Despite being ideologically opposed on many levels, Iran and al Qaeda have a long – and long overlooked – history of tacit cooperation that makes them the best of enemies, writes Kyle Orton
At the beginning of September, New America published a paper, based on recovered al Qaeda documents, which concluded that there was “no evidence of cooperation” between the terrorist group and the Islamic Republic of Iran. New America’s study lauds itself for taking an approach that “avoids much of the challenge of politicization” in the discussion of Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda. This is, to put it mildly, questionable.
A narrative gained currency in certain parts of the foreign policy community during the days of the Iraq war, and gained traction since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, that Iran can be a partner in the region, at least against (Sunni) terrorism, since Tehran shares this goal with the West. Under President Barack Obama, this notion became policy: the US moved to bring Iran’s revolutionary government in from the cold, to integrate it into the international system.
The primary instrument in re-aligning the Iran policy was the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But that was only one aspect; the more important developments were on the ground in the region. In Iraq, Iran’s proxies were given air support by the American-led anti-IS Coalition, helping Tehran shape the political settlement in that country in the aftermath of the “caliphate”. In Syria, the Coalition informed Iran that its proxy regime would not be harmed, and the anti-IS airstrikes allowed Bashar al Assad to concentrate resources on destroying the mainstream rebellion that was the real threat to his rule.
Much analysis was offered by the Obama administration and sympathetic outsiders to explain why these developments served Western interests, and much effort has been made to obfuscate and minimize Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda. This is a mistake. Just as the JCPOA’s failure to properly assess Iran’s past nuclear-weapons work means that the deal is inherently flawed, since without this baseline monitoring compliance is impossible, so it is with attempts to normalize the Iranian regime without a realistic accounting of its past behavior, particularly its long relationship with al Qaeda.
The revolution in Iran in 1979 that brought Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power sought to cut across ethnic and sectarian lines in its appeal for allies. The revolutionary elite undoubtedly believed in its mission to export its interpretation of “true Islam”, but there were practical considerations as well. A Shia Persian theocracy trying to make its way in a majority-Sunni Arab world had every incentive to present itself in ecumenical terms and did so. The Iranian revolution was “a movement aimed at the triumph of all the oppressed”, the Iranian constitution said, adding a populist appeal to material resentments into the ideological mix, as the regime fought to stabilize itself in a regional state system that rejected it.
The Khomeini regime had considerable success in energizing Islamists throughout the Middle East. Whatever doubts Sunni Islamists had about a Shia regime, the Iranian regime was, as they saw it, concrete evidence that an anti-Western, sharia-based system could take hold of a major country. In Egypt, the Islamists embraced Khomeini with vigor. The violent revolutionaries of al Gamaa al Islamiyya, led by “The Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdurrahman, drew inspiration from what had happened in Iran. One notable admirer of the Iranian revolution was Ayman al Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda who was at that time the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Al Zawahiri, indeed, cultivated direct links with the Islamic Republic, drawing on their assistance as he tried to overturn the regime in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood, in its Egyptian heartland and beyond, supported the Iranian revolution—with the exception of the Syrian branch after the Iranian-allied Assad regime brutally crushed a rebellion that included Brotherhood elements at Hama in 1982.
“One notable admirer of the Iranian revolution was Ayman al Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda”
Al Qaeda emerged in 1988 out of al Maktab al Khadamat (The Services Bureau) that Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden had used to feed resources to the Arab jihadists who came to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation. Azzam was assassinated in November 1989; the list of suspects includes Western intelligence, the Pakistani government, and al Zawahiri. Bin Laden had returned to his native Saudi Arabia in November 1989 after the Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan, but soon collided with authorities. After the firm rejection of Bin Laden’s offer of a rag-tag band of jihadists to the Saudi monarchy to defend against Saddam Hussein after the conquest of Kuwait, his opposition became more radical and he was confined to the coastal city of Jeddah. In April 1991, Bin Laden managed to leave Saudi Arabia for Pakistan, ostensibly to attend an Islamic conference. Based in Peshawar, on Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Bin Laden’s Saudi citizenship was revoked in November 1991 when Riyadh found al Qaeda’s operatives smuggling weapons into the Kingdom from Yemen. Bin Laden landed in Sudan in December 1991, where he was enthusiastically welcomed by Islamist ideologue Hassan al Turabi. A recent coup in Sudan, led by a military officer, Omar al Bashir, who had no grand vision of his own, had opened the way for al Turabi to implement a regime compatible with Bin Laden’s vision.
