August 11, 1998
Who Bombed the Embassies?
By KENNETH R. TIMMERMAN
Last Friday's simultaneous bombings against U.S. Embassy buildings in Kenya and Tanzania are ample proof that the U.S. is facing a large, sophisticated terror network that most likely benefits from the assistance of a state. "We stand united against terrorism," President Clinton declared on Saturday. But unless that "stand" is accompanied by a willingness to retaliate, such words will only embolden terrorists and the states that give them support.
While there are as yet no clear fingerprints on last week's attacks, a lineup of the usual suspects would include, of course, Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But though Baghdad cannot be counted out, it has no record of carrying out attacks such as these. Syria is another suspect, especially given its unflagging support for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas and the current deadlock in the peace talks with Israel. And then there's Libya, though Tripoli's sponsorship of terrorism against U.S. targets has been diminished by United Nations sanctions and by President Reagan's 1986 raid in retaliation for a terrorist bombing in Berlin.
But no one should forget the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose rulers may not be so easily cowed as Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Iran has not felt the sting of U.S. retaliation since Mr. Reagan sank two-thirds of its navy in 1987 in response to Iranian attacks on civilian maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf. The Islamic regime still bears a grudge for the accidental U.S. shooting of an Iran Air jetliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988, which killed 200 Iranians. Tehran still believes the shooting was intentional.
Despite the attention given to Iranian "moderates" and a thawing of U.S.-Iranian relations, it is plausible that Iran could be behind a terrorist attack on U.S. targets. Indeed, the bombings may be a deliberate attempt by Iran's radical clerics to reverse the thaw started by President Mohammed Khatami.
Mr. Khatami has taken a courageous stance in favor of civil liberties and the rule of law, and is seeking Western investment and a rapprochement with the U.S. But he is being opposed every step of the way by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who retains control of the military, internal security, the intelligence services and the foreign terrorist apparatus. Mr. Khamenei and his allies are desperately seeking to frustrate a U.S.-Iranian dialogue, which they perceive as a threat to their own power.
Numerous Iranian defectors, including a former top-ranking intelligence operative known as Abolghassan Mesbahi, have provided Western intelligence services with detailed and strikingly similar accounts of how Iran uses non-Iranians to carry out terrorist operations around the world. Just two weeks before the twin embassy blasts, 22-year-old defector Ahmad Rezai, the son of former Revolutionary Guards commander Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezai, told me that Mr. Khamenei and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani had personally ordered terrorist attacks.
One of the Iranian regime's goals, repeated publicly by officials at every opportunity, is to drive the U.S. from the Persian Gulf. According to Mr. Rezai, it was for this reason that hard-liners ordered the bombing of the Khobar Towers building in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, in 1996 that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. Mr. Rezai says that his father (who is still in Iran, and who told his son he fears for his life) provided him details of the bombing in the hope he would tell the story once he escaped. In the Dhahran bombing, Mr. Rezai alleges, the Iranian regime turned to Saudi and other Arab dissidents, including networks run by former Saudi financier Osama bin Laden.
Mr. bin Laden has a long history of anti-U.S. attacks. Trained in the 1980s as an anti-Soviet fighter in Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden soon turned against the Saudi government and against its primary backer, the U.S., once American troops were stationed on Saudi soil to defend the kingdom against Saddam in 1991. An international investigation I conducted for Reader's Digest (published in July) uncovered evidence not only of Mr. bin Laden's involvement in the Dhahran bombing, but of at least eight attempts against U.S. and Saudi targets since then that were foiled by Saudi intelligence operatives. (Mr. bin Laden has denied direct involvement in the Dhahran bombing while applauding those
who did it.)
My investigation also uncovered convincing evidence that Mr. bin Laden financed the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, training master-bomber Ramzi Yousef and sending him on what he hoped would be a world-wide terror spree, from New York to Manila, and finally to Pakistan. This past February, Mr. bin Laden issued a religious order, or fatwa, telling his followers to carry out attacks against American civilians and military personnel wherever they could around the world. Mr. bin Laden commands a far-flung network of former Afghan fighters who have been involved in terrorist attacks and "liberation" struggles from Algeria to the Philippines. According to Ahmad Rezai, the Iranian government transmits orders and explosives to the bin Laden networks through high-level intelligence emissaries it dispatches to Syria. No orders are transmitted by telephone, for fear of U.S. communications intercepts.
Saudi dissidents close to Mr. bin Laden told me that members of his networks were involved in the 1996 Dhahran bombing; some are still being held in a Saudi jail. When the Saudis threatened to execute them last year, the Clinton administration intervened, anxious to bring them to trial in the U.S. instead. U.S. and Saudi intelligence sources said that the sophisticated military timing device used in the Dhahran bomb was unequivocal evidence that Mr. bin Laden had not acted alone. "We have absolutely no doubt that Iran was ultimately behind the bombing," a senior Saudi source told me.
But the Clinton administration does not want to hear evidence of Iranian terrorist activity. Intelligence information and warnings of Iranian terrorism have systematically been either ignored or overruled. On three separate occasions before TWA flight 800 went down off the Long Island coast in July 1996, the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration received explicit warnings that Iran was planning an attack against a U.S. airliner "originating in Athens, Greece." TWA 800 arrived in New York from Athens, before being refueled for its flight to Paris on July 17. Although one of the sources was "not deemed credible" by U.S. intelligence agencies, a second, independent warning was received of the impending attack.
Just two weeks ago, a former U.S. Navy pilot, William Donaldson, released a 96-page report on the TWA crash, pointing to a foreign terrorist attack. Although Mr. Donaldson's conclusion was widely criticized before he released his report, former National Transportation Safety Board member Vernon L. Grose said that listening to Mr. Donaldson "changes my mind" about the crash. Mr. Donaldson cited new evidence he said proved the plane was hit by two shoulder-fired missiles, probably launched from small boats off the Long Island coast.
There is a pattern here. Time and time again, when the U.S. is attacked, the Clinton administration has instructed the FBI to pursue a forensic investigation aimed at making a criminal case in the U.S. courts--a standard of evidence and public disclosure that goes way beyond the type of proof needed for effective foreign policy or national defense. Terrorism is a criminal act, and the courts are an appropriate venue for justice. But terrorism sponsored by a foreign government is also an act of war. If solid evidence this time points to Iran, its government must pay a high price.
Mr. Timmerman is an investigative reporter for the Reader's Digest and publisher of The Iran Brief, a monthly investigative newsletter in Washington.