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Al Qaeda’s Network in Iran

Revelations from a German courtroom.

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By BENJAMIN WEINTHAL and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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According to Der Spiegel, senior al Qaeda terrorists instructed Meziche and another member of the cell, an Iranian national named Shahab Dashti, to travel to Iran where “they would be told where in Europe they were to be deployed to begin building structures for bin Laden’s organization.” Once in Iran, Dashti “was to undergo facial plastic surgery” because he had already appeared in a propaganda video and was therefore recognizable to European authorities. However, Dashti did not get a chance to fool Western intelligence officials, because he was killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan in early October 2010, after the Mumbai-style plot was uncovered.

Initial reports indicated that Meziche was killed in the same drone strike, but he survived it and is now being sheltered by the Iranians. The New York Times reported in January that Meziche and several other members of the cell are “waiting in Iran, trying to return to Europe.” European authorities are not eager to see them come back, as they pose obvious security risks.

Anonymous U.S. officials interviewed by the Times described Meziche and one of his Iran-based compatriots as “lower midlevel” al Qaeda operatives. “These two have been involved in al Qaeda external operations activities for some time now,” one official said. Citing multiple intelligence sources, the New York Times explained that “Iran appears to be harboring them in hopes that, when and if they leave, they will cause trouble in the West.”

Rami Makanesi, who set off for Tehran with Meziche, was not as fortunate. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2010 and sentenced to nearly five years in prison last year by a Frankfurt court. 

Makanesi has his own ties to Iran-based al Qaeda operatives. According to Guido Steinberg, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of the German Institute for International Security Affairs, Makanesi met a top al Qaeda operative known as Yassin al-Suri in February 2010. Steinberg, in his analysis brief for IHS Jane’s, a military and intelligence consulting group, explains that Suri asked Makanesi to “accompany him to Iran.” Makanesi said that Suri “was responsible for funneling money and recruits via Iran and that he was known to cooperate with the Iranian government.” 

Indeed, in July 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department revealed that Suri operates in Iran as part of a “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda. Treasury contends that Suri’s Iranian network serves as “a critical transit point for funding to support al Qaeda’s activities.” In December 2011, the U.S. government offered a $10 million reward, one of the highest ever, for information leading to Suri’s capture. 

When the Treasury Department designated Suri in 2011, it also designated several other members of al Qaeda who utilize the Iran-based network. One of them was Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was subsequently killed in a drone strike in northern Pakistan. The Treasury Department explained: “Rahman was previously appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.” Makanesi seems to have at least known Rahman. According to Steinberg, Makanesi has explained that Rahman “was known to have lived in Iran for many years.”

When exposing al Qaeda’s Iran-based network in 2011, the Obama administration highlighted its role in the Iraq and Afghan wars. But this same network has delivered recruits to al Qaeda who were slated to take part in attacks in the West. Iranian officials may or may not have known the specific details of Osama bin Laden’s 2010 plot. But we do know this: Al Qaeda’s Iranian network has a global reach, capable of delivering trained terrorists to Europe’s doorstep.

Thomas Joscelyn and Benjamin Weinthal are fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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