As Steve Hayes noted earlier, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press have published an intriguing account of America’s attempts to track al Qaeda operatives living in Iran. Al Qaeda’s network in Iran is one of the most underreported aspects of the international terror network’s operations. Apuzzo and Goldman deserve credit for digging into a story that relatively few journalists have explored.
The CIA reportedly had a program named RIGOR that tracked al Qaeda’s presence on the mullahs’ soil, but that program has now been cancelled. Why? We do not know. The AP says the program generated “mixed” results, but there is concern that “Iran is loosening its grip on the terror group so it can replenish its ranks, former and current US intelligence officials say.”
How tight was that grip in the first place? In my view, it was not very tight at all.
First, it is important to recognize that there is a decades-long pattern of collaboration between al Qaeda, including its predecessors, and the Iranian regime. I won’t recapitulate all of the arguments on that score here, as I’ve written about this at length previously. (See, for example: Iran’s Proxy War Against America.) Suffice it to say, the Iran-al Qaeda relationship did not suddenly begin after the September 11 attacks.
After September 11, 2001, al Qaeda negotiated safe haven with the Iranians. Members of Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al Zawahiri’s families relocated there. So, too, did al Qaeda operatives responsible for orchestrating international attacks, seeking weapons of mass destruction, and various other aspects of al Qaeda’s operations.
Saif al Adel, who is a senior member of al Qaeda’s military committee, is one especially noteworthy al Qaeda transplant. Al Adel was trained by Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon in the early 1990s, so it is not surprising that he would relocate to Iran after 9/11. Al Adel was one of the chief terrorists responsible for the August 1998 embassy bombings – which were modeled after Hezbollah’s attacks in Lebanon in 1983.
Al Adel has written about his and al Qaeda’s relocation to Iran:
We began to converge on Iran one after the other. The fraternal brothers in the peninsula of the Arabs, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates who were outside Afghanistan, had already arrived. They possessed abundant funds. We set up a central leadership and working groups. We began to form some groups of fighters to return to Afghanistan to carry out well-prepared missions there. Meanwhile, we began to examine the situation of the group and the fraternal brothers to pick new places for them.
There is another reason al Adel relocated to Iran – his father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid, served as al Qaeda’s liaison to the Iranians since the mid-1990s. In that capacity, according to a U.S. Treasury Department’s designation, Hamid “reportedly negotiated a secret relationship between Usama Bin Laden and Iran, allowing many al Qaida members safe transit through Iran to Afghanistan” and “also negotiated on behalf of al Qaida in an attempt to relocate al Qaida families to Iran.” Hamid continued to act as a liaison between al Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 2002.
Then, in 2003, al Qaeda struck targets in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. U.S. and Saudi officials deduced that the al Qaeda network operating in Iran was behind the attacks and protested. It is at this point that the Iranians “arrested” some al Qaeda operatives, including Mustafa Hamid and Saad bin Laden (Osama’s son). The reality is, this was not a real lockdown so much as a loose form of house arrest. Al Qaeda continued to operate on Iranian soil.
For example, here is how the U.S. State Department described the al Qaeda network in Iran in its April 30, 2009 report on terrorism:
Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida members it has detained, and has refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody. Iran has repeatedly resisted numerous calls to transfer custody of its al-Qa’ida detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for trial. Iran also continued to fail to control the activities of some al-Qa’ida members who fled to Iran following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Similar language can be found in earlier reports issued by the State Department as well.
In March of this year, General Petraeus discussed al Qaeda’s presence in Iran in written testimony delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Here is how Petraeus described the al Qaeda network in Iran:
…al-Qaeda continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates. And although Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al-Qaeda facilitators and operational planners, Tehran’s policy in this regard is often unpredictable.
I don’t think the pattern is all that unpredictable. Tehran acts like a corrupt cop who is in league with the mob, disrupting the al Qaeda network only on occasion and even then only to detain mainly small fish. It is clear that the big fish continue to operate to some degree. For example, the Saudis complain all the time about the al Qaeda network targeting the Kingdom from Iranian soil. Dozens of the Kingdom’s most wanted terrorists are reportedly operating inside Iran.
Regardless, Petraeus’s assessment is consistent with the State Department’s – al Qaeda continues to operate on Iranian soil.
There is much more to all of this. The bad news is, according to the AP, the CIA has shuttered RIGOR – a program designed to track the al Qaeda threat emanating from Iran.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.