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Abu Zubaydah and Iran

11:55 AM, Jun 13, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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A one-page biography of Zubaydah prepared by the U.S. government reads: “In November 2001, Abu Zubaydah helped smuggle now-deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi and some 70 Arab fighters out of Kandahar, Afghanistan, into Iran.”

Zarqawi will always be remembered for his vehement hatred of Shiites. The Iranians did not imprison him, however, but instead allowed him to make his way onto Iraq, bringing mayhem and chaos with him. There is evidence that Zarqawi coordinated his network’s activities from Iranian soil for a time.

Ali Saleh Husain, an al Qaeda operative who worked with Zubaydah, also helped relocate al Qaeda operatives and their family members to Iran in late 2001. In January 2009, the Treasury Department reported: “In 2001 after the fall of the Taliban, Husain facilitated the move of al Qaeda-associated fighters, including an al Qaeda military commander, from Afghanistan to Iran. After leaving Afghanistan, Husain was responsible for smuggling al Qaeda members and associates via networks in Zahedan, Iran.”

In 2003, after terrorist attacks in Riyadh and elsewhere were traced to al Qaeda’s network in Iran, Husain and other senior al Qaeda operatives were placed under house arrest. Zahedan, which sits on Iran’s border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, remained a hotbed for al Qaeda activity even after Husain was detained, however.

Another example can be found in the story of Guantanamo detainee Bensayah Belkacem. According to a leaked Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) memo, Belkacem was Zubaydah’s contact in Bosnia. Belkacem was a member of the controversial group known as the “Algerian Six,” a group of Algerians who had relocated to Bosnia and were linked to extremist activity. The other members of the group had their habeas petitions granted by a DC district court, but Belkacem had his petition for a writ of habeas corpus denied.

JTF-GTMO officials found that Belkacem “applied for an Iranian visa on 1 October 2001 in Sarajevo intending to travel to Afghanistan through Iran and then assist the other Algerians [sic] jihadist elements in Afghanistan in anticipation of the US campaign following the 11 September 2001 attacks.”

Iran clearly provided a hospitable operating environment for Zubaydah and his colleagues. It is no wonder that Zubaydah himself, per Rodriguez’s testimony, may have planned to move there.

Some of have seized on the tensions between Iran and al Qaeda that arose later, after the Iranians did not release some al Qaeda members from house arrest in a timely manner. Those tensions, reflected in a narrow set of Osama bin Laden’s documents released to the public, were very real, but they do not define the entire relationship. Iran and al Qaeda cooperated both before and since.

Nearly all of the materials in the U.S. government’s possession pertaining to Iran’s ties to al Qaeda, including Zubaydah’