In a stunning development on Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department accused the Iranian government of sponsoring al Qaeda. Treasury designated six al Qaeda terrorists and reported that they are working for a network headquartered in Iran. This al Qaeda network is “headed by Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator, operating under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.”
A Treasury Department press release quoted Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen as saying:
Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today. By exposing Iran’s secret deal with al Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism. Today’s action also seeks to disrupt this key network and deny al Qaeda’s senior leadership much-needed support.
This is not the first time the Treasury Department has designated al Qaeda operatives operating in Iran. In January 2009, treasury designated four al Qaeda terrorists, including one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, who were living in Iran. Thursday’s designation, however, explicitly accuses the Iranian government of having an “agreement” with al Qaeda that allows terrorists to use Iranian soil to move money and recruits into Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil is described as “an Iran-based senior al Qaeda facilitator currently living and operating in Iran under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Treasury explains:
Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with Khalil and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005. Khalil moves money and recruits from across the Middle East into Iran, then on to Pakistan for the benefit of al Qaeda senior leaders, including Atiyah Abd al Rahman.
Atiyah Abd al Rahman was also designated by treasury. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Rahman was al Qaeda's “operations chief” and was working with bin Laden to assemble a terrorist cell capable of hitting America on the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. According to the Journal, the intelligence tying Rahman to the plot was found in communications recovered during the May 2 U.S. raid on bin Laden's safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Rahman is one of al Qaeda’s most senior operatives. After the Taliban’s Afghanistan fell in late 2001, he moved to Iran along with numerous other al Qaeda terrorists.
The U.S. State Department's Rewards for Justice page notes that Rahman was al Qaeda's “emissary in Iran as appointed by Osama bin Ladin.” Treasury’s designation reiterates that Rahman was appointed by bin Laden as an al Qaeda emissary to Iran. Rahman, the State Department reported, “recruits and facilitates talks with other Islamic groups to operate under” al Qaeda and “is also a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Ansar al Sunna.”
Rahman was a longtime confidante of bin Laden. He “joined Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan as a teenager in the 1980s,” the State Department reported. “Since then, he has gained considerable stature in al Qaeda as an explosives expert and Islamic scholar.”
Rahman “became acquainted with [Abu Musab al Zarqawi],” the deceased leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, in the western city of Herat in the late 1990s. He then retreated with Osama bin Laden to the Tora Bora Mountains in late 2001 before moving on to Iran.
The U.S. government has repeatedly recognized the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda – even though it is widely assumed the two are incapable of collusion.
For example, the 9/11 Commission found that 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 Commission found that Iran and its chief terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, trained al Qaeda operatives as they plotted the 1998 embassy bombings.
And in more recent years, according to the Treasury Department, there has been no barrier to cooperating on operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. The six terrorists designated on Thursday have moved funds and jihadists to each of these countries, using Iranian soil as a transit hub.
The Treasury Department says that these activities are part of a formerly “secret deal” between Iran and al Qaeda.
The reality is that there is plenty of publicly-available evidence showing that Iran and al Qaeda have been cooperating since the early 1990s.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.