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U.S. Court Ruling Links Iran to Al Qaeda

Matthew Levitt

On Nov. 28, a U.S. District court issued a little-noticed ruling that effectively links Iran to al Qaeda on terrorism. It specifically named both Iran and Sudan for an indirect supporting role in the 1998 twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, acts long linked exclusively with al Qaeda.  Bin Laden and many of al Qaeda’s senior leadership called Sudan home for several years, so the link between Sudan and al Qaeda was not a surprise.  Iran, however, has repeatedly denied collaborating with al Qaeda, but the court decision cites Iran for training al Qaeda operatives in basic tactics later used for terrorist attacks. The court decision could mark a legal precedent in holding Iran accountable for complicity in a broader range of terrorism.
In a 45-page opinion, Judge John D. Bates ruled that Iran “provided material aid and support to al Qaeda for the 1998 embassy bombings” in East Africa. The Washington court also found that “the Iranian defendants, through Hezbollah, provided explosives training to bin Laden and al Qaeda and rendered direct assistance to al Qaeda operatives.”  Hezbollah is the Lebanese party and militia long allied with Iran. The ruling offered insights into the mechanics of Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism at a time the Islamic Republic is again charged with plotting against the United States and its allies. The ruling followed a three-day trial held in October 2011 involving a  civil action under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA"). The plaintiffs — victims of the bombings and their families — sought to assign liability for their injuries to the Republic of Sudan and its Interior Ministry and Iran and its Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Ministry of Information and Security.
The East Africa bombing trial--U.S. v. Osama bin Laden et al--revealed that bin Laden and al Qaeda forged an alliance with the Iranian government in Sudan in the 1990s.  Al Qaeda, “put aside its differences with the Shiite Muslim terrorist organizations, including the government of Iran and its affiliated terrorist group, Hezbollah, to cooperate against the perceived common enemy, the United States and its allies,” according to an FBI affidavit.
The East African attacks followed on August 7, 1998, when hundreds were killed in almost simultaneous car bombing at the American embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya.  These attacks led the FBI to place bin Laden on its Most Wanted list.  The court ruling now also cites Iran for training al Qaeda operatives and thus enabling al Qaeda to carry out the subsequent attacks.
The East Africa suicide truck bombs bore the hallmarks of previous Hezbollah attacks.  According to the 9/11 Commission, bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in the early 1990s in “learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983.”  Al-Qaeda operatives, including top military committee members and operatives involved in the Kenya cell’s plotting of the embassy bombings, developed the tactical expertise to execute this kind of attack when they attended Hezbollah terrorist training camps in Lebanon sometime in 1993, according to the 9/11 commission report.
Between 1992 and 1996, several al Qaeda officials met with an Iranian religious official in Khartoum in order to arrange a “tripartite agreement between al-Qaeda, the National Islamic Front of Sudan, and elements of the Government of Iran,” the FBI affidavit added. The relationship forged there led al Qaeda emissaries to travel to Iran; Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh also agreed to train members of al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad in Lebanon in exchange for weapons, the FBI reported.  Similar links were implied by the 9/11 Commission Report, which noted that “senior al-Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives” in other cases.
Senior al Qaeda operatives graduated from these training courses in Iran, according to the testimony of al Qaeda defector Jamal al-Fadl (at an earlier criminal trial of bin Laden for the East Africa Embassy bombings). The operatives took training manuals and video tapes back to Sudan from these courses.  One tape in particular provided training on how to attack large buildings with explosives, according to al-Fadl.
Iranian ambassadors and other diplomats in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam left their posts two weeks before the embassy bombings, according to press reports.  One of the ambassadors, Ali Saghaian, was also reportedly tied to the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Argentina, according to the Argentine indictment after the AMIA attack. Saghaian was reportedly a member of the Revolutionary Guard who spent time at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires and “worked with those who decided to carry out the attack,” the indictment said. In Argentina, as in East Africa, Iranian diplomats flew out of the country just before the attack.
The court decision does not conclude that Iran or Hezbollah was directly linked to the East Africa embassy bombings.  But it effectively rules that both played critical roles in the years leading up to the embassy bombings by training al Qaeda operatives on how to carry out just such an attack. 


Dr. Matthew Levitt directs the Stein Program for Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is the author of the forthcoming Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s ‘Party of God.’
Click here to read Matthew Levitt's chapter on sanctions on the Iran Primer.
Tags: al Qaeda

Treasury Tightens Squeeze on Iran Front Companies

Matthew Levitt

    In its latest action against Iran, the Treasury Department has sanctioned six new front companies connected to Iran’s official shipping line. The six companies, based in Panama, are part of an Iranian game of cat-and-mouse designed to hide Tehran’s ownership and mask its ongoing activities related to both proliferation and terrorism.  The companies took ownership of the Iranian vessels after Treasury  sanctioned their previous owners, working out of the Isle of Man, last November.  Over the past three years, the United States has now designated over 150 vessels, companies, entities and individuals related to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines ( IRISL).

    “IRISL has not changed its conduct; instead it has tried to change its identity,” said Adam Szubin, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.  “IRISL’s ships have been renamed, reflagged, repainted, and renamed again. It has repeatedly shifted the nominal owners of ships and modified shipping documents to conceal its activities.”

    The action is part of a widening campaign by Washington to take tougher action against Iran, particularly after revelations about a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in the United States. The Obama administration is also pressing international allies to sanction key Iranian entities already designated by the United States, such as Iran Air, and to seriously consider taking similar action against Bank Merkazi, the Central Bank of Iran.

