Members of British intelligence are concerned about the possibility of Iran and al Qaeda teaming up in a plot against the West, perhaps in a joint attack against the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Their concerns were first voiced in a piece by Sky News on Wednesday and then in other follow-up reports in the British press.
A word of caution is necessary: The same anonymous intelligence officials who are speaking to the press say they “have no specific intelligence on what the al Qaeda target is, nor when it might be launched.” Although the Olympic Games have been named as a possible target, there is no actual intelligence indicating that this is the case. It is just speculation.
So, there is a great deal of guesswork in the reporting.
Still, Sky News was shown an intelligence analysis concerning Iran’s cooperation with al Qaeda that contains some intriguing claims. And it seems that al Qaeda’s network inside Iran has a new leader, which is entirely plausible given the events of the last year.
The intelligence memo reportedly reads: “Against the background of intensive co-operation over recent months between Iran and al Qaeda - with a view to conducting a joint attack against Western targets overseas… Iran has significantly stepped up its investment, maintenance and improvement of operational and intelligence ties with the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan in recent months.”
The Brits’ concerns have undoubtedly been shaped by a flurry of reporting on the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda since mid-2011.
In July 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department designated several members of an al Qaeda network that is headquartered in Iran. Chief among them is a terrorist known as Yasin al Suri. Al Suri’s network is principally responsible for moving money and recruits from the Gulf States to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This network, according to Treasury, operates as part of a “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.
Also included in Treasury’s designation was a top al Qaeda official named Atiyah Abd al Rahman. The following month, in August 2011, Rahman was killed by a U.S. drone strike in northern Pakistan. According to the Wall Street Journal, intelligence collected from Osama bin Laden’s compound revealed that Rahman had been intimately involved in plotting a spectacular terrorist attack to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Rahman maintained close ties to the Iranians. The Treasury Department noted that he 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.”
In December 2011, U.S. officials then offered a bounty of $10 million for information leading to Yasin al Suri’s capture. This, along with the earlier designation, undoubtedly caught the Iranians’ attention.
Then, in January, the New York Times reported that the leaders of a German al Qaeda cell involved in plotting against the West have received safe haven inside Iran. One prominent member of the cell living in Iran, Namaan Meziche, has extensive ties to al Qaeda’s 9/11 Hamburg cell. Meziche’s father-in-law is a radical cleric who helped inspire members of the Hamburg cell on their road to terror. Meziche was a close friend of Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker on 9/11, and had ties to Ramzi Binalshibh, the point man for 9/11. Meziche was close to other members of the support network for the Hamburg cell as well.
European officials have had Meziche and his compatriots on their radar for some time because they were reportedly plotting a Mumbai-style attack in Europe. Their plot was reportedly blessed by Osama bin Laden himself prior to his demise. Members of Meziche’s cell are not only holed up inside Iran today, they also used Iranian soil as a transit point en route to Pakistan when they initially left Germany.
Now, Sky News is reporting that the international scrutiny of Yasin al Suri’s operations has led the Iranians to place him in “protective custody.” His replacement as the head of al Qaeda’s network inside Iran is an infamous terrorist named Mohsen al Fadhli.
Al Fadhli is a long-time al Qaeda member who fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan and was also involved in financing al Qaeda in Iraq’s operations. According to a Treasury Department designation from 2005, al Fadhli worked with the “brutal” Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was the head of al Qaeda in Iraq until an American bomb caught up with him in 2006. Al Fadhli made tapes of al Qaeda in Iraq’s operations in order to impress donors.
Al Fadhli was the money man for al Qaeda’s Oct. 6, 2002 attack on the French ship MV Limburg and has been tied to the al Qaeda cell that carried out the Oct. 8, 2002 attack against U.S. Marines stationed on Kuwait's Faylaka Island. One Marine was killed during the Faylaka Island shootout.
A leaked State Department cable notes that al Fadhli was charged by a Kuwaiti court with involvement in the October 12, 2000 USS Cole bombing. That attack was carried out by the same network that bombed the MV Limburg, with help from al Fadhli, two years later.
Al Fadhli’s mentor inside Kuwait was Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who served for a time as Osama bin Laden’s spokesman. Abu Gaith received safe haven inside Iran after the 9/11 attacks, but was placed under a loose form of house arrest in 2003. In 2010, the Iranians reportedly freed Abu Gaith from his lax confinement and he may have made his way to Pakistan.
Al Fadhli’s deputy inside Iran is a fugitive named Adel Radi Saker al Wahabi al Harbi, who is among Saudi Arabia's most wanted terrorists. Intelligence shown to Sky News describes al Harbi as “an extremely dangerous field operative” who “has fought in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theatres."
We do not know what intelligence has led the British to speculate about a possible Iranian-backed al Qaeda attack in the West. We do know that Iran has relationships with, and has provided safe haven for, a number of senior al Qaeda terrorists who have plotted against the West.
The intelligence officials cited by Sky News say that Iran is reportedly providing training in explosives, safe haven, and funding for the operatives involved in this latest putative plot. If true, it would not be the first time Iran has helped al Qaeda execute a mass casualty terrorist attack.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.