The Magazine

Al Qaeda's New Base

From the November 3, 2003 issue: Osama bin Laden's men are operating in Eastern Iran. What are we doing about it?

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By JEFFREY BELL
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AT A TIME when even nuances of Iraq reconstruction policy become flashpoints for bureaucratic infighting, causing competing leaks to spring from almost every precinct of the administration's foreign policy apparatus, the most consequential policy struggle of all is playing out in virtual silence. That is the debate over what to do about the fact that, for the first time since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, major elements of al Qaeda seem to have acquired a new home. The address is eastern Iran.

This fact, and the nature of the debate surrounding it, was revealed in a thoroughly reported front-page article by Douglas Farah and Dana Priest in the October 14 Washington Post. According to a consensus of American, European, and Arab intelligence officials, the article said, the "upper echelon" of al Qaeda--including a favored older son of Osama bin Laden and the group's de facto secretary of war and secretary of the treasury--"is managing the terrorist organization from Iran."

The intelligence agencies, said the Post, have known about the relocation at least since May, when it was learned that the May 12 Riyadh suicide bombing that killed 35 people, including eight Americans, was conceived, planned, and ordered by high al Qaeda officials in eastern Iran. Around the same time, Saad bin Laden, Osama's son and heir apparent, operating from Iran, was linked to the May 16 bombings that left 45 dead in faraway Casablanca, Morocco.

This information vindicates George W. Bush's analysis of the war on terrorism. At each major decision point since 9/11, the president has pressed for an aggressive, comprehensive view of the enemy and of the moves needed to bring him down. He views the enemy as implacable, protean, and resourceful, bringing together diverse, seemingly contradictory elements that cross national and sectarian barriers to be united by one thing: hatred of the United States and a desire to weaken decisively our role in the world. Interestingly, the Post reports that the architect of the supposedly shocking link between the Shiite and Sunni wings of Islamism was Hezbollah strongman Imad Mugniyah, a Lebanese national responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans going back to the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Above all, the linkup between Iran and al Qaeda supports what could be seen as the core premise of Bush war strategy: the pivotal role of anti-American rogue states--the "axis of evil"--in making it possible for the enemy to accomplish the mass murder of Americans and anyone who stands in the way of bringing this about. Surely it is no accident, in the analysis of the Bush White House, that a surge in al Qaeda activity and visibility coincides with its high command obtaining a new, more secure base. And what better host could al Qaeda have than a well-armed, well-financed Islamist government racing to obtain the nuclear weapons al Qaeda has never made any secret of wanting to use against America and its friends?

What to do? As with other major decision points since 9/11, the current debate is between the aggressive, comprehensive war strategy of the president and some of his top aides, and the cautious, incremental view of many of the military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials responsible for carrying it out. These officials tend to see most issues raised by the war as discrete and separable. Their views have a veneer of expertise and sophistication. Sunnis are not Shiites, they point out. Arabs are not Persians. Governments are not terrorist movements. Islamists don't like secularists. All very true, and yet Islamist warriors are today infiltrating into Iraq to fight side-by-side with Baath restorationists.

So, elements of the U.S. government, and of other governments, do not want to hold Iran accountable for allowing al Qaeda to establish a new global headquarters within its borders. So, the Saudis pursue diplomatic channels demanding extradition of the al Qaeda commanders, while our State Department delivers protests to Iran's utterly powerless president, Mohammad Khatami. Needless to say, these efforts get nowhere, and the excuse given is that the Jerusalem Force, the branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps tasked with sheltering the al Qaeda high command, is said to be somewhat independent of the rest of the Iranian government. Meanwhile, the State Department is described by the Post as "eager to renew talks with Iran on a variety of issues."