Khartoum’s relations with Tehran were generally friendly, based on a similar political outlook, though there were some complications. From Iran’s point of view, Sudan was geopolitically well placed to counterbalance Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but the Sudanese regime’s close relations with Saddam and the instability in the country raised questions about its reliability. For the Bashir-Turabi regime, Iran filled the gap left by strained relations with the Gulf states, offering significant resources, financial and military, to press the civil war in south Sudan, though Iran’s proselytizing activity on behalf of its version of Shiism irked some in al Turabi’s circle. The Sudanese regime’s relationship with al Qaeda was much clearer. al Qaeda was “commingled with the Sudanese government”, as one former CIA officer put it: Khartoum provided land for training camps and official services like printing passports, and al Qaeda provided money, weaponry, even fighters, and construction equipment to help the state prosecute its war and begin reconstruction in the country.
It was in this environment that al Qaeda and the Iranian regime first established contact.
The staff who put together the 9/11 Commission Report did not do a thorough review of the US National Security Agency (NSA) archives. As Philip Shenon explained in his 2008 book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, the only reason the NSA files were viewed at all was because one staff member, on her own initiative, sought them out and then complained that this vast trove of evidence was being ignored. Over a single weekend, the Commission dug through hundreds of pages of NSA documents—hardly a comprehensive review. Even so, Shenon reports, the findings were alarming: it quickly became obvious that Iran and al Qaeda’s “ties were much more direct than had been previously known, and much more recent.”
The final report of the 9/11 Commission mentions in passing the connections Iran had with al Qaeda in Sudan (p. 61) and with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM), the architect of the 9/11 “planes operation” (pp. 145-149), and then includes a section in chapter 7 (pp. 240-241) entitled, “Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to al Qaeda”. As Shenon later noted, this section, based on the NSA findings, is presented “with limited context” and has clearly been shoe-horned in at the last minute. To make up for this, the Commission concludes by saying that “this topic requires further investigation by the US government”. Of course, the Commission then shut down and nobody in officialdom seems to have been interested ever since.
The nearest there has been to a public revival of this question is a series of interlinked lawsuits that were brought between 2011 and 2016 against the Iranian government in US Federal courts by the families of the 9/11 victims. The court cases saw the presentation of a mountain of evidence, including from three defectors from Iran’s intelligence apparatus, and final rulings that held Tehran liable for the 9/11 attack.
This is to get ahead of the story, however. What did the 9/11 Commission’s cursory look at Iran’s links with al Qaeda find?
“In late 1991 or 1992,” wrote the Commission, referring to the period immediately after Bin Laden has arrived in Sudan, contact was established through al Turabi and “an informal agreement” was made between Iran and al Qaeda “to cooperate in providing support—even if only training—for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives.”
Something closer to a formal agreement was reached shortly afterward when Bin Laden met personally with Imad Mughniyah, the military chief of Hezbollah, to coordinate operations against the West. Mughniyah was not just an agent of the IRGC; he was a fully commissioned officer. Before 9/11, Mughniyah was allegedly responsible for killing more Americans than anybody else with terrorism. “In the fall of 1993”, the 9/11 Commission report adds, another al Qaeda delegation went to the Hezbollah-controlled northern Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, where Iran’s operatives gave them “training in explosives, as well as in intelligence and security.”
