The Magazine

The Hidden Hand

The Obama administration finally highlights Iran’s key role in supporting al Qaeda

Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On July 28, the Treasury Department designated six al Qaeda operatives involved in shipping money and men from the Persian Gulf to senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The move targets a node of the global terror network that is critical to its overall strength, freezing any of its financial assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting any transactions with the operatives. Of the many conduits for al Qaeda funds and personnel across the world, the U.S. government believes this one is the most important.

Iranian Man Photo

“This network serves as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives,” according to Treasury. “Without this network, al Qaeda’s ability to recruit and collect funds would be severely damaged,” an Obama administration official involved in the designations tells The Weekly Standard.

The centrality of this network to al Qaeda’s day-to-day operations makes the Obama administration’s move significant. What makes it extraordinary is the network’s partner: Iran.

“There is an agreement between the Iranian government and al Qaeda to allow this network to operate,” Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen told The Weekly Standard in an interview last week. “There’s no dispute in the intelligence community on this.”

Two of the al Qaeda leaders named by Treasury are especially important. Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a Syrian, has operated in Iran since 2005 “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Khalil “moves money and recruits from across the Middle East into Iran, then on to Pakistan for the benefit of al -Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.” According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s safe house show Rahman was planning a terrorist attack to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Treasury says Rahman was “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.”

The Iranian regime is helping al Qaeda in other ways, too. The U.S. campaign of drone attacks in -Pakistan over the past three years has taken out many key al Qaeda planners, leaving holes in the group’s hierarchy. “Al Qaeda is desperate for midlevel capacity and senior level managers,” says a senior administration official. “The most ready cadre of those types of al Qaeda personnel—operative types and senior-level managers—are in Tehran.”

Those are remarkable claims. They carry extra significance because they come from an administration that has spent more than two years attempting to engage the Iranian regime on its nuclear weapons program and saying very little about its support for jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration deserves credit for this new willingness to confront Iran.

There have long been disagreements inside the U.S. intelligence community about the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda. The prevailing view for years was that religious and ideological differences would preclude serious cooperation; al Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organization, and the leaders of the Iranian regime are radical Shiites. But those who held that view found themselves constantly explaining away new reports about collaboration between Iran and Sunni extremist groups, including al Qaeda. In reality, Iran has long been ecumenical when it comes to fighting America: willing to work with radical Sunnis against the enemy they both hate.

It has been two decades since Tehran and al Qaeda set aside their differences to forge a terror alliance. Before relocating to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden and a fledgling al Qaeda spent several years in Sudan. Bin Laden grew close to Hassan al Turabi, an influential Islamist who served as the country’s de facto leader. One of Turabi’s goals was to unite Shiite and Sunni jihadists in an anti-American coalition. The 9/11 Commission reported that:

In late 1991 or 1992, 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 primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon 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 relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers