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
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The Treasury Department’s 2009 list was far from comprehensive. Other top al Qaeda leaders, such as the aforementioned Saif al Adel, fled to Iran as well. From late 2001 until 2003, the senior al Qaeda terrorists inside Iran were allowed to operate unmolested. Although Iran detained and deported some small-time al Qaeda operatives, the organization’s two leaders sent many members of their families to Iranian soil for safekeeping.

According to the Treasury Department’s 2009 designation, Saad bin Laden “facilitated the travel of Osama bin Laden’s family members from Afghanistan to Iran” in late 2001. This group included many of his brothers and sisters and several of Osama’s wives. Zawahiri, then al Qaeda’s number two, instructed his son-in-law, -Bahtiyti, “to take Zawahiri’s family to Iran.” Treasury explained that Bahtiyti “traveled to Iran with Zawahiri’s daughters, where he was subsequently responsible for them.” As late as January 2003, Bahtiyti “arranged housing on behalf of al Qaeda” inside Iran.

The al Qaeda refugees did not just live in Iran; they continued to plan terrorist attacks. Saad bin Laden, the Treasury Department explained, “made key decisions for al Qaeda and was part of a small group of al Qaeda members that was involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran.”

On May 12, 2003, car bombs rocked three housing compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Just a few days later, on May 16, suicide bombers struck Western and Jewish targets in Casablanca, Morocco. The two attacks killed dozens and injured many more. European and U.S. intelligence officials claimed that Saad bin Laden had been in contact with the operational cells that conducted the attacks in the days and weeks prior to their execution. Intelligence sources told the Washington Post that the Riyadh attacks “were planned in Iran and ordered from there.”

At some point in 2003, Iran placed senior al Qaeda members under a form of “house arrest,” the details of which are murky. But cooperation between Iran and the al Qaeda-Taliban nexus continued, as is demonstrated in numerous intelligence reports posted online by WikiLeaks, as well as other sources. The specifics are damning.

In early 2005, according to leaked threat reports from NATO forces in Afghanistan (ISAF), Iranian officials provided funding for members of the Taliban and Hezb e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), an organization that is closely allied to al Qaeda. Another leaked threat report from 2005 notes that the Iranians offered the Taliban a bounty of more than $1,700 for every Afghan soldier killed and nearly $3,500 for every Afghan official killed. A June 2006 ISAF threat report says that two Iranian agents had infiltrated Afghanistan to help Taliban and HIG members launch terrorist attacks against the Afghan government and coalition forces, “especially against the American forces.” 

In December 2007, according to another leaked ISAF report, American investigators inspected suicide jackets found in the possession of a terrorist cell and concluded there was “a 92 percent probability of a match against a suspected sample of Iranian C4.” A September 2008 ISAF threat report notes that an al Qaeda cell was working with Iranian intelligence “to carry out suicide attacks against U.S. and Italian troops.” In October 2009, U.S. military commanders told CBS News, “Iran is sending money and weapons onto the Afghan battlefield,” but they were “not allowed to comment publicly and it’s unclear to them what the U.S. strategy is for dealing with Iran’s increasingly deadly involvement.” In September 2010, the London Sunday Times reported, based on Taliban sources, that Iran was paying bounties for dead American soldiers.

These reports represent a fraction of the overall reporting on Iran’s help to anti-American jihadists. 

The escalation in violence is no accident. On July 2, Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps “has transferred lethal new munitions to its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent months .  .  . in a bid to accelerate the U.S. withdrawals from these countries.” The result: June was the deadliest month in Iraq in more than two years, with 14 American servicemen killed during hostilities. U.S. military officials attribute the deaths directly to Iranian-backed Shiite militias. On June 6, for example, the Iranian-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah fired rockets at Camp Loyalty in Baghdad, killing six American soldiers.

In Iraq, Shiite militias target American soldiers with Iranian-supplied improvised rocket-assisted munitions, or  IRAMs. These “are often propane tanks packed with hundreds of pounds of explosives and powered by rockets” that are launched from “the backs of flatbed trucks,” Solomon explained.

The Iran-based al Qaeda network designated by the Treasury Department on July 28 is also responsible for attacks inside Iraq. One member of the network, Umid Muhammadi, is “an al Qaeda facilitator and key supporter of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).” According to Treasury, Muhammadi “has been involved in planning multiple attacks in Iraq and has trained extremists in the use of explosives.” Another al Qaeda member included in Treasury’s recent designation lives in Kuwait and funnels money to both AQI and the Taliban.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has stepped up its attacks on American soldiers using long-range rockets and other munitions provided by Iran. Since the beginning of the year, coalition forces have intercepted shipments of 122-millimeter rockets from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.K. officials say the rockets more than double the range of the Taliban’s arsenal.

These revelations not only have broad implications for the way the United States looks at terrorism and states, but more directly for the Obama administration’s outreach to the Iranian government. As far back as the Democratic presidential debates in 2007, Barack Obama signaled that he would take a more conciliatory approach toward the Iranian regime. In his Inaugural Address, he extended a hand to the mullahs only to have it slapped within days. Six months later, when the regime brutally put down nationwide protests following a fixed presidential election, Obama initially refused to condemn the state-backed violence in hopes of preserving his steps toward engagement. As late as last year, Obama told reporters that the Iranian regime could play a constructive role in the future of Afghanistan—this, despite the fact that the U.S. military routinely intercepted arms and money going from Iran to jihadists there.

The administration took the same approach on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with repeated offers to welcome Iran back into the community of nations in exchange for talks on its nuclear efforts. The regime was defiant. In September 2009, Obama announced that the U.S. government had fresh intelligence confirming suspicions that Iran had been operating a secret nuclear facility at Qom. The evidence, Obama said, was “inconsistent with a peaceful [nuclear] program.” The inter-national community imposed sanctions that have probably had more bite than many critics predicted. But there is little indication that they have fundamentally changed regime behavior (a failure that critics predicted).

With the public accusations that Iran is harboring the next generation of al Qaeda leadership and is facilitating the operation of al Qaeda’s key pipeline for funding and operatives, the Obama administration seems to be saying that this conciliatory approach has now come to an end. And if that’s true, it may well be the most important foreign policy shift of Obama’s presidency.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an editor of the Long War Journal.

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