New America might be unconvinced that there has been any “operational collaboration” between Iran and al Qaeda, but this arrangement in the Bekaa in the early 1990s gets rather close. Relations only deepened after that, and not even a lack of “friendly references” to the Iranian theocracy in al Qaeda documentation can erase that fact.
In the early 1990s, the Egyptian state had cracked down on the Islamist movements and many had fled. As war in Bosnia raged between 1992 and 1995, EIJ and al Gamaa found haven. The Bosnian government, led by Alija Izetbegovic and his Party of Democratic Action (SDA), welcomed the support from the foreign mujahideen connected to al Qaeda and from Iran. Al Zawahiri went to Bosnia during the war and established a working relationship with Mughniyah, whom he met many times. Iran worked hand-in-glove with al Qaeda-linked jihadists in Bosnia, helping organize them into the kind of ideological army envisioned by Izetbegovic, at the same time Tehran infiltrated and took control of most of the Bosnian security architecture, particularly the SDA’s brutal secret police force, the Ševe or “Larks”, which carried out political assassinations of Muslim dissidents and other war crimes. The US had attempted to find common interests with Iran in Bosnia; the effort would end with Tehran trying to assassinate the CIA station chief.
The Sudanese regime expelled Bin Laden and his organization on May 18, 1996, arranging a plane to Afghanistan. Khartoum acted under (as we can now see, rather misguided) pressure from Western governments. US intelligence documented the “persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures after Bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan”, the 9/11 Commission noted.
Al Qaeda struck inside Saudi Arabia on November 13, 1995, detonating a car bomb outside an American-run training facility for the Saudi National Guard in Riyadh. Five Americans and two Indians were killed. On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb demolished large sections of the Khobar Towers housing compound for US troops on the east coast of the Saudi Kingdom, killing 19 people. Subsequent evidence firmly established that the operation was Iran’s, carried out through agents calling themselves Hezbollah al Hijaz or Saudi Hezbollah. The entire operation was “planned, funded, and sponsored by the senior leadership” in Iran, notes Matthew Levitt, a former counterterrorism official at the US Treasury Department, in his book Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. The Iranians run the operation out of their Embassy in Damascus. As Levitt notes, in a police state as total as Assad’s, it is difficult to believe the Syrian regime was unaware of what was happening, and, regardless of any prior knowledge, the Assad regime was complicit after the fact by allowing the perpetrators to flee through its territory.
Bin Laden would claim the Khobar Towers bombing (and the “Black Hawk Down” episode in Somalia in 1993) during a November 1996 interview in the mountains at Tora Bora with Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of the London-based al Quds al Arabi. The 9/11 Commission concluded that while the evidence of Iran’s responsibility was overwhelming and that those who carried it out were “principally, perhaps exclusively” Iranian assets, “there are also signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown.” Subsequent investigations by independent analysts has cast doubt on al Qaeda’s involvement. The question remains open.
The hinge event in the development of al Qaeda as an organization and certainly as a brand was the August 7, 1998 bombings of the American embassies in East Africa. At around 10:30 am, a suicide bomber in a truck detonated his explosive vest in front of the Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 11 people and wounding nearly 100 more. Less than 10 minutes later, a near-identical attack struck the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 213 people, 12 of them Americans, and wounded over 4,000 other people, almost all of them Africans and many of them Muslims.
The embassy attacks had been in the works conceptually and even in operational aspects such as reconnaissance since January 1994, at the latest, guided by al Qaeda’s first military emir, Ali Amin al Rashidi (Abu Obayda al Panjshiri). But the attacks ran into a “series of disruptions”, as the 9/11 Commission Report puts it. al Qaeda’s relocation from Sudan to Afghanistan in May 1996 and al Rashidi’s death that same month partly explain this, yet they still beg the question.
