Six years have now passed since the September 11 attacks, yet America’s elite remain largely ignorant of our terrorist enemies, who their allies are, and how they operate. Consider, for example, Peter Beinart’s book review this past Sunday for the New York Times. The latter half of Beinart’s piece focuses on Michael Ledeen’s new book, The Iranian Time Bomb. Beinart, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that Ledeen’s book is light on “careful reasoning and empirical evidence.” In reality, the opposite is true: It is Beinart who demonstrates that he is simply ignorant of the evidence upon which Ledeen relies.
Beinart is especially critical of Ledeen’s discussion of the connection between Iran and al Qaeda. He takes Ledeen to task for claiming that the August 7, 1998, embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania “were in large part Iranian operations.” Beinart goes on to claim that this would “come as news to the 9/11 Commission, which attributed them solely to al Qaeda.”
Ironically, though, it is Beinart who, by this very comment, demonstrates he has not read the 9/11 Commission’s final report very carefully. In fact, the Commission explicitly tied Iran’s main terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, to the embassy bombings. The Commission found that several members of al Qaeda’s Kenyan cell were trained in Hezbollah camps months prior to the attack. This cooperation is explained on page 68 of the 9/11 Commission’s final report:
Al Qaeda had begun developing the tactical expertise for such attacks [author’s note: the embassy bombings] months earlier, when some of its operatives—top military committee members and several operatives who were involved with the Kenya cell among them—were sent to Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon.
Several pages earlier in the 9/11 Commission’s report we learn that this training was the result of “discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives,” which “led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support — even if only training — for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States.” In addition to the training in Hezbollah’s Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, “senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives.”
Why was Osama bin Laden so keen on the idea of his minions acquiring Iran’s and Hezbollah’s expertise? The 9/11 Commission explains: bin Laden “reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983.”
The suicide bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983, was a seminal event in the history of the terrorists’ war against America. And bin Laden wanted to recreate it. That attack, as well as a series of strikes against American targets before and afterwards, was clearly orchestrated by Hezbollah, working hand-in-glove with its creator: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). As Ledeen rightly argues in The Iranian Time Bomb, both Hezbollah and the IRGC have long taken their marching orders from the most senior members of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.
Too Little Too Late
The U.S. government should have known all this back then. After all, the French figured it out. Simultaneous with the attack on the Marines’ barracks, a suicide truck bomber also destroyed a housing complex for French paratroopers. The French launched an air strike in retaliation — hitting IRGC and Hezbollah targets throughout Lebanon. The Reagan administration, on the other hand, did nothing. And within months of the attack on the Marines’ barracks, American forces retreated from Lebanon. This disgraceful response, coupled with similarly tepid responses to terrorist provocations over the next two decades, is what led Osama bin Laden to call America a “weak horse.” It was thus that al Qaeda’s master had powerful reasons for seeking out the expertise of Hezbollah and Iran.
Indeed, Osama bin Laden reached out to the infamous head of Hezbollah’s terrorist operations himself, Imad Mugniyah. The Lebanese Mugniyah, who can rightly be called the “Osama bin Laden of the 1980’s,” has served his Iranian masters for decades. His dossier includes the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, the aforementioned bombing of the Marines’ barracks, the kidnapping and torture-to-death of the CIA’s station chief in Lebanon, William Buckley, and a series of other attacks spanning almost three decades.
Security for the sit down between bin Laden and Mugniyah was arranged by Ali Mohamed, the same al Qaeda terrorist who cased the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania for bin Laden. Mohamed provided details about the terror summit during the trial of some of the al Qaeda agents responsible for the embassy bombings. Mohamed explained: “Based on the Marine explosion in Beirut in 1984 [sic: 1983] and the American pull-out from Beirut,” al Qaeda wanted to use “the same method, to force the United States to pull out from Saudi Arabia.” Mugniyah and Hezbollah agreed to offer their assistance and that is how, as the 9/11 Commission found, al Qaeda’s Kenyan cell ended up in Hezbollah’s training camps.
Jamal al-Fadl, another al Qaeda operative who also testified at the embassy bombings trial, provided details about the training his fellow terrorists received. Al-Fadl listed a number of al Qaeda terrorists who received Hezbollah’s training, including Saif al-Adel, who is wanted by the FBI for his role in the embassy bombings. Al-Adel, who became al Qaeda’s military chief shortly after 9/11, currently enjoys safe haven in Iran. Al-Fadl told U.S. prosecutors that another of his fellow al Qaeda terrorists, who had been trained in Lebanon, told him that the “training is very good, and he bring some tapes with him.” Al-Fadl elaborated: “I saw one of the tapes, and he tell me they train about how to explosives [sic] big buildings.”
