A very significant piece of reporting from the Associated Press this morning. Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman report that Iran is allowing top al Qaeda leaders based in Iran to leave, "raising the prospect that Iran is loosening its grip on the terror group so it can replenish its ranks, former and current US intelligence officials say."
Ironically, for most people who read this piece, including most reporters in Washington, the news will be that senior al Qaeda leaders were living in Iran. That shouldn't be news. It's been true since shortly after 9/11, when Iran aided al Qaeda fighters fleeing from Afghanistan and provided them safe haven.
The AP story contends that the al Qaeda operatives who fled from Afghanistan were "arrested." But it's unclear that they were "arrested" in any meaningful sense of the word, and there are strong indications that some of these al Qaeda operatives were allowed to operate -- to plan and coordinate attacks -- from inside Iran.
According to the story:
U.S. intelligence officials have tried wiretapping and satellite imagery to watch the men. The CIA even established a highly classified program — code-named RIGOR — to study whether it could track and kill terrorists such as al-Qaida in Iran. Results have been mixed.
Monitoring and understanding al-Qaida in Iran remains one of the most difficult jobs in U.S. intelligence.
"This has been a dark, a black zone for us," former CIA officer Bruce Riedel said. "What exactly is the level of al-Qaida activity in Iran has always been a mystery."
That activity has waxed and waned, officials said. Sometimes the men could travel or communicate with other operatives. Other times, they were under tight constraints and the U.S. considered them to be out of commission. There was no obvious pattern to the movement.
The departures began in late 2008 as the U.S. stepped up international efforts to sanction Iran for its nuclear program. Saad bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden's sons, was allowed to leave the country around that time with about four other al-Qaida figures.
Is it possible for leaders of the world's most-hunted terrorist group to travel and communicate with other operatives if they are under arrest? They haven't always been able to move freely, so it's clear the regime has been controlling their activities at times.
The roster of al-Qaida figures in Iran is something of a who's who for the terror group. One is Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, a bin Laden adviser who helped form the modern al-Qaida by merging bin Laden's operation with Ayman al-Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad. Al-Qaida's longtime chie financial officer, Abu Saeed al-Masri, has been held there. So have bin Laden's spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and Mustafa Hamid, an al-Qaida trainer with a terrorism pedigree that spans decades.
Several members of bin Laden's family also have been under house arrest.
All fled into Iran after al-Qaida's core split up after the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden led some confidants toward the mountainous border with Pakistan. Al-Adel led others into Iran, which has historically allowed al-Qaida members safe passage through the country.
The movement of al Qaeda figures has been a concern of military and intelligence officials for some time. And, in recent months, senior intelligence and military officials have increasingly expressed concerns about Iran and their support for terrorist groups, including insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. During a recent appearance at the Woodrow Wilson Center, CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus was asked about the various concerns in his area of responsibility. There are many, he acknowledged, but the one that keeps him up at night: Iran.