Despite Bin Laden’s bragging, al Qaeda had not brought off the Khobar Towers bombing; at most it had played a bit-part in Iran’s scheme. And with the embassy bombings, al Qaeda had 28 months between conceiving of the attack and the turbulence of May 1996. al Qaeda had joint control of the Sudanese state and a vast, well-funded nerve center close to its targets. Why had it failed to execute its plot? And, perhaps more to the point, why would al Qaeda succeed 27 months later, while based in remote Afghanistan?
“Al Qaeda had not brought off the Khobar Towers bombing; at most it had played a bit-part in Iran’s scheme”
In this period, it is not contested that “Al Qaeda members received advice and training” from Iran, usually through Hezbollah, as the 9/11 Commission documents, nor is it contested that Bin Laden “showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs” such as that used by Iran’s Hezbollah agents against the US Marine barracks and French Parachute headquarters in Beirut in October 1983, which killed 241 American servicemen, 58 French soldiers and six civilians; a total of 305 people.
In November 2011, a US Federal court ruled on a lawsuit brought by families of the victims of the 1998 embassy bombings. The families filed a claim for damages under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) against Sudan and Iran, specifically the Ministry of Interior of the former, and the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK) of the latter. The decision, written by Judge John D. Bates, vindicated the plaintiffs.
“Support from Iran and Hezbollah was critical to al Qaeda’s execution of the 1998 embassy bombings,” Judge Bates writes. Bates makes mention of Bin Laden’s focus on the 1983 US Marine barracks bombing and the fact al Qaeda “desired to replicate” it. However, “Prior to al Qaeda members’ training in Iran and Lebanon, al Qaeda had not carried out any successful large-scale bombings”, Bates wrote, and “al Qaeda did not possess the technical expertise required to carry out the embassy bombings”. This changed after Bin Laden “sought Iranian expertise to teach al Qaeda operatives about how to blow up buildings” and al Qaeda officials, including Muhammad Salah al Din Zaydan, better known as Sayf al Adel, one of al Qaeda’s senior military officials to this day, trained in Hezbollah’s camps. There, “in a short time”, writes Bates, “al Qaeda acquired the capabilities to carry out the 1998 Embassy bombings”. In view of this, Iran had “provided material aid and support” to al Qaeda in bringing off the Embassy attacks, Bates concluded.
Though Bin Laden had issued his fatwa in February 1998, declaring war on the United States and saying that Muslims had an “individual duty” to “kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—…in any country in which it is possible to do it”, it was the Embassy attacks that “convinced [KSM] that Bin Laden was truly committed to attacking the United States”, the 9/11 Commission Reports. When Muhammad Atef (Abu Hafs al Masri), al Rashidi’s replacement as military chief, had introduced KSM to Bin Laden in mid-1996, their first meeting since the time of the anti-Soviet jihad, KSM had refused to give bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Bin Laden and gone his own way. “Bin Laden, apparently at Atef’s urging,” the 9/11 Commission notes, “finally decided to give KSM the green light for the 9/11 operation sometime in late 1998 or early 1999.” Even so, KSM never became a formal member of al Qaeda.
The final stop on the road to 9/11 was the attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000, in the port of Aden in Yemen. Two al Qaeda operatives in a skiff blew themselves up at the side of the war vessel, tearing a hole in the side of the ship and killing 17 crew members. This was a “full-fledged al Qaeda operation”, the 9/11 Commission Report confirms. “Bin Laden … chose the target and location of the attack, selected the suicide operatives, and provided the money needed to purchase explosives and equipment,” and al Qaeda’s field commander on-site in Yemen was Abdurraheem al Nashiri, who acted at Bin Laden’s instruction.
In 2015, in another case brought under FSIA against Sudan and Iran, Judge Rudolph Contreras noted what had been established in previous cases: that Iran had enabled al Qaeda to conduct this kind of attack by a transfer of expertise, and Contreras also drew attention to the logistical support, particularly “Iran as a ‘transit point’ for moving money and [al Qaeda] fighters”. With regard to the 2000 attack individually, al Nashiri moved “through Iran … both before and after the bombing”, Contreras documents, and, “In the years leading up to the Cole bombing, Iran was directly involved in establishing al Qaeda’s Yemen network and supported training and logistics for al Qaeda in the Gulf region.” According to evidence presented to Contreras, al Zawahiri “wrote to thank the Iranians for their assistance” in setting up al Qaeda’s networks in Yemen.
