The Magazine

Iran Amok

Tehran plays host to al Qaeda.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By DAN DARLING
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"IRAN CONTINUES TO HOST senior al Qaeda leaders who are wanted for murdering Americans and other victims in the 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings. We have called repeatedly for these terrorists to be handed over to states that will prosecute them and bring them to justice. We believe that some al Qaeda members and those from like-minded extremist groups continue to use Iran as a safe haven and as a hub to facilitate their operations."

So said a high State Department official in a speech in Washington on November 30. The assertions by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns were nothing new. Though often overlooked, they have been the position of the U.S. government for some time. As discussion of Iran's nuclear program and its hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intensifies, Iranian aid to al Qaeda should not be allowed to drop off the radar screen.

A careful review of what is known about this matter--even a review confined to public sources--shows that Iran has long maintained ties to al Qaeda and has assisted the group in refining its terrorist capabilities. During the years of Taliban rule, Tehran allowed al Qaeda members, including some future 9/11 hijackers, to transit its territory en route to and from Afghanistan. Nor has this support waned since the Taliban's fall. To this day, much of the surviving al Qaeda leadership is based in Iran, enjoying the protection of the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Tehran has been supporting terrorist groups ever since the mullahs came to power in 1979. According to the State Department's annual report Patterns of Global Terrorism, the Shiite regime has aided outfits as ideologically and religiously diverse as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, GIA, GSPC, and Hizb-e-Islami--all of them Sunni Muslim--along with the Marxist groups Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK)--that last, despite Iran's concern over any move towards autonomy on the part of its own Kurdish minority. Clearly, the mullahs do not consider ideological or religious purity a prerequisite for cooperation.

It is not surprising, then, to find the 9/11 Commission Report tracing Iranian involvement with al Qaeda as far back as the early 1990s. "In late 1991 or early 1992," the report says,

discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support--even if only training--for actions carried out against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives.

Contrary to much academic opinion, the commission noted that "Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations."

More training took place in Lebanon. Says the 9/11 report, "In the fall of 1993, another such [al Qaeda] delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon," a longtime stronghold of Hezbollah, "for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983," the heaviest U.S. loss in a single engagement since the Vietnam war. According to Rohan Gunaratna's Inside Al Qaeda, among the al Qaeda members who traveled to Lebanon was Saif al-Adel, a senior leader who would later emerge as a key figure in Iran's relationship with Osama bin Laden's group.

Contacts between "Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures [persisted] after bin Laden's return to Afghanistan" in 1996, according to the 9/11 report. In particular, there is "strong" evidence of Iranian involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing of June 1996, in which 19 Americans died, as well as "signs that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown," in that attack. Two years later, the Clinton administration's formal indictment of bin Laden charged that he was allied with both Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. After the USS Cole bombing in 2000, the 9/11 report says, Iran made a "concerted effort" to "strengthen relations with al Qaeda."

More ominously, the 9/11 Commission describes as "strong" the evidence, provided by al Qaeda operatives in U.S. custody, that "Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers. There is also circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000." While finding no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for the 9/11 attack, the commission concluded that "this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government."

Whether the government ever followed up is doubtful, given U.S. officials' frequent assurances that Iran was not involved in the 9/11 attacks--a claim not found in the 9/11 report. Yet in July 2004, the New York Times did report that "the United States was actively investigating ties between the Iranian government and al Qaeda, including intelligence unearthed by the independent 9/11 Commission showing that Iran may have offered safe passage to terrorists who were later involved in the attacks." The Times quoted President Bush as saying, "We will continue to look and see if the Iranians were involved."

If a serious investigation of these events was indeed launched following the publication of the commission's final report on July 22, 2004, it would seem to be in the public interest to disclose what, if anything, the inquiry turned up. What do we know about these events now that we didn't know in 2004?

Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda's relationship with Iran appears to have grown stronger. As the Washington Post reported in September 2003, "After the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the locus of al Qaeda's degraded leadership moved to Iran. The Iranian security services, which answer to the country's powerful Islamic clerics, protected the leadership." The Post identified these leaders as al Qaeda military chief Saif al-Adel, chief ideologue Mahfouz Ould Walid, finance chief Abu Mohammed al-Masri, al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri's deputy Abu Khayr, propaganda chief Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and Osama bin Laden's son and heir apparent, Saad.

