THE NEW YORK TIMES – May 19, 2011 – Two defectors from Iran’s intelligence service have testified that Iranian officials had “foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks,” according to a court filing Thursday in a federal lawsuit in Manhattan that seeks damages for Iran’s “direct support for, and sponsorship of, the most deadly act of terrorism in American history.”
One of the defectors also claimed that Iran was involved in planning the attacks, the filing said. The defectors’ identities and testimony were not revealed in the filing but were being submitted to a judge under seal, said lawyers who brought the original suit against Iran on behalf of families of dozens of 9/11 victims.
The suit’s allegation that Iran had foreknowledge of the attacks is hard to assess fully, given that the defectors’ testimony is being filed under seal.
The suit contends that Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant organization with close ties to Tehran, helped Al Qaeda in planning the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and in facilitating the hijackers’ training and travel. After the attacks, the suit contends, Iran and Hezbollah helped Qaeda operatives escape, providing some with a safe haven in Iran.
The question of an Iranian connection to 9/11 was raised by the national 9/11 commission and has long been debated. Al Qaeda, which adheres to a radical Sunni theology, routinely denounces the Shiite sect that holds power in Iran, and the terrorist network’s branch in Iraq has often made Shiites targets of bombings. But intelligence officials have long believed there has been limited, wary cooperation between Al Qaeda and Iran against the United States as a common enemy.
The lawsuit also names as defendants Iranian officials and ministries, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, among others. The families’ lawyers have asked for a default judgment against the defendants, which have not mounted a defense. Even if there were such a judgment, legal experts say it would not be easy to collect monetary damages.
In their court papers, the lawyers assert that Imad Mugniyah, as the military chief of Hezbollah, was a terrorist agent for Iran, and that he traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2000 to help with preparations for the 9/11 attacks.
Mr. Mugniyah, who was killed in 2008, had been accused by American officials of planning a series of major terrorist attacks and kidnappings, including the 1983 bombings of the United States Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.
The 9/11 commission report said there was “strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.” The report also said there was circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of the hijackers into Iran in November 2000.
But the commission said that it had “found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack,” and that the “topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”
Thomas E. Mellon Jr., a lawyer for the families, said the suit, first brought in Washington in 2002 and later moved to Manhattan, sought to do that investigation.
Ellen Saracini, whose husband, the United Airlines pilot Victor J. Saracini, was killed when his plane was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center, said she became involved with the suit because she wanted answers. “We now know,” she said, “who assisted Al Qaeda — Iran did — and we want our American justice system to find Iran accountable.”
The lawyers’ filing included reports of 10 specialists on Iran and terrorism, including former 9/11 commission staff members and ex-C.I.A. officers. “These experts make it clear that 9/11 depended upon Iranian assistance to Al Qaeda in acquiring clean passports and visas to enter the United States,” Mr. Mellon said.
But the expert reports do not in most cases seem to go as far as the defectors in contending Iran had foreknowledge of the attacks.
The filing says the defectors worked in Iran’s Ministry of Information and Security “in positions that gave them access to sensitive information regarding Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism.” It says they have reason to fear for the safety of themselves and their families “should their identities and the content of their testimony be revealed publicly.”
Benjamin Weiser reported from New York, and Scott Shane from Washington.