The State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism yesterday. And once again the U.S. government has highlighted al Qaeda’s relationship with the Iranian regime. While the Iranians hold some al Qaeda members under house arrest, others are allowed to operate. And these terrorists, based on Iranian soil, play a prominent role in al Qaeda’s international network.
“Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda (AQ) members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody,” the report reads. But the story doesn’t end there.
“Iran allowed AQ facilitators Muhsin al Fadhli and Adel Radi Saqr al Wahabi al Harbi to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria.”
As the State Department notes, al Fadhli “is a veteran AQ operative who has been active for years.” Indeed, al Fadhli, who is a Kuwaiti, may have even had some degree of foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He has been connected to various international plots, both before he joined al Qaeda’s network in Iran and after.
Credible reports say that al Fadhli has relocated to Syria. And according to previous reports from the U.S. government, another veteran al Qaeda operative, known as Yasin al Suri, has assumed leadership of al Qaeda’s organization in Iran. Al Suri is in fact al Fadhli’s predecessor as the head of al Qaeda in Iran. After the Treasury and State Departments highlighted his role in 2011, he was temporarily sidelined. But al Suri is now back in the game.
“As head al Qaeda facilitator in Iran,” the Treasury Department explained in February, “Yasin al Suri is responsible for overseeing al Qaeda efforts to transfer experienced operatives and leaders from Pakistan to Syria, organizing and maintaining routes by which new recruits can travel to Syria via Turkey, and assisting in the movement of al Qaeda external operatives to the West.”
Among the parties al Suri’s network supports is the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
These facts lead to some straightforward observations.
First, while Obama administration and intelligence officials often speak of al Qaeda’s “core” (a Western construct) being based in Pakistan, al Qaeda’s facilitation operation in Iran shows that senior, seasoned al Qaeda operatives continue to play instrumental roles elsewhere. Men such as Muhsin al Fadhli and Yasin al Suri, as well as their deputies, are by any reasonable definition “core” al Qaeda operatives. They serve al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Ayman al Zawahiri. The State Department even uses the phrase “core facilitation pipeline” to describe their activities. It is easy to identify “core” al Qaeda operatives in other countries. This undermines the dominant paradigm for understanding al Qaeda, which hinges on the idea that there is a distinct “core” in South Asia and nearly every other al Qaeda group is merely a lesser affiliate.
Second, al Qaeda’s operations in Iran further demonstrate that the jihadist organization operates as an international network. Al Qaeda leaders in Iran facilitate operations in Syria, the Gulf, through the Middle East and into South Asia. Terrorists moving to and from the West have also used this network.
Third, and finally, the Iranian government has continued to allow this network to operate despite the American-led efforts at rapprochement. Even as the Obama administration has repeatedly offered to negotiate away tensions between Iran and America, the Iranians have continued to make common cause with al Qaeda. This says much about Iran’s willingness to change its behavior.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.