In a column for the Washington Post, David Ignatius discusses the cache of documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s safe house. Ignatius writes:
U.S. officials say three strong themes emerge from their reading of the files, most of which were communications between bin Laden and his top deputy Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. Indeed, because the Libyan-born Atiyah (who’s known to analysts by his first name) was the boss’s key link with the outside, officials see him as more important than bin Laden’s nominal successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Ignatius goes on to report:
Bin Laden retained until his death a passion to launch a significant attack against the United States, ideally linked to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He and Atiyah communicated often about who might carry out such a strike, with Atiyah proposing names and bin Laden rejecting them. Bin Laden was still looking for a history-changing attack on big, economically important targets — one that would match, if not outdo, the impact of 9/11. Zawahiri, by contrast, favored an opportunistic strategy of smaller strikes.
In July, the Wall Street Journal reported the same details concerning Atiyah, who was described as al Qaeda’s “operations chief.”
Here is one question journalists and intelligence professionals should be asking: What role, if any, does Iran play in Atiyah’s plotting?
In July, the U.S. Treasury Department designated six members of an al Qaeda network based inside Iran. (See here and here for additional reporting on the designation.) Some members of the network are based outside of Iran, but funnel recruits and cash through Iranian soil. The network operates “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.”
One member of this network is Atiyah. Treasury notes that Atiyah is al Qaeda's “overall commander in Pakistan's tribal areas and as of late 2010, the leader of al Qaeda in North and South Waziristan, Pakistan.” The Treasury Department adds: “Rahman was previously 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 Iran-based network is headed by another terrorist, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil (aka Yasin al Suri). The Treasury Department’s designation notes that “Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with Khalil and have permitted him to operate within Iran's borders since 2005.” Khalil's activities include moving “money and recruits from across the Middle East into Iran, then on to Pakistan,” where they serve senior al Qaeda leaders. According to the Treasury Department, one of the senior al Qaeda leaders Khalil funnels money and recruits to in northern Pakistan is Atiyah.
So, here is what we know about Atiyah and Iran:
Atiyah was planning a terrorist attack against the U.S. that was potentially set to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Atiyah worked with and for Osama bin Laden, who oversaw the plot. (We don’t know, however, if this plot ever got off the ground or was just in its initial planning stages.)
Atiyah was appointed al Qaeda’s emissary to Iran and had an explicit deal with the Iranians that allowed him to move in an out the mullahs’ country.
Atiyah is one of the beneficiaries of a deal between the Iranian government and Khalil, who funnels recruits and money from the Gulf States through Iran to Atiyah.
I’ll add one more dot: Atiyah was protected by the Iranian regime for several years after 9/11. He is one of the senior al Qaeda leaders who the Iranians refused to acknowledge holding in custody and was supposedly held under a loose form of “house arrest.”
All of which brings us back to the original question folks should be asking: What role, if any, does Iran play in Atiyah’s plotting?
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.