This past week, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press reported a story that deserved to make a splash but didn’t. The CIA had a highly-classified program in place “to study whether it could track and kill terrorists such as” members of Al Qaeda in Iran, but the Obama administration shut it down. Why did CIA director Leon Panetta close the program, codenamed Rigor? The AP’s reporters did not say, but they did note that “monitoring and understanding” the al Qaeda network in Iran “remains one of the most difficult jobs in U.S. intelligence.”
The existence of an al Qaeda network based in Iran has long been known, if too seldom spoken about. Large contingents of al Qaeda fighters relocated to the mullahs’ soil after the fall of the Taliban next door in Afghanistan in late 2001. And there is ample evidence that the al Qaeda fugitives there have been up to no good.
In his book At the Center of the Storm (2007), former director of Central Intelligence George Tenet discusses the intelligence the CIA collected on al Qaeda’s activities inside Iran. “From the end of 2002 to the spring of 2003,” Tenet wrote, “we received a stream of reliable reporting that the senior al Qaeda leadership in Saudi Arabia was negotiating for the purchase of three Russian nuclear devices.” The Saudi al Qaeda chief “relayed the offer directly to the al Qaeda leadership in Iran,” including Saif al Adel, a top al Qaeda military commander who was trained by Iran and Hezbollah in the early 1990s, and Abdel al Aziz al Masri, described as al Qaeda’s “nuclear chief” by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to Tenet, al Adel told the Saudi al Qaeda chief “no price was too high to pay if they could get their hands on such weapons,” but he wanted “Pakistani specialists . . . to inspect the merchandise prior to purchase” because al Qaeda had fallen for nuclear scams before.
It is unclear what type of nuclear devices al Qaeda was seeking—assuming the group was not being scammed again. The important point is that these al Qaeda leaders were not under any duress from Iranian authorities at the time. Although Tenet and others have claimed that the al Qaeda leaders were “detained” in Iran, they clearly were not subjected to any meaningful form of detention if they were able to freely discuss the acquisition of nukes.
The Saudis were spooked by this news. Tenet says they increased their efforts to track down al Qaeda operatives, one of whom confirmed that al Qaeda was negotiating the purchase of the Russian-made weapons. The CIA was spooked, too. According to Tenet, the agency had learned that al Masri “had conducted experiments with explosives to test the effects of producing a nuclear yield.”
“We passed this information to the Iranians in the hope that they would recognize our common interest in preventing any attack against U.S. interests,” Tenet writes.
But it’s not clear that Iran’s leadership has ever recognized any “common interests” with Washington. The AP reported last week that intelligence officials fear “Iran is loosening its grip on the terror group so [al Qaeda] can replenish its ranks.” In fact, that grip was never very tight. On January 16, 2009, the Treasury department identified several al Qaeda members living on Iranian soil in an attempt to freeze their financial assets. Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Stuart Levey, called on Iran to “give a public accounting of how it is meeting its international obligations to constrain al Qaeda.” The obvious implication was that Iran was not meeting those obligations.
The State Department has provided more detail. In its annual report on terrorism, Foggy Bottom has warned every year since 2003 that Iran harbors al Qaeda terrorists. The 2008 report noted:
Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida members it has detained, and has refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody. Iran has repeatedly resisted numerous calls to transfer custody of its al-Qa’ida detainees to their countries of origin or third countries for trial. Iran also continued to fail to control the activities of some al-Qa’ida members who fled to Iran following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, General David Petraeus echoed the State Department’s reporting. Petraeus warned that “al Qaeda continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates.” While Iran does “periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al Qaeda facilitators and operational planners,” Petraeus noted, “Tehran’s policy in this regard is often unpredictable.”