By this point, there is no doubt what al Qaeda is—a lethal global network, committed to war against the West in general and the US above all. So Tehran’s reaction to this fact is interesting. “Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole”, the 9/11 Commission Report says. The Commission reports some resistance from Bin Laden’s side, if only to avoid the political price of being seen as being too close to the Iranians. The coordination, direct and indirect, does not stop.
Perhaps most crucially, like the 9/11 conspiracy taking shape, Iran facilitated the travel of al Qaeda jihadists to and from Afghanistan by avoiding placing the “tell-tale stamps in the passports of these travelers”, the 9/11 Commission reports. “Such arrangements were particularly beneficial to Saudi members of al Qaeda.” Nearly three-quarters of the 14 “muscle hijackers” – fully half of the 9/11 pilots – “traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001.”
There is also substantial evidence that Iran, through Hezbollah, “were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers”.
The 9/11 Commission Report documents an odd series of events in November 2000:
- Salem al Hazmi, among those who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, flew from Saudi Arabia to Beirut for unknown reasons.
- Ahmed al Ghamdi, one of the killers on United Airlines Flight 175, which smashed into the south tower of the World Trade Centre, flew from Iran to Beirut and “a senior Hezbollah operative” was on the same flight.
- In the middle of the month, Wail al Shehri and his brother, Waleed, “muscle hijackers” for the first plane to strike the towers, American Airlines Flight 11, and Ahmed al Nami, among those aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it came down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, took a flight to Iran. “An associate of a senior Hezbollah operative was on the same flight”, the 9/11 Commission states. “Hezbollah officials in Beirut and Iran were expecting the arrival of a group during the same time period. The travel of this group was important enough to merit the attention of senior figures in Hezbollah.”
- Satam al Suqami (Flight 11) and Majed Moqed (Flight 77) flew from Bahrain to Iran, also in November 2000. And Khalid al Mihdhar (Flight 77) probably took a plane from Syria to Iran in February 2001, traveled within Iran, and then crossed into Afghanistan.
As the 9/11 Commission notes, this does not mean that “Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack”—it is unlikely that many of the participants knew exactly what the plan was at that time. Still, it demands answers. “After 9/11, Iran and Hezbollah wished to conceal any past evidence of cooperation with Sunni terrorists associated with al Qaeda”, according to the Commission. Iran could have come clean and passed on what it knew; instead it behaved as if it had something to hide.
The 9/11 attack brought down on al Qaeda the retribution the dissenters within the executive committee feared. The Americans were not content with a few misdirected missiles; this time the Taliban regime that harbored al Qaeda was brought down and al Qaeda driven from its safe houses and training camps in Afghanistan.
In their new book, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark present evidence that at this moment of existential peril in late 2001, two states intervened to rescue al Qaeda: Pakistan and Iran.
The events Levy and Scott-Clark trace make one wonder how Pakistan can be continued to be counted as an allied state. The authors survey the assistance provided by Jaysh-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, jihadi proxies of the “S-wing” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to fleeing al Qaeda operatives, helping them into Pakistan and sheltering them. Hamid Gul, the former head of ISI, is deputized to oversee a lot of this “deniable” coordination as the Taliban-Qaeda regime is pulled out of Afghanistan. The behavior of the serving officers and particularly the then-current ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, is the most shocking of all. “Never hand over Sheikh Osama,” Levy and Scott-Clark document Ahmed telling Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, before opening an intelligence-sharing channel with the Taliban, providing training to be used against the Americans, and sending enough supplies that it blocks the roads. When Bin Laden is cornered at Tora Bora, the Pakistani hammer never falls against the American anvil because Islamabad’s terrorist proxies open trouble on another front, nearly tipping the Subcontinent into a thermonuclear war by trying to bomb the Indian parliament.
