Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper called the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda a “shotgun marriage” during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday. “Iran has harbored al Qaeda leaders, facilitators, but under house arrest conditions,” Clapper said.
The Iranians pay attention to how the U.S. goes after al Qaeda both in Afghanistan and Iraq, Clapper said. The DNI elaborated: “They have had this sort of standoff arrangement with al Qaeda, allowing them to exist there, but not to foment any operations directly from Iran, because they’re very sensitive about, ‘Hey, we might come after them there as well.’”
Clapper explained that he does not think that Iran has allowed al Qaeda to launch a terrorist attack against the West from Iranian soil. However, he is concerned that Iran may use al Qaeda as a “proxy” against the West in the future.
“So there has been this longstanding, as I say, kind of, shotgun marriage, or marriage of convenience,” Clapper said. “I think, probably, the Iranians may think that they might use, perhaps, al Qaeda in the future as a surrogate or proxy.” During questioning, Clapper agreed that Iran may use al Qaeda as a “hedge” against a future attack by the West.
Although Clapper does not think that Iran has allowed al Qaeda’s central leadership headquartered in Pakistan to launch attacks against the West “directly” from Iranian soil, the al Qaeda network in Iran has launched attacks elsewhere.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for its human rights abuses and sponsorship of terrorism. Among the terrorist groups supported by the MOIS are al Qaeda and its affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq.
“Today we have designated the MOIS for abusing the basic human rights of Iranian citizens and exporting its vicious practices to support the Syrian regime's abhorrent crackdown on its own population,” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen explained in a press release. “In addition, we are designating the MOIS for its support to terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, al Qaeda in Iraq, Hizballah and HAMAS, again exposing the extent of Iran's sponsorship of terrorism as a matter of Iranian state policy.”
The MOIS is assisting al Qaeda in a variety of ways. The “MOIS has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports,” according to Treasury.
In addition, the MOIS has “provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)...and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.”
This is not the first time the Treasury Department has targeted the nexus between Iran and al Qaeda.
In July 2011, Treasury designated six al Qaeda operatives who use a network headquartered in Iran to move cash and terrorists. Iran, Treasury noted at the time, is “a critical transit point for funding to support al Qaeda's activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Al Qaeda’s Iran network is headed by an operative known as Yasin al Suri. According to Treasury, al Suri and his comrades operate under a “secret deal” between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.
In December 2011, U.S. authorities announced a $10 million reward for information leading to al Suri’s capture. Recent press reporting indicates that because of the international scrutiny al Suri has been replaced as the head of al Qaeda’s Iran franchise.
Al Suri’s replacement is reportedly an infamous terrorist named Muhsin al Fadhli, who has long been wanted for his role in al Qaeda’s international operations, including the October 6, 2002 attack on the French ship MV Limburg and the October 8, 2002 assault on U.S. Marines stationed on Kuwait's Faylaka Island. Al Fahli has also worked with al Qaeda in Iraq to raise funds for its operations.
Al Fadhli’s putative role was first made public by Sky News, which also said that British intelligence officials are worried about the possibility of an Iranian-backed al Qaeda terrorist attack in the West. However, those same officials said they had no “specific intelligence” on al Qaeda’s targets.
In September 2011, the State Department designated a Hamas operative who is linked to both Iran and al Qaeda. The terrorist, named Muhammad Hisham Muhammad Isma'il Abu Ghazala, “plays an integral role in Hamas,” and “has links to Iran, the world's leading State Sponsor of Terrorism, and al Qaeda.” Among other nefarious activities, Abu Ghazala has facilitated al Qaeda’s IED attacks inside Iraq.
In January 2009, the Treasury Department designated four other senior al Qaeda members who had received Iran’s assistance. They included Saad bin Laden, Osama’s son, who received safe haven inside Iran after 9/11 and was placed under a loose form of “house arrest” in 2003 after he was implicated in al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Saad and the other designated al Qaeda operatives were responsible for moving al Qaeda families, including some of Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al Zawahiri’s closest relatives, to Iran after the 9/11 attacks. Saad subsequently left Iran for northern Pakistan, where he was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies.