg cell, as well as his own
transformation into a violent jihadist. “We wanted to fight . . .
against Americans,” Siddiqui told the court. Wiretapped conversations
played by prosecutors have provided additional insight into
Siddiqui’s extremist worldview. During one telephone call to his
mother he explained the difference between living in the West and
living, as he was then, among the believers: “Life in Germany is not
good. You live with gays, lesbians, and Jews. Islam rules here.”
Siddiqui initially joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a
terrorist organization closely allied with al Qaeda, in northern
Pakistan. He quickly migrated to al Qaeda itself.
According to the indictment, senior terrorists decided to send
Siddiqui back to Germany to take part in a potentially devastating
attack intended “to weaken Europe’s economy.” In the fall of 2010,
Western intelligence officials learned that Osama bin Laden had
ordered attacks in several cities that were supposed to mirror the
November 2008 siege of Mumbai. After Siddiqui was captured in
Afghanistan, he revealed the nascent plot.
In testimony before the court, Siddiqui described how he and his co-
conspirators planned different travel routes in order to avoid
suspicion beginning in early 2009. But their travels had a common
theme: Iran was their principal gateway to jihad.
According to Siddiqui, two of his co-conspirators—Rami Makanesi and
Naamen Meziche—traveled from Vienna to Tehran in order “to not get
caught.” Their trip was booked in a Hamburg travel office by an
unknown Iranian. Siddiqui explained that the pair could not travel
directly to Pakistan because they are Arabs. Pakistani authorities
would have questioned the duo’s intentions and perhaps detained them,
but by traveling through Iran they avoided such scrutiny.
When Makanesi and Meziche arrived in Tehran, Siddiqui explained, they
called a facilitator known as “Dr. Mamoud,” who works for the IMU.
The two were ushered to Zahedan, a city on the eastern border of
Iran, close to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. There, Siddiqui says,
Dr. Mamoud “welcomed them.”
Zahedan is a well-known hub of al Qaeda and IMU activity. The IMU has
repeatedly used the city’s Makki mosque, the largest Sunni mosque in
Iran, to shuttle fighters into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda has
an established presence there, too. For instance, before his May 2011
suicide at Guantánamo, an Afghan detainee named Inayatullah admitted
to authorities that he was al Qaeda’s emir of Zahedan, from where he
delivered recruits to senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Even since
Inayatullah’s capture, al Qaeda fighters have continued to travel
through Zahedan, as Makanesi and Meziche did.
Meziche has long been known to European counterterrorism officials.
His father-in-law, Mohamed al-Fazazi, was a radical preacher whose
sermons and spiritual advice guided al Qaeda’s 9/11 Hamburg cell.
Meziche was reportedly close to Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker in
the 9/11 attacks, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, al Qaeda’s point man for
the 9/11 operation. Bin al-Shibh reportedly tried to call Meziche
just days before the 9/11 attacks. Meziche was later implicated in Al
Qaeda in Iraq’s operations after European officials found that he had
been recruiting fighters for the organization.
According to Der Spiegel, senior al Qaeda terrorists instructed
Meziche and another member of the cell, an Iranian national named
Shahab Dashti, to travel to Iran where “they would be told where in
Europe they were to be deployed to begin building structures for bin
Laden’s organization.” Once in Iran, Dashti “was to undergo facial
plastic surgery” because he had already appeared in a propaganda
video and was therefore recognizable to European authorities.
However, Dashti did not get a chance to fool Western intelligence
officials, because he was killed in a drone strike in northern
Pakistan in early October 2010, after the Mumbai-style plot was
Initial reports indicated that Meziche was killed in the same drone
strike, but he survived it and is now being sheltered by the
Iranians. The New York Times reported in January that Meziche and
several other members of the cell are “waiting in Iran, trying to
return to Europe.” European authorities are not eager to see them
come back, as they pose obvious security risks.
Anonymous U.S. officials interviewed by the Times described Meziche
and one of his Iran-based compatriots as “lower midlevel” al Qaeda
operatives. “These two have been involved in al Qaeda external
operations activities for some time now,” one official said. Citing
multiple intelligence sources, the New York Times explained
that “Iran appears to be harboring them in hopes that, when and if
they leave, they will cause trouble in the West.”
Rami Makanesi, who set off for Tehran with Meziche, was not as
fortunate. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 and sentenced to
nearly five years in prison last year by a Frankfurt court.
Makanesi has his own ties to Iran-based al Qaeda operatives.
According to Guido Steinberg, a researcher in the Middle East and
North Africa division of the German Institute for International
Security Affairs, Makanesi met a top al Qaeda operative known as
Yassin al-Suri in February 2010. Steinberg, in his analysis brief for
IHS Jane’s, a military and intelligence consulting group, explains
that Suri asked Makanesi to “accompany him to Iran.” Makanesi said
that Suri “was responsible for funneling money and recruits via Iran
and that he was known to cooperate with the Iranian government.”
Indeed, in July 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department revealed that Suri
operates in Iran as part of a “secret deal” between the Iranian
government and al Qaeda. Treasury contends that Suri’s Iranian
network serves as “a critical transit point for funding to support al
Qaeda’s activities.” In December 2011, the U.S. government offered a
$10 million reward, one of the highest ever, for information leading
to Suri’s capture.
When the Treasury Department designated Suri in 2011, it also
designated several other members of al Qaeda who utilize the Iran-
based network. One of them was Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was
subsequently killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan. The
Treasury Department explained: “Rahman was previously appointed by
Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position
which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of
Iranian officials.” Makanesi seems to have at least known Rahman.
According to Steinberg, Makanesi has explained that Rahman “was known
to have lived in Iran for many years.”
When exposing al Qaeda’s Iran-based network in 2011, the Obama
administration highlighted its role in the Iraq and Afghan wars. But
this same network has delivered recruits to al Qaeda who were slated
to take part in attacks in the West. Iranian officials may or may not
have known the specific details of Osama bin Laden’s 2010 plot. But
we do know this: Al Qaeda’s Iranian network has a global reach,
capable of delivering trained terrorists to Europe’s doorstep.
Thomas Joscelyn and Benjamin Weinthal are fellows at the Foundation
for Defense of Democracies.
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