Nevertheless, Iran’s support was just as critical to al Qaeda riding out this storm. Levy and Scott-Clark report that through Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the old Mujahideen warlord, Bin Laden established a line—of communication and assistance—with Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC Quds Force, the expeditionary unit charged with exporting Iran’s Islamist revolution by terror and subversion. In January 2002, the authors continue, Soleimani personally approved the decision to harbor al Qaeda in Iran, and within two months a large number of jihadists have taken up the offer, including Bin Laden’s family and virtually all of al Qaeda’s executive, military, and religious officials.
“Soleimani personally approved the decision to harbor al Qaeda in Iran”
Within Afghanistan, Iran had extended an offer of surface-to-air missiles and other equipment and intelligence to the Taliban for use against NATO forces by early October 2001, before the intervention began, and likely had transferred weapons before this. The Taliban and Iran nearly went to war in late 1998 after the Taliban murdered Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif; the resolution of that crisis began a process of reconciliation that was well advanced by the time of the NATO intervention in Afghanistan. Khirullah Khairkhwa, the Taliban’s governor of Herat Province on the Iranian border between 1999 and their fall, had been appointed to that position with the specific intention of “improv[ing] relations between Iran and the Taliban government.” Khairkhwa, al Zawahiri, and Hekmatyar met with Iranian officials in January 2000 to discuss, among other things, joint operations to counter the US and “strengthening the Taliban’s ties with Iran government.” Hekmatyar, one of the main insurgent forces in Afghanistan, has retained Iranian support throughout NATO’s mission. By the mid-2000s, Iranian weaponry was an increasingly flagrant feature of the Taliban’s capabilities, and by 2014 the Taliban had not only continued to receive Iranian weaponry but was being publicly hosted in training camps inside Iran and had open political support.
The US government became aware that most of al Qaeda’s leadership was in Iran in late 2002. When they began to attract attention a few years later, US officials said they were “under virtual house arrest,” and unable to do much. Based on the best sources available, namely men who were there, Levy and Scott-Clark conclude that this was partly true. The authors describe conditions akin to an open prison, with the operatives and their families confined to Quds Force bases, and at various points this created tensions significant enough that riots broke out. al Qaeda also pressured Iran through the taking of hostages. One such trade secured the release of Bin Laden’s son, Hamza, who is currently rising in prominence as a spokesman for the organization. Al Qaeda never wanted to fully extricate itself from Iran, however, and the protests from those in Iran were in the main demands for better conditions; a dispute over terms in a bargain all accepted: the price of Iran’s hospitality was al Qaeda jihadists remaining where IRGC could find them.
It is important to note that, while there are, as New America’s study suggests, tensions in the relationship between Tehran and al Qaeda, there was—and is—a consistency in Iran-al Qaeda relations: no matter how strained relations became, Iran has never considered handing over al Qaeda’s leaders to the West, nor even to the Afghan government, despite repeated requests from both. A telling omission from New America’s study, where the distrust between Iran and al Qaeda is said to be “suggestive … of lack of a developed collaborative relationship”, Iran facilitates al Qaeda’s external terrorist operations.
Sayf al Adel has “dealt directly with senior Quds Force officers on a regular basis, some of whom he had known since 1995”, Levy and Scott-Clark write, and once in Iran after 2001 it was al Adel who interacted most directly and frequently with Suleimani. Al Adel had become so exasperated with KSM’s failed plots after 9/11 that he called on him to resign in June 2002. Al Adel’s vision for what al Qaeda should be doing was different to KSM’s rapid-fire, low-level attacks, and it had been “made clear” to al Adel “on more than one occasion [by Suleimani] that Iran was ready to help if it, too, benefited.” Such was the case with the May 2003 bombings in the Saudi capital, organized and directed by al Adel from Iranian “captivity”. Before that, another Iranian “captive”, al Qaeda’s foreign affairs chief, Abdullah Rajab Abdurrahman (Abu al Khayr al Masri) had been “stockpiling fissile material for a new attack on an as yet unspecified American target”, Levy and Scott-Clark report.
