Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his first appearance before the public since the January 6 Capitol breach to accuse the Iranian government of playing a role in the 9/11 attacks.
While Pompeo conceded that there’s no evidence of direct Iranian involvement or “foreknowledge” of the plot, he claimed on Tuesday that the 9/11 hijackers’ travel pattern bolstered evidence of an “Iran-al-Qaeda axis.”
The secretary of state pointed to reporting which he claimed had found that “at least eight of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through Iran between October of 2000 and February of 2001.” He also cited allegations of Iranian officials permitting al-Qaeda members to leave Afghanistan in the months before 9/11 without having their passports stamped by guards at the Iranian border.
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Ironically, both of these claims come from a section of the congressional 9/11 inquiry which stated that al-Qaeda rebuffed Iranian offers of closer collaboration in 2000, after the U.S.S. Cole bombing, “because [Osama] Bin Laden did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia,” a close ally of the United States. (Saudi Arabia’s current ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, is an especially close ally of President Trump.) Another section of the same inquiry painted a web of connections tying the Saudi government directly to the attacks.
“While in the United States, some of the September 11th hijackers were in contact with or received assistance from, individuals who may be connected with the Saudi government,” part of the 2002 report reads. The section was so damaging to U.S. government interests (the oil rich monarchy is a major U.S. ally, and was a key partner during the Gulf War), it wasn’t declassified until 2016, months shy of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Pompeo also cited more recent claims of ties between Iran and al-Qaeda, but those too were flimsy. The secretary of state pointed to the assassination last year of Abu Mohammed al-Masri, who was alleged to have been behind the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. The New York Times broke news of the assassination in November, alleging that al-Masri was killed in August in an Israeli operation carried out with U.S. government support.
Pompeo confirmed the killing for the first time on Tuesday, referencing the Times’s reporting. He then described Iran as “a new home base for al-Qaeda,” likening the country to “the new Afghanistan.”
“Unlike in Afghanistan, when al-Qaeda was hiding in the mountains, al-Qaeda today is operating underneath the hard shell of the Iranian regime’s protection,” he claimed.
The New York Times said this week, however, that Pompeo offered “no underlying intelligence as evidence” for his “Iran-al-Qaeda axis” theory.
Al-Masri had been in detention in Iran for over a decade until 2015, when he was released along with four other imprisoned al-Qaeda leaders in an exchange for an Iranian diplomat who was kidnapped in Yemen, the Times noted. But, as the mere act of a prisoner exchange would imply, Iran and al-Qaeda remain bitterly at odds on sectarian and ideological grounds.
“Terrorism experts have suggested that Tehran allowed Qaeda officials to remain in Iran after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as insurance that the group would not conduct operations in the country,” the Times also remarked.
Pompeo made his bombastic “Iran-al-Qaeda axis” claims in Washington at the National Press Club, in his first speech to members of the public since supporters of President Trump ransacked the Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. Five people were killed in the melee, which involved numerous off-duty police officers and active-duty members of the military on the pro-Trump side.
Pompeo denounced the violence after the fact, but he supported Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. In a November 10 press conference, after major news networks called the election for Biden, the secretary of state said: “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
Despite a clear reluctance to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory, the Trump administration has acted since mid-November like it only has a limited amount of time to damage U.S.-Iranian relations before the next inauguration. After his election loss, Trump purged the Department of Defense of top officials and replaced them with loyalists, including a retired military officer who defended Trump’s vow to destroy Iranian cultural heritage sites.
Around that time, the president also dispatched top officials to visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to brainstorm ways to obstruct Biden’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Since then, a top Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in an operation believed to have been carried out by the Israeli military with U.S. approval.
Meanwhile, reliable partners of the U.S. government outside of the Middle East have not been impressed by the Trump administration’s recent antics. Pompeo was forced to cancel a trip to Europe this week after it was reported that the foreign minister of Luxembourg and top European Union officials refused to meet with the secretary of state, in an unusual rejection of Washington by its allies in Western Europe. A diplomatic source told Reuters that officials in Brussels and Luxembourg were “embarrassed” by Pompeo after the events at the Capitol on January 6.