The al Qaeda leadership appears to have operated more or less with impunity inside Iran until May 2003, thanks to its close ties to the elite Qods Force unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Citing a European intelligence official, the Post noted that after the fall of the Taliban, Zawahiri (whose relationship with Qods Force goes back at least a decade), negotiated safe harbor in Iran for much of the surviving al Qaeda leadership. Numerous media reports listed then-future Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi among them. As a European intelligence analyst explained to the Washington Post in October 2003, Qods Force is "a state within a state, and that is why they are able to offer protection to al Qaeda. The force's senior leaders have long-standing ties to al Qaeda and, since the fall of Afghanistan, have provided some al Qaeda leaders with travel documents and safe haven." It was from Iran that al Qaeda military chief Saif al-Adel ordered the May 2003 Riyadh bombings in Saudi Arabia that killed 34, including 8 Americans.

Since late 2003, the exact status of the al Qaeda leaders in Iran has been murky at best. The Iranian government claims that any al Qaeda members on its territory are in custody. But what kind of custody? MSNBC's Investigative Unit noted in June 2005,

According to reports in the Arab media, [the al Qaeda leaders] were rounded up and taken to two locations guarded by Iran's Revolutionary Guards: one in villas in the Namak Abrud region, near the town of Chalous on the Caspian coast, 60 miles north of Tehran, and the other in Lavizan, a region northwest of the capital that also houses a large military complex.

The London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat further reported in July 2004: "More than 384 members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations are present in Iran, including 18 senior leaders of Osama bin Laden's network." The paper attributed the information to a source close to the Iranian presidency. When Tom Brokaw asked CIA director Porter Goss about the al Qaeda leaders active in Iran, Goss answered, "I think your understanding is that there is a group of leadership of al Qaeda under some type of detention--I don't know exactly what type, necessarily--in Iran is probably accurate."

Most of the reporting on the al Qaeda leaders in Iran has assumed that the individuals in question are being constrained in their activities and that the regime could be persuaded to hand them over in return for certain concessions--such as the release of the leadership of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a Marxist anti-Iranian terrorist group that was extensively supported by Saddam Hussein and many of whose members were captured by U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But it is not so clear that Iran has a vested interest in constraining the activities of al Qaeda. In August 2004, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quoted an Iranian official who had attended an Iranian military seminar where Qods Force commander Brigadier General Suleimani stated that Zarqawi and 20 senior members of the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam were allowed to enter Iran whenever they wanted through border crossings between Halabja and Ilam in Iraq. When asked why Iran would support Zarqawi given his anti-Shiite activities, Suleimani replied that Zarqawi's actions in Iraq "serve the supreme interests of Iran" by preventing the creation of a pro-U.S. government.

Examples of al Qaeda's continued activity inside Iran abound. In February 2004, noted Spanish terrorism judge Baltasar Garzon told El Periodico that al Qaeda's "board of managers" were active inside Iran but were more involved in coordinating operations than in issuing orders. In July 2004, Agence France-Presse quoted a French counterterrorism official as saying that al Qaeda leaders had "controlled freedom of movement" inside Iran, while the Los Angeles Times of August 1, 2004, quoted a top French law enforcement official as saying, "The Iranians play a double game. . . . They have arrested important Al Qaeda people, but they have permitted other important Al Qaeda people to operate."

This view is supported by the German magazine Cicero, which in October 2005 quoted a high-ranking intelligence officer as saying of the Iran-based al Qaeda leaders, "This is not prison or house arrest. . . . They are free to do as they please." Cicero had earlier that year reported on al Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, quoting extensively from German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation documents that collated data from German, American, French, and Israeli intelligence sources. These documents, some of which were classified, listed Zarqawi's activities, passports, phone numbers, benefactors, and the mosques used or controlled by his followers in Germany. In addition to confirming much of the evidence presented by Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council on the activities of Zarqawi's network in Europe, the documents state point-blank that Iran "provided al Zarqawi with logistical support on the part of the state."

In sum, the publicly available evidence suggests that Undersecretary Burns was well within his rights to speak as he did last November of Iranian support for al Qaeda. The problem has received too little attention, considering the need to prevent the al Qaeda leadership from reconstituting itself if another major attack is to be prevented.

Dan Darling is a counterterrorism consultant for the Manhattan Institute's Center for Policing Terrorism.