The arrest earlier this month of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and former spokesman, has sparked renewed interest in an old question: What is the extent of the relationship between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda?
Along with a cadre of other senior al Qaeda operatives, Abu Ghaith was sheltered inside Iran for almost the entire post-9/11 period. The U.S. government has never quite known what to make of this fact. The Iranians have repeatedly supported al Qaeda henchmen even while holding some others under house arrest. This seemingly contradictory policy has baffled counterterrorism officials, who are, in any event, not keen to connect too many of these dots because of the possible policy ramifications for the war on terror the administration would prefer to be over.
Since Abu Ghaith’s arrival in New York City, where he is to be tried for conspiring to kill Americans, journalists have attempted to grapple with the Iran-al Qaeda nexus. Their published accounts are a mix of fact and speculation. But the press has missed an important storyline. The Obama administration has refused to release the best evidence for evaluating the relationship: Osama bin Laden’s complete archive.
The Weekly Standard previously reported that hundreds of thousands of documents and files were recovered during the raid that killed bin Laden in May 2011. The Obama administration has released just 17 of them. A year after the raid, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) published this paltry set online.
The documents released were chosen by White House officials to push their preferred spin: Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda is on the verge of extinction. Many documents that contradict this politicized narrative remain behind a classified wall.
Al Qaeda operatives do discuss their relationship with Iran in some of the 17 documents the CTC received. But those records provide only a narrow window into complex, decades-long ties. The administration-approved set highlights tensions between bin Laden’s terrorists and Iran’s functionaries. But other documents, according to several U.S. officials with direct knowledge of bin Laden’s files, show extensive collusion. The administration did not give those documents to the CTC and has not released them to the public.
The White House’s selective release of bin Laden’s documents has distorted the public discourse. Consider the effect it had on Joby Warrick’s article in the Washington Post last week, “Iran, al-Qaeda relationship is showing cracks, U.S. officials and analysts say.” Warrick did a far better job than most journalists in reporting on the Iran-al Qaeda axis. He offered a balanced view of the relationship, juxtaposing evidence that cut both ways. Unlike many reporters, Warrick did not shy away from evidence of ongoing collusion.
Warrick noted that the documents released to the CTC demonstrate al Qaeda’s “wariness” in dealing with Iran. “The Iranians are not to be trusted,” bin Laden wrote in one email. “It is possible that they may plant chips,” he warned, to track al Qaeda’s terrorists. Those documents also reveal that al Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian official, and then used this official as leverage with the regime. Some have cited these documents as evidence that the entire relationship is hostile.
What Warrick and Washington Post readers don’t know is that the CTC selection presents Iran-al Qaeda relations in the worst possible light. It is true that there have been, to use the CTC’s description, “antagonistic” episodes between the two. It is true that bin Laden did not fully trust Iran. Then again, al Qaeda’s CEO likely trusted few people wholeheartedly—he may have had his own mentor killed. None of this conflict stopped bin Laden from seeking or receiving the Iranians’ assistance.
“We believe that Iran continues to allow al Qaeda to operate a network that moves al Qaeda money and fighters through Iran to support al Qaeda activities in South Asia,” Warrick quoted David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, as saying.
The Treasury and State Depart-ments have led the way in shedding light on the Iran-al Qaeda partnership. Since President Obama was first sworn in, these departments have designated numerous al Qaeda terrorists who operate on Iranian soil. Several U.S. officials contacted by The Weekly Standard say that Osama bin Laden’s documents, along with other evidence, played an important role in these designations, which highlight the Iranian regime’s support of al Qaeda.
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.