Partners in Terror?
Iran, al Qaeda, and the secret bin Laden files.
Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
In July 2011, for instance, the Treasury Department reported that al Qaeda’s Iran-based terrorists operate “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” This agreement was part of a formerly “secret deal.”
In December 2011, the State Department announced a $10 million reward for the terrorist who leads al Qaeda’s Iran-based network, Yasin al-Suri, making him one of the U.S. government’s most-wanted men. A Treasury Department official noted at the time that the Iran-sanctioned network “serves as the core pipeline for al Qaeda to funnel operatives and facilitators from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
In February 2012, the Treasury Department found that Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) “has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.” The MOIS has also “provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) . . . and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.”
In October 2012, the Treasury Department designated additional al Qaeda operatives who work inside Iran. Treasury’s Cohen explained that the designation “builds on our action from July 2011” and “further exposes al Qaeda’s critically important Iran-based funding and facilitation network.” Cohen added: “We will continue targeting this crucial source of al Qaeda’s funding and support, as well as highlight Iran’s ongoing complicity in this network’s operation.”
President Obama’s national security team did not release to the CTC the documents used as evidence in support of these designations. The files showing cooperation between Iran and al Qaeda would have undoubtedly undermined the narrative being pushed by John Brennan, then President Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser and now CIA director. Brennan, who announced the release of the documents by the CTC, has been eager to proclaim al Qaeda’s demise. But if al Qaeda is working with the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism—and it is—that argument becomes much more difficult to make.
That some Treasury officials continued doggedly to pursue the Iran-al Qaeda relationship, even as other administration brass pushed a disingenuous narrative to the public through the CTC, is an honorable testament to their hard work.
According to Warrick’s account, there is evidence that Abu Ghaith, the formerly fire-breathing al Qaeda spokesman, was finally expelled from Iran earlier this year. Some were quick to cite Abu Ghaith’s putative expulsion as evidence that the relationship between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda is beginning to fray. But the two have always had significant points of disagreement.
Today, the fight in Syria complicates their partnership, as they support opposing sides. Al Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, the most deadly Syrian insurgency group, is battling Bashar al-Assad’s Iran-backed forces. Ironically, as Cohen noted to Warrick, al Qaeda’s Iran-based network is supporting the al-Nusra Front even as Iran’s mullahs desperately seek to keep Assad in power. Such incongruity is not uncommon in the terrorist underworld.
The war in Syria may very well take Iran-al Qaeda relations in a new direction. But one of the enduring characteristics of this alliance is that it has survived despite especially contentious differences of opinion. Iran colluded with al Qaeda before 9/11, even though bin Laden’s network was sheltered by the Taliban, then the Iranians’ bitter foe. The Iranian regime also continued to allow al Qaeda to operate a network on its soil even as Al Qaeda in Iraq mercilessly targeted Iraqi Shiites.
The only way to judge the true extent of Iran’s sponsorship of al Qaeda is to examine every bin Laden document, not just the ones some administration officials found useful. Perhaps Joby Warrick and the Washington Post will join us in calling for the release of all of bin Laden’s files dealing with Iran.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.