Ayman al-Zawahiri was released in the summer of 1997. He joined Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad and re-established his links with the Iranians secretly. By this time the Iranians had started denouncing not only the Taliban but also Al Qaeda because Arab fighters played an important role in all the major battles in northern Afghanistan.
An old friend of bin Laden and Zawahiri was, however, still getting help from the Iranians. His name: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
This Pashtun leader and ex-prime minister of Afghanistan had deadly differences with both Ahmed Shah Masood and the Taliban. He was living in Tehran under official security. He advised the Iranians not to speak against bin Laden because the Saudi dissident was also speaking against America.
I met Osama bin Laden again in May 1998. By this time he was under a lot of restriction from the Taliban and he did not speak for an alliance between the Taliban and Iran.
Then, in April 2001, an international conference on the Palestinian dispute was arranged in Tehran by the government of Iran. Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, and other militant leaders participated in that conference. I learnt during this conference that many Al Qaeda leaders of Arab origin were living in Tehran. I found it hard to believe because the Iranians were condemning the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the international press. But they were also secretly in contact with them.
In Tehran I found that the Iranian establishment was divided between the reformers and the hardliners. The reformers were led by President Mohammed Khatami while the hardliners were led by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The hardliners were in control of the military and intelligence agencies and secretly supported militant groups in different parts of the world. President Khatami said many times that Al Qaeda hates Iran as much as it hates the United States, but his claim was removed from reality.
After learning these facts I decided to meet Hekmatyar in Tehran. He spoke openly in support of Osama bin Laden. I asked him, "How can you support Al Qaeda without the approval of the Iranian government?" He just smiled and ignored the question. He also presented to me a copy of his book written in Persian and published in Iran. The book was full of criticism of America.
I had no doubt in April 2001 that the Iranians were playing a double game with the Northern Alliance. They were supporting them against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but on the other hand they were also in contact with Al Qaeda and Hekmatyar.
WHY WERE the Iranians doing that?
Because Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood was in touch with both the Central Intelligence Agency and Iranian intelligence! The Iranians were probably playing a double game with a double agent.
But the Northern Alliance leadership was surprised in December 2001 after the great battle of Tora Bora. They arrested many Arab fighters who were trying to enter Iran from southern Afghanistan. February 15, 2002, was the turning point when two Palestinians and one Jordanian were arrested in Turkey. They revealed that they had been sent by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the men in America's most wanted list now, to Tel Aviv.
According to a police spokesman in Ankara, the three had fought for the Taliban and were members of the Beyyet Al-Imam organisation, which is also known as Al Tawheed. The Turkish authorities said the three members were trained by Zarqawi at a camp near Herat in western Afghanistan. They possessed fake documents, had diagrams showing how to assemble bombs, and claimed that they intended to attack targets in Tel Aviv.
Zarqawi fled from Afghanistan to Iran in December 2001 after he was injured in the US bombing campaign. He was treated in Iran, where a leg was amputated and he was fitted with a prosthesis.
Zarqawi is a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian stock. He was born in the Zarqa refugee camp near the Jordanian capital Amman. US Secretary of State Colin Powell mentioned his name for the first time on February 2, 2004, in the UN Security Council meeting as a man who had spent time in Afghanistan and was now active in Iraq. Powell remained silent, however, on Zarqawi's connection with the Iranians.
MORE EVIDENCE of the Al Qaeda-Iran collaboration surfaced during a military operation in eastern Afghanistan in March 2002. More than 40 American soldiers were killed in the Shahi Kot mountains in that operation. Several documents and lots of ammunition was recovered from caves in the mountains.
US Army sources confirmed to me in April 2002 in Kabul that unused Air Iran tickets and some bills of a hotel in Mashad were also recovered from the caves. This proved that Al Qaeda not only had training camps in Iran, but was using Iran as a safe passage to the Middle East and other parts of the world.
