A State Department cable released by WikiLeaks earlier this week contains a stunning new detail about the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda. The Saudis have privately complained to the Obama administration that Iran harbors a dangerous network of al Qaeda operatives who are targeting the kingdom. And at the heart of the relationship is one of Osama bin Laden’s little-known sons.
One cable recounts a meeting that took place on September 5, 2009 between President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and Saudi Prince Nayif bin Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s second deputy prime minister and longtime interior minister.
Just eight days prior to the meeting, Prince Nayif’s son, Muhammad, survived an assassination attempt by al Qaeda. Muhammad is the head of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism and jihadist rehabilitation programs. Prince Nayif stressed to Brennan that the kingdom’s efforts to combat terrorism and extremism would not waver even though the attack highlighted the risk to members of the royal family.
After exchanging diplomatic niceties, Prince Nayif turned the conversation to Iran. The State Department’s cable reads:
Nayif complained that over the past two years Iran has hosted Saudis (all Sunnis) -- including Osama bin Laden's son Ibrahim -- who had contacts with terrorists and worked against the Kingdom. SAG considered this aggressive action a breach of the 2001 security agreement between the two nations. The SAG has informed Iran through its ambassador and the MFA, asking the GOI to hand over these Saudis. Nayif recalled that after the operations in Khobar in 1996, the SAG tried to open channels with Iran and tried to improve relations during Khatami's presidency. He himself had met personally with Iranian National Security Secretary General Dr. Hassan Rohani (Iran's Supreme Council on National Security) and had signed a security agreement in which Iran promised to show respect and not take any actions inside or outside Iran against the Kingdom.
Ibrahim bin Laden is one of Osama’s lesser known sons. There is little publicly-available information on him. However, U.S. intelligence officials contacted by THE WEEKLY STANDARD say that he is quickly rising through al Qaeda’s ranks – just like his brothers.
Brennan did not deny Prince Nayif’s claim. Instead, Brennan assured his Saudi counterpart that the U.S. was willing to work with the Saudis on this issue, even as the Obama administration sought talks with the Iranian regime. The State Department’s cable reads:
Brennan agreed that Iran had the capacity to cause trouble, and assured the Prince that the USG was very concerned and looking carefully at the situation. President Obama's willingness to talk to the Iranians did not mean he did not understand the problem. Brennan emphasized the SAG's strong friends in the White House, including President Obama, wanted to work very closely with Saudi Arabia on this front.
The Saudis’ concern over Ibrahim bin Laden is a new revelation. Ibrahim’s older brother, Saad, has commanded far more attention in the press and in Western counterterrorism circles. Saad also lived in Iran for years after the 9/11 attacks and was reportedly killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2009 after moving to northern Pakistan. Al Qaeda has not confirmed Saad’s demise, however, as the group usually does in martyrdom videos when its better-known terrorists perish. U.S. intelligence officials caution that Saad could still be alive.
Like Ibrahim, Saad has been implicated in al Qaeda’s plotting against the House of Saud. After al Qaeda’s May 2003 Riyadh bombings, press reports indicated that Saad had been in contact with the terrorist cell responsible for the attack. Saad was living inside Iran at the time.
In January 2009, the U.S. Treasury Department designated members of al Qaeda’s network inside Iran, including Saad. Ibrahim bin Laden was not included in the designation.
Prince Nayif’s meeting with Brennan was not the first time in 2009 that the Saudis highlighted Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda. The Saudis released a list of their 85 most wanted terrorists in February 2009. The Saudis said that dozens of the terrorists on the list were operating either inside Iran, or close to the Iranian border in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One of the terrorists on the most wanted list is Abdullah al Qarawi. An anonymous Saudi security official told the New York Times that Qarawi is a Saudi who has long operated inside Iran and is “believed to have been behind some of the terrorist attacks in recent years inside Saudi Arabia.” This same official explained that Qarawi is in charge of al Qaeda’s operations “in the Persian Gulf and Iran, and of bringing new members into Afghanistan.” Qarawi is also “believed to have more than 100 Saudis working for him in Iran, where they move about freely.”
Although Brennan told Prince Nayif that the U.S. government is “very concerned and looking carefully” at Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, this may not be the case.
Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration shuttered a nascent CIA program, codenamed Rigor, which was designed in part to track the al Qaeda network on Iranian soil.
The State Department’s September 2009 cable is just the latest U.S. government document released by WikiLeaks that connects Iran and al Qaeda. Documents posted online by the media in July contained persistent reports of collusion between Iran, the Taliban, al Qaeda and their jihadist allies in Afghanistan.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.