On Al-Qaeda, Iran Speaks with Forked Tongue

By Sean Durns

Washington Examiner

April 20, 2017


Iranian leaders were quick to criticize the April 7, 2017 U.S. missile strike against a Syrian airbase near Homs, that followed dictator Bashar al-Assad's use of sarin gas against his own people. Iran's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, claimed that the strike against their ally, Assad, was evidence of the "U.S. military fighting on [the] same side as al-Qaeda and ISIS." It was time, Zarif exhorted, to stop the "cover-ups." But it is the Islamic Republic of Iran that has a long, if seldom noted, history of boosting al-Qaeda, including the Islamic States' progenitor, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).


The evidence of al-Qaeda's relationship with Iran has been steadily building for years. In a recent report for West Point's Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), terror analyst Assaf Moghadam highlighted the "tactical cooperation" between Tehran and the terror group.


According to Moghadam, ties between the Iran and al-Qaeda predate the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks "by roughly a decade." Current al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri secretly visited the Islamic Republic in April 1991. At the time, al-Zawahiri was head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group that later merged with al-Qaeda. While there, al-Zawahiri requested—and received—Iran's help with the training of its terror operatives, as well as $2 million in financial aid from Tehran. Within less then a year, the agreement between al-Zawahiri and Iran was extended to include al-Qaeda and the Lebanese-based Shi'ite terror group Hezbollah, which often functions as a proxy for its Iranian benefactor.


As Kyle Orton of the Henry Jackson Society, a U.K.-based think tank, pointed out, Hezbollah's military leader at the time, Imad Mughniyeh, personally met with al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Sudan to work out the details of their cooperation.


Although the Islamic Republic of Iran is a Shi'ite Muslim theocracy, this has not impeded it from working with and actively supporting terrorist groups of the Sunni Muslim variety, such as al-Qaeda or Hamas. The exponents of the two ideologies may be regional competitors for power, but this has not stopped them from making common cause against the "far enemy" of the United States, and its allies, including Israel.


Indeed, as Lawrence Wright noted in his 2006 book The Looming Tower, Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution inspired budding jihadists of all variants by showing that secular governments could be overthrown and replaced with Islamist rule.


By the mid-1990's, Iran was assisting al-Qaeda in setting up its Yemeni branch, later to gain infamy as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In so doing, Iran enabled the terror group's attack on the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 U.S. service members and wounding 39.


Tehran also granted al-Qaeda terrorists transit through Iran to Afghanistan, both before and after the 9/11 attacks, according to the bipartisan commissioned tasked with investigating the events leading up to that terrible day. Several future 9/11 hijackers were among those who took advantage of Iranian generosity. In his CTC report, Moghadam cited al-Qaeda operative Saif al-Adl, who claimed that Iran set up "guest houses in Tehran and Mashhad to facilitate the movement of fighters" to a training camp in Heart, Afghanistan. That camp was run by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. AQI would later morph into the Islamic State.


Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Iran continued to host al-Qaeda fighters. This sanctuary was often provided under the guise of "house arrest." Yet, the mullahs in Iran spurned requests to extradite these terrorists to their home countries.


Many of those who received refuge in Iran occupied the upper ranks of al-Qaeda.


Sa'ad bin Laden, son of the terror group's founder and the heir apparent before his death in a July 2009 U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, was among several top Iran-based al-Qaeda officials who were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in January 2009. Another, Mustafa Hamid, was described as al-Qaeda's "emir in Iran." According to Treasury, during the 1990s, Hamid "passed communications between Osama bin Laden and the Government of Iran. In late 2001, Hamid also negotiated on behalf of al-Qaeda in an attempt to relocate al-Qaeda families to Iran."


Iran also provided sanctuary to another top jihadist, Abu Musab al-Suri, a man whose long-running connections to various terror groups led terror analyst Will McCants of the Brookings Institution to call him the "Carlos the Jackal" of Islamist terror. Al-Suri is the author of a 1600 page jihadist playbook, "The Global Islamic Resistance Call," which has informed and inspired numerous terrorists in the post-9/11 age.


According to Moghadam, by early 2003, Tehran began to closely monitor and even detain—as "an insurance policy"—some al-Qaeda members living in Iran, as well as their families. Nonetheless, Moghadam noted that "Iranian officials continued to allow al-Qaeda to use Iran as a facilitation hub," including "as a staging ground for attacks against the West." In exchange for being what bin Laden called "a main artery for funds, personnel and communication," the group has forsworn attacking the Shi'ite theocratic dictatorship.


In his condemnation of the U.S. strikes against Assad—himself a state sponsor of terrorism—Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi asserted that the United States' actions would "strengthen the terrorists." Yet, the evidence clearly shows that Iran, for years, has been doing just that.