The Iranians are employing Al Qaeda against the US-led coalition forces not only in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq. It is no secret that Zarqawi, who was running a training camp in Iran, is now operating in Iraq. He runs a separate outfit named Al Tawheed. He is not a member of Al Qaeda, but he is an ally.
An Arab named Shadi Abdullah was arrested in Germany some time ago. He is a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. He told a German court that he had attended a training camp in western Afghanistan run by Zarqawi. According to the court documents, Zarqawi's deputy is a man named Abu Haroon, an Iranian national. Shadi Abdullah told the court that Al Tawheed had a cell in Germany that sent as much as US $40,000 a month to Zarqawi in Iran.
Zarqawi was also blamed for the killing of an American citizen, Nick Berg, in Baghdad earlier this year. A video of Berg's beheading was released on May 11, and named Zarqawi as the man who beheaded the civilian contractor.
Some Arab Al Qaeda operatives told me in Kunar province of Afghanistan in September 2003 that Zarqawi has Iranian and Uzbek passports under different names. He travelled on fake documents from Iraq to Jordan in April 2004, met his wife and children in Amman, and returned to Iraq. The Jordanians learnt of his visit only several weeks later.
Zarqawi helped many Uzbek and Chechen fighters hiding in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan to slip into Iran. Most of these Uzbeks and Chechens have now joined him in Iraq. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf recently claimed that the Wana area of South Waziristan is like the headquarters of Al Qaeda because most of the militants hiding in the area are foreigners.
The Pakistani authorities arrested three Arabs with Iraqi documents in June 2004 in Islamabad. They were carrying a lot of ammunition. According to their documents, they had entered Pakistan from Iran. It is believed that Al Qaeda is now using Iran as a passage to reach Afghanistan and Pakistan from Iraq.
US officials believe that top Al Qaeda leaders are still hiding in Pakistan. They have made it clear to the Pakistani authorities that they want at least one of the top three 'high value targets' (Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Mohammad Omar) by July 25, 2004, before the Democratic national convention in Boston. US officials are sure that the arrest of any one of these three HVTs will help them unearth Al Qaeda's network spread from the Pakistani tribal areas to Iran and Iraq. Of course, it will also help George W Bush turn the tables on his challenger in this year's presidential election, Senator John Kerry.
THE NAME of the man organising Al Qaeda inside Iraq while sitting in Iran is Saif al-Adil. He is an Egyptian citizen. He was appointed Al Qaeda's new chief of military operations after the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Many people told me in Baghdad that Al Qaeda fighters were coming to Iraq from Iran and Syria to fight the Americans. I was also told by Islamic fighters in Baghdad that Adil was organising big operations against the Americans in Saudi Arabia.
I met many young Arabs in Saddam Hussein's hometown Tikrit carrying pictures of Osama bin Laden in their pockets. I cannot forget one Arab lad who told me that Sunni Iraqis would resist the Americans in Fallujah, Al-Ramadi, and Tikrit with the help of Al Qaeda and Shi-ite Iraqis would do the same in Najaf and Karbala with the help of Hizbullah.
This lad told me that he had spent time in Kunar province of Afghanistan. His father was Yemeni and his mother, Afghan. He was born in Kunar in 1987 and fled to Iran after the fall of the Taliban. He entered Iraq from Iran in the second week of April 2003.
In the first five months of 2004, it was proved that somebody had definitely organised a secret collaboration between Al Qaeda and Hizbullah in Iraq. The Americans have faced several Al Qaeda/Hizbullah-style suicide truck and car attacks.
Tomorrow: Iran's dangerous double game
Hamid Mir, the well-known Pakistani journalist and rediff.com contributor, has interviewed Osama bin Laden, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and General Richard B Myers, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, after 9/11. He travelled through Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran recently. He currently works for Pakistan's Geo TV network and is writing bin Laden's biography.
In the picture: Northern Alliance fighters watch for pro-Taliban forces during fighting at a fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif in November 2001.
Photograph: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images | Image: Uttam Ghosh