The Magazine

Iran Amok

Tehran plays host to al Qaeda.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By DAN DARLING
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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.