Iran’s definition of “under arrest”, therefore, included al Qaeda being assisted with foreign terrorist attacks and allowed to work on a “dirty bomb”. This is not the conventional definition.
Al Adel and his military deputies in Iran were allowed to support Ahmad al Khalayleh (Abu Musab al Zarqawi) and his jihadi movement in Iraq, now known as IS, at all points. It was in Iran, while al Adel was on an IRGC base, that he worked out an agreement with al Khalayleh that bound Al Qaeda and the IS movement in a common program to expel the Americans from Iraq and establish a caliphate. A key part of the tactical framework for achieving this, The Management of Savagery manual, was written by Muhammad Khalil al Hakim (Abu Bakr Naji) at around this time, and al Hakim was also in Iran. The Iranians directly helped al Khalayleh: he was once briefly arrested in Iran before the regime sent him on his way with money, weapons, and communications equipment. In their book on IS’s development and workings, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan note that it is impossible to remove the state policies of Iran and Syria from the story. A series of court cases focused on Assad’s role in abetting IS’s campaign of terror and atrocity unearthed a lot of information on Iran’s role in the same activities. Iraq was just one area of the Arab world that the Iranian-based al Qaeda operatives supported.
Bin Laden understood how important Iran was to his operations, and this can be seen in the documents. In late 2007, Bin Laden wrote a letter to the leader of the IS’s predecessor, which at the time had ostensibly severed its command link with al Qaeda, reprimanding him for having recently incited against Iran in a speech. “We expected you would consult with us for these important matters, for as you are aware, Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages”, Bin Laden wrote. “I am against being threatening [toward Iran], period.” New America suggests that this means Bin Laden was supportive of unannounced attacks on Iran, but we have IS’s own testimony confirming that such was not the case: it abided by al Qaeda’s advice in foreign affairs, hence the lack of attacks on Iran until 2017 when the connection to al Qaeda was completely broken. Later in 2007, another letter, likely also written by Bin Laden, showed al Qaeda trying to hide its links to Iran after the Saudi government had leaked some intelligence on the connection to the press.
In 2011, the US Treasury publicly acknowledged the “secret deal” under which Iran hosted al Qaeda’s leaders, a part of Iran’s “unmatched support for terrorism”, as Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen phrased it. “This network serves as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators, and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia”, Treasury explained. In the immediate aftermath of these sanctions, Tehran took some steps to make al Qaeda less visible, but Treasury sanctions in 2014 underlined how short-lived this was. The 2014 sanctions documented Iran’s role in moving weapons, money, and men to al Qaeda in Syria—a country where Iran is supposedly fighting such terrorists. In 2016, the State Department reaffirmed that “[s]ince at least 2009, Iran has allowed … a core facilitation pipeline” for al Qaeda to operate on its territory through which al Qaeda’s leaders in Pakistan feed their branches and operatives in the Arab world and beyond. Recent leaks from within the jihadi world disclosed that Sayf al Adel and his chief lieutenant, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al Masri), al Qaeda’s most senior military officials, remain in Iran, free to distribute instructions and resources.
In November 2017, the CIA released close to half a million documents seized by US Special Forces operators from Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound during the raid to kill the al Qaeda leader in 2011. Some of those documents pointed to the tense, but generally cooperative, relationship between Iran and al Qaeda. One 19-page document from an unnamed senior al Qaeda operative wrote of the early relationship with Iran in which the Islamic Republic offered al Qaeda “money, arms” and “training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf”.
This record suggests many things. That Iran is a counterterrorism partner isn’t one of them.
Kyle Orton, a Syria and international terrorism expert, is a former research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.