Iran Link to Lockerbie Probed

By Patrick Goodenough | June 5, 2000 | 8:08 PM EDT


London (CNSNews.com) - Collaboration between Iran, Libya, and Palestinian terrorists based in Syria to perpetrate a major international outrage in the 1980s was theoretically possible, although it would have been difficult practically, a leading terrorism expert said Monday.

Ely Karmon was reacting to a new claim by an alleged senior Iranian intelligence official that Tehran was behind the bombings of an American airliner over Lockerbie in 1988, a Jewish community center in Argentina six years later, and the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Ahmad Behbahani, now in protective custody in Turkey, claims to have masterminded the Lockerbie bombing. He also claims to have documentary evidence to back his claims that Iran ordered the attack, CBS television's 60 Minutes said Sunday.

Behbahani is reportedly being debriefed by the CIA, the program said.

The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet quoted him Monday as saying he hoped the U.S. would offer him asylum.

"I am in a difficult position. I fled to Turkey because they were going to kill me ... I know a lot about Iran's terrorist actions," he said.

The Iranian government has dismissed the claims, calling Behbahani a "dubious individual."

Karmon, head of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism based in Israel, noted that Iran actively sought close relations with Libya following the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The idea of a collaborative effort in terrorism was not impossible, he said, but he suggested that having so many parties involved in a highly-secret operation would have increased the risk of exposure.

"Theoretically it was possible because relations between the two countries were close, but practically it should have been a very sensitive operation - and yet it involved the Palestinian organization and the Iranians and the Libyans ...

"It's not completely impossible, although I'd say [it's a] low probability."

Karmon noted that Behbahani is not the first to implicate Iran and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a Palestinian group based in Syria.

Investigations by both the U.S. and Britain at first focused on the Iran/PFLP-GC theory. But subsequent, mostly forensic evidence diverted to trail towards Libya.

Behbahani's claims, however, are understood to be the first by someone of his purported standing which melds the two theories. He said Iran approached PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril to plan the operation, and then trained a group of Libyans in Iran to carry out it.

The TV program quoted a former CIA terror expert involved in the Lockerbie investigation as saying: "This is the first authoritative source that I've ever heard that connected the two countries together. It was always a mystery."

Two Libyans, believed to be intelligence operatives, are currently standing trial in the Netherlands accused of planting the bomb, on Pan Am's flight 103 from London to New York. Two hundred and seventy people, mostly Americans, died in the attack.

Defense lawyers have already indicated that they intend to blame the PFLP-GC for the attack, which they said was carried out on Iran's behalf to avenge the shooting down of an Iranian plane by an American warship in the Gulf six months earlier.

The CBS program said the man interviewed by its producer in a Turkish refugee camp claimed to have co-ordinated all of Iran's overseas acts of terrorism for more than a decade. After a power-struggle, he had been arrested, then escaped and fled to Turkey, it said.

"If his story can be confirmed - and American intelligence is trying to do that right now - it would not only disrupt the trial of the two Libyans charged with that bombing, it could interfere with the Clinton administration's efforts at relaxing and improving relations with Iran," 60 Minutes added.

The producer did say he had the impression that his interviewee was bitter and had wanted to get back at his former colleagues in the Iranian government "at any cost."

Karmon was wary to place too much credence on the man's claims, saying it remained to be seen whether he was legitimate, and how well-placed he had been in the Tehran hierarchy.

Dissident warning

On May 24, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a U.S.-based dissident movement, reported that one Ahmad Beladi-Behbahani had entered Turkey.

The NCRI ran a report from the Iran Zamin News Agency, which called Behbahani the deputy minister of intelligence for counter-intelligence, and a former "head of the Presidential Intelligence Unit."

It accused him of overseeing "the assassinations conducted by mullahs' agents outside Iran and the Iranian regime's terrorist operations in Iraq" and said he "also had detailed information about the Lockerbie bombing."

In 1997 another Iranian defector, Abolghassem Mesbahi, told German police that Iran had asked Libya and Palestinian terrorists to help blow up an American plane. Iran denied the claim.

Mesbahi described himself a co-founder of the Iranian intelligence agency.

Karmon said Monday that Mesbahi's allegations were eventually dismissed because he was not able to provide sufficient proof to back them up.

Other attacks

Asked about a second attack cited by the CBS program, on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Karmon said he suspected it was perpetrated by Hizballah, the Lebanese-based organization with close ties to Syria and Iran.

Eighty-six people died and 200 were injured when a car bomb exploded in front of the Association of Argentine Jewish Mutual Societies building in 1994.

Behbahani claimed the Argentine attack has been coordinated by the PFLP-GC, under the direction of Iran, and that Syrian operatives had been involved.

Karmon said the PFLP-GC was in many ways "a kind of terror arm of Syria."

Behbahani also told CBS Iran was behind the 1996 truck bombing of Khobar Towers, a barracks for U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 Americans had died.

Behbahani claimed responsibility for assassinating Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou, an Iranian Kurdish rebel leader shot dead in Vienna in 1989.


See earlier story:
Was Iran behind Lockerbie (Apr 6, 1999)


 

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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