On July 28, the Treasury Department designated six al Qaeda operatives involved in shipping money and men from the Persian Gulf to senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The move targets a node of the global terror network that is critical to its overall strength, freezing any of its financial assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting any transactions with the operatives. Of the many conduits for al Qaeda funds and personnel across the world, the U.S. government believes this one is the most important.
“This network serves as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives,” according to Treasury. “Without this network, al Qaeda’s ability to recruit and collect funds would be severely damaged,” an Obama administration official involved in the designations tells The Weekly Standard.
The centrality of this network to al Qaeda’s day-to-day operations makes the Obama administration’s move significant. What makes it extraordinary is the network’s partner: Iran.
“There is an agreement between the Iranian government and al Qaeda to allow this network to operate,” Under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen told The Weekly Standard in an interview last week. “There’s no dispute in the intelligence community on this.”
Two of the al Qaeda leaders named by Treasury are especially important. Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a Syrian, has operated in Iran since 2005 “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Khalil “moves money and recruits from across the Middle East into Iran, then on to Pakistan for the benefit of al -Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.” According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s safe house show Rahman was planning a terrorist attack to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Treasury says Rahman was “appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.”
The Iranian regime is helping al Qaeda in other ways, too. The U.S. campaign of drone attacks in -Pakistan over the past three years has taken out many key al Qaeda planners, leaving holes in the group’s hierarchy. “Al Qaeda is desperate for midlevel capacity and senior level managers,” says a senior administration official. “The most ready cadre of those types of al Qaeda personnel—operative types and senior-level managers—are in Tehran.”
Those are remarkable claims. They carry extra significance because they come from an administration that has spent more than two years attempting to engage the Iranian regime on its nuclear weapons program and saying very little about its support for jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration deserves credit for this new willingness to confront Iran.
There have long been disagreements inside the U.S. intelligence community about the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda. The prevailing view for years was that religious and ideological differences would preclude serious cooperation; al Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organization, and the leaders of the Iranian regime are radical Shiites. But those who held that view found themselves constantly explaining away new reports about collaboration between Iran and Sunni extremist groups, including al Qaeda. In reality, Iran has long been ecumenical when it comes to fighting America: willing to work with radical Sunnis against the enemy they both hate.
It has been two decades since Tehran and al Qaeda set aside their differences to forge a terror alliance. Before relocating to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden and a fledgling al Qaeda spent several years in Sudan. Bin Laden grew close to Hassan al Turabi, an influential Islamist who served as the country’s de facto leader. One of Turabi’s goals was to unite Shiite and Sunni jihadists in an anti-American coalition. The 9/11 Commission reported that:
In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support—even if only training—for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983. The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.
The training provided by Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah would prove crucial in al Qaeda’s evolution from a ragtag band of veterans from the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan to a sophisticated global terror network. On August 7, 1998, al Qaeda detonated two truck bombs nearly simultaneously at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The twin attacks, which left hundreds of victims dead (mainly Muslims), were al Qaeda’s most successful terrorist operation prior to 9/11. According to the 9/11 Commission, al Qaeda began developing the “tactical expertise” for this operation in the early 1990s—in Hezbollah’s Lebanese training camps. Osama bin Laden’s “particular interest” in the 1983 attack on the Marine barracks had paid off. Iran and Hezbollah showed al Qaeda how to execute the same type of attack.
When the Clinton administration’s federal prosecutors indicted al Qaeda members for the embassy bombings in late 1998, they specifically referenced the deal between Iran and al Qaeda. The indictment reads: “USAMA BIN LADEN, the defendant, and al Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in the Sudan and with representatives of the government of Iran, and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.” During the trial, U.S. authorities learned that Saif al Adel, a top-ranking member of al Qaeda’s military committee, was one of the operatives who received training from Hezbollah.
At the same time, Taliban leader Mullah Omar sought to improve relations with Iran. In 1998, a Taliban attack in Mazar-e-Sharif killed visiting Iranian diplomats and nearly resulted in armed conflict. To defuse those tensions, Mullah Omar appointed one of his most trusted commanders as governor of Afghanistan’s Herat province, which borders Iran. The governor, Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, was tasked with opening a backdoor for negotiations with the Iranians. It worked.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, there are strong suggestions that the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda not only improved but strengthened. Shortly before the commission released its final report, staffers tapped into a large cache of intelligence linking Iran and Hezbollah to al Qaeda. The intelligence showed a series of suspicious flights taken by the muscle hijackers. Some of the flights were routed through Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based and controls the airport. Interestingly, most of the muscle hijackers also transited through Iran en route to the United States. The commission did not make any definitive judgments, but concluded: “We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”
If there was further investigation, its results have never been made public.
After the 9/11 attacks, Iran sought to distance itself from al Qaeda—at least in public. But behind the scenes, the story was different. As the Taliban’s Afghanistan fell to American-led forces in late 2001, al Qaeda and Taliban leaders scrambled to find new safe havens. Many of them resettled in Pakistan, both in rough tribal areas and in cities such as Quetta, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, and Karachi. Since the start of the Afghanistan war, many of the high-profile captures and kills of senior al Qaeda operatives have occurred inside Pakistan’s borders.
One of those captured was Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, the man Mullah Omar assigned to seek better relations with Iran. Over the course of his detention at the U.S. facility at Guantánamo Bay, Khairkhwa has told interrogators about his work toward that aim. Court documents earlier this summer revealed that Khairkhwa “has repeatedly admitted that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he . . . met clandestinely with senior Iranian officials to discuss Iran’s offer to provide the Taliban with weapons and other military support in anticipation of imminent hostilities with U.S. coalition forces.” That meeting occurred in October 2001. In other words, Iran decided nearly a decade ago to support the Taliban’s war against American forces.
As the fighting in Afghanistan intensified in the fall of 2001, not all of al Qaeda’s most senior operatives went south to Pakistan. Many went west—to Iran. In January 2009, the Treasury Department issued its first designation of al Qaeda terrorists living in Iran. Four al Qaeda members were fingered: Saad bin Laden, one of Osama’s oldest sons; Mustafa Hamid, who was described as the “primary interlocutor between al Qaeda and the Government of Iran”; Muhammad Rab’a al Sayid al Bahtiyti, the son-in-law of the new al Qaeda chieftain, Ayman al Zawahiri; and Ali Saleh Husain, who “facilitated the move of al Qaeda-associated fighters, including an al Qaeda military commander, from Afghanistan to Iran” in late 2001.
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.