“Big buildings” like the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
There’s more. Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna explains in his seminal book Inside Al Qaeda:
In addition to developing this capability [to attack multiple targets simultaneously] with Iranian assistance, Al Qaeda also received a large amount of explosives from Iran that were used in the bombing of the [embassies in Kenya and Tanzania].
A U.S. intelligence official has confirmed Gunaratna’s claim for me. According to this official, the U.S. Intelligence community obtained reporting that demonstrated Iran did, in fact, supply al Qaeda with explosives used in the attack.
Let us pause to reflect on an important point. Al Qaeda has come to be known for its use of simultaneous suicide attacks (e.g. 9/11, the embassy bombings, etc.). But prior to receiving Hezbollah’s assistance, al Qaeda did not have the know-how to execute such attacks. Mugniyah and Hezbollah had perfected these techniques in the early 1980’s and it was because of their willingness to help al Qaeda that, as the 9/11 Commission found, “al Qaeda’s modus operandi came to resemble closely that of Hezbollah.” That is, al Qaeda’s attacks, including the August 7, 1998 embassy bombings, were consciously modeled after Hezbollah’s most successful operations.
Thus, with respect to the August 7, 1998, embassy bombings, we know the following: Hezbollah trained at least some of the terrorists responsible for the embassy bombings, which were modeled after Hezbollah’s attacks in the early 1980’s; Iran continues to give safe haven to one of the key al Qaeda terrorists involved in the attack, Saif al Adel, who is also now a senior al Qaeda leader and was trained by Hezbollah. Furthermore, there is evidence that Iran may have even supplied explosives used in the attack. All of this is based on sources that include the 9/11 Commission’s Report, the Clinton administration’s indictment of al Qaeda for the embassy bombings (which explicitly mentioned the partnership between Hezbollah, Iran, and al Qaeda), the testimony of the terrorists themselves, and other publicly available information.
Beinart’s critique goes on to say that “[Ledeen] thinks the mullahs were probably behind 9/11.” But Ledeen does not argue that the mullahs were “behind 9/11.” He simply leaves open the possibility that they, and their terrorist proxies, played a role. Moreover, Ledeen’s claim is firmly supported by the 9/11 Commission report. 9/11 Commissioners Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton in their book, Without Precedent, claim that the 9/11 Commission found “troubling” evidence of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s possible complicity in the 9/11 attacks just days prior to the publication of the Commission’s final report. The evidence shows that Hezbollah and Iran were tied to the travels of at least several of the 9/11 hijackers. — –
The commissioners do not make a big deal of this evidence in their report, but then again they didn’t have time to fully investigate this particular evidence, since it surfaced just prior to the report’s publication. Thus, they concluded: “We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.” Michael Ledeen agrees that this should be investigated further, as do I, and as should anyone who is interested in the specifics of our enemies.
Engaging an Enemy
There is little doubt that some within the American left will look upon Ledeen’s book, as well as similar analyses, as an attempt to cook up another war in the Middle East; this time in Iran. But as Beinart recognizes, this is not the case. Ledeen has argued for a different path: America should support the Iranian people, who long for freedom. Beinart dismisses this possibility as impractical and sure to “backfire,” and he is not entirely wrong to be skeptical of this approach. Aiding Iranian dissidents in their quest to overthrow the mullahs is fraught with complexity. And, as Ledeen recognizes, our intelligence services may very well not be up to the task.
But Ledeen is right to look upon the Iranian people, the overwhelming majority of whom “want greater freedom and better relations with the United States,” as a source of hope. “Iran bubbles with energy and confrontation between the rulers and their subjects,” Ledeen writes, and “hardly a day goes by without strikes, demonstrations, and even the occasional armed attack against the mullahs and their instruments of repression.” The Iranian people know that freedom is in their best interest; America should too.
Indeed, the Iranian people know the evil that oppresses them all too well. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of America’s elite. At this moment in history we need an intelligent, well-informed debate about how to best defeat our terrorist enemies and what to do about Iran. These two issues are inextricably linked. We can debate how to respond to Iran’s terror, but let us not pretend that it doesn’t exist.
For nearly 30 years now, the mullahs have sided with the likes of Imad Mugniyah and Osama bin Laden, but America has done nothing. Iran exports its revolution throughout the Middle East and the world on the backs of terrorists, yet the mere mention that America should do something — anything — in response is dismissed as either unnecessary or doomed to failure.
Ledeen persuasively argues that America’s leaders and chattering class have simply refused to recognize Iran’s ongoing war.
Peter Beinart’s review is further evidence that Ledeen is right.
–Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer, and economist living in New York. He is the author of, most recently, Iran’s Proxy War Against America, an essay on Iran’s ongoing support for al Qaeda, published by the Claremont Institute.