     Some of these actions will be focused specifically on Tehran’s support for terrorism, leveraging the recent assassination plot in consultations with allies and international organizations.  Others will focus on other aspects of Iran’s illicit conduct, including its global proliferation activities and suppression of human rights at home.

    The Iranian shipping line was originally designated under counter-proliferation powers (Executive Order 13382) for providing logistical services to Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics. But it has also been tied to Iranian state sponsorship of terrorism.  Investigation into the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires led prosecutors to look closer at several Iranian front companies, including some with links to its chief shipping line.

     Treasury’s latest sanction on Oct. 27—which chronicles Iran’s effort to transfer ownership of IRISL entities from the Isle of Man to Panama—underscores how significantly Iran’s presence in Latin America has grown since the 1994 bombing, despite efforts to contain it.  It also illustrates how the United States began to focus on front companies Iran has created to hide its work. (Graphic about ownership transfer)

    According to Argentinean prosecutors, a large number of individuals, front companies, cultural organizations, student groups and others collected information for the 1994 bombing that was then passed up the Iranian intelligence chain to senior officers through a variety of different communication channels.  These structures not only collected information but also provided logistical support at the behest of their case agents.

     Investigators then focused on other Iranian outlets, such as its official shipping line and the Islamic Republic News Agency, which also provided cover for intelligence functions.  The shipping line never opened an office in Argentina, but IRISL vessels docked regularly at many Argentinean harbors.  The purpose was to provide overtly legitimate entities controlled by the Iranian government “for purposes of carrying out illicit activities such as financing terrorist organizations; facilitating the movement of persons, documentation and information; espionage; logistics support, and so on,” according to the Argentine prosecutors’ report.

     Abolghasem Mesbahi, a former senior Iranian intelligence official who defected to Germany, later told Argentine prosecutors about the set-up. “The cover businesses had two missions: generating income; and manipulating sources and providing them with ample cover,” he said. IRISL “is a shipping company that is managed by the Revolutionary Guard and that coordinates all of Iran’s illegal business activities. This includes tasks such as transporting people illegally from one country to another, issuing false shipping documentation, or altering commercial documentation by changing the designation of the goods listed on the documentation. They also carry out kidnappings.”

     Little attention was paid to these warnings about IRISL until its illicit activities came to light in 2008 in context of global efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  In September, the United States accused IRISL of being involved in illicit commerce. The State Department noted at that time that the U.N. Security Council identified IRISL’s involvement in “proliferation shipments."  

    IRISL has also been implicated in shipping arms to terrorist groups, as in the January 2008 seizure of the Monchegorsk, an IRISL-chartered ship bound for Syria with components for mortars with powder, propellant, and shell casings for 125mm and 130mm guns.  Dutch customs began to label merchandise shipped by IRISL or Iran Air in the highest risk category and inspect any cargo they carried, while Britain banned British companies from doing business with the Iranian shipping line.

     Other European countries recognized the threats posed by Iran’s use of front companies and cut-outs to facilitate illicit activities.  The Czech Security Information Service reported similar findings. In 2009, it determined that Iran used "mediating firms" in the Czech Republic to procure items that could facilitate the production of weapons of mass destruction. According to the report, Iran orchestrated complex business channels in which companies from various countries fulfill only partial tasks without knowing the whole chain of suppliers and customers.  In 2010, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1929, which focused on Iran’s missile and nuclear weapons programs and highlighted the illicit conduct executed by IRISL and Iran Air's cargo division.  

To read more about Financial Sanctions, click here.

Dr. Matthew Levitt, former Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis, directs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.  He is the author of the forthcoming book, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (2012).


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Tags: Sanctions

U.S. sanctions 37 front companies connected to Iran

Matthew Levitt

      In the latest U.S. move to pressure Iran, the Treasury Department has sanctioned 37 German, Maltese, and Cypriot companies for being owned or controlled by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). The new designations on Oct. 27 are a logical next step for the United States and an indication that the Obama administration is continuing a key part of the Bush administration’s approach. For sanctions to bear fruit, both administrations concluded that sanctions should be both targeted and graduated. 
      The Iranian shipping line and its front companies are also logical targets. IRISL has been one of the central players in Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons capabilities. Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey said the designations would further “expose the elaborate structures and tactics Iran uses to shield its shipping line from international scrutiny so that it can continue to facilitate illicit commerce.”
      The new U.S. sanctions affect 15 shipping companies and 11 holding companies. Treasury also designated five Iranians for acting on behalf of the Iran shipping company.
The United States has now designated almost 70 IRISL front companies and affiliates. It has also identified more than 100 ships as the property of IRISL or its fronts.
      The Bush administration first designated Iran’s shipping conglomerate in September 2008 for facilitating the transport of cargo for U.N.-designated proliferators and falsifying documents and using deceptive schemes to shroud its involvement in illicit commerce. The U.N. Security Council has also named IRISL as a company that has engaged in proliferation shipments.
       IRISL has also long been implicated in shipping arms to terrorist groups. In January 2008, the Monchegorsk, an IRISL-chartered Cypriot vessel bound for Syria was detained and found to be carrying components for mortars along with powder, propellant, and shell casings for 125mm and 130mm guns. Holland and Britain have also taken action against IRISL. Yet by themselves, the latest U.S. actions are not likely to put sufficient pressure on Tehran to change the regime’s calculus.
Matthew Levitt is director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence and a lecturer in international relations and strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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