In an a ruling that was largely overlooked last week, a US Federal court came to the conclusion that Iran had aided al-Qaeda in its bombing of US Embassies in the late 1990s throughout East Africa. This ruling is pretty questionable to say the least for reasons we’re going to dig into in a second. Marc Thiessen “broke” the story in a Washington Post Op-Ed today:
Al-Qaeda carried out the attack, but the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the bombings would not have been possible without “direct assistance” provided by Tehran, as well as Sudan. “The government of Iran,” Judge John D. Bates wrote in his 45-page decision, “aided, abetted and conspired with Hezbollah, Osama Bin Laden, and al Qaeda to launch large-scale bombing attacks against the United States by utilizing the sophisticated delivery mechanism of powerful suicide truck bombs.”
These are pretty big claims, particularly for a ruling coming out at the Federal level. So I did some digging to see what led the judge to come to this conclusion. First, the reason the case to came to trial in the first place. The entirety of the several cases under this one ruling are admitted under the Foreign Sovereign Immunties Act (FISA).
The FSIA provides that “foreign states” – including their “political subdivisions” and “agencies or instrumentalities”– shall be immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts unless one of the exceptions to immunity set forth in the statute applies. …
These exceptions include, inter alia, certain claims based on commercial activities, expropriation of property, and tortious or terrorist acts by foreign sovereign entities
Under the FY 2008 NDAA, the FSIA amended to allow for non-US citizens who are employed by the US government to bring suit against foreign entities described above in US courts. In this instance, five suits were brought against the Republic of Sudan, and one against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both governments were served and rejected the subpoena, resulting in defaults being logged by the courts.
This is all perfectly admissible under US law, and it is in fact an important clarification of the exemptions under FSIA. Where trouble begins is in the methodology used by the plaintiffs’ lawyers to convince the judge of Iran’s culpability.
The majority of the testimony on the side of the plaintiffs in regard to Iran is provided by one man, an “expert witness on the state sponsorship of terrorism, and specifically Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda”, Dr. Matthew Levitt. Dr. Levitt serves as the Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy‘s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. WINEP was founded in 1985 by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC. Dr. Levitt testified as follows as quoted in the opinion:
“Hassan al-Turabi, the head of the National Islamic Front, which ruled Sudan at the time, was keen not only on instituting Islamic sharia law in Sudan at home, but in making the Sudan a place from which worldwide Islamic revolution could flow.” To that end, “Hassan al-Turabi hosted numerous meetings, some large summits with radical extremist groups, including one, for example, in April 1991. Groups like HAMAS and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al Qaeda, Sudanese radicals, Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah were all invited and
Dr. Levitt went on to testify the following in regard to Iranian links to Hezbollah, which would require Iranian government approval of any collaboration with AQ:
The first is again the getting in bed with al Qaeda. After al Qaeda had issued not one but two fatwas, religious edicts, in ’92 and ’96, announcing its intent to target the West, it was a dangerous proposition. As I mentioned earlier, Iranian leaders have
their own version of rationality, but they are rational actors. And that is something that I believe had to be approved, again, so there would be reasonable or plausible deniability. Overcoming this deep mistrust between the most radical Salafi jihadi Sunnis, who, as we saw in the context of the aftermath of the war in Iraq, are sometimes all too eager to kill Shia in particular, and for the Shia on the other side to overcome their historical animosity towards these radical Sunnis, is no small feat. And I think it is only because of their shared interest at that point, in the 1990s and the immediate — to target U.S. interests, that they were able to decide to overcome this animosity and mistrust. And I think it’s quite clear, because it was for the express purpose of targeting the United States, it shouldn’t surprise then that the type of training they received was specifically of the type used in the East Africa embassy bombings. They expressed interest in, we know they received at least videos and manuals about, blowing up large buildings.
Counterterrorism expert Evan Kohlmann also took the stand on Iran, but spoke specifically of Hezbollah’s connection to the Iranian government, not then making the connection between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. This is the primary difference in the two’s presentations, with Mr. Kohlmann’s statement as quoted in the opinion being a completely accepted premise by analysts across the board.
Here’s the deal. I have no doubt of Dr. Levitt’s credentials, and I’m sure his work in the field is exemplary. But for the DC District Court to base the major finding of a ruling around the testimony of one expert, particularly one who works for a group with a known viewpoint that they are not hesitant to express, is highly questionable and troubling in my mind. The other evidence provided in the finding of fact deals with Hezbollah and Iran’s ties, such as that by Mr. Kohlmann, but only Dr. Levitt’s testimony draws the direct link between Hezbollah and AQ and thus Iran and AQ.
Had anyone else been on the stand and questioned directly on Hezbollah and AQ’s ties, I’m not sure that the same conclusions would have been drawn by the judge, especially in a case that finds another state, one that is under particular pressure lately and for whom the war drums have been beating, guilty of being responsible for the deaths of Americans and those under American protection. The direct link drawn by Judge John Bates is specious at best and all on the back of one mind. No matter though. This is one more arrow in the quiver of folks aiming for war against Iran.
[EDIT: After having it be pointed out by Andrew Exum, I realized that it was incorrect to state that the only testimony on the Iranian case was provided by Dr. Levitt, as Mr. Kohlmann also gave a statement. This is my fault, I missed that paragraph. The piece has been edited to reflect this, but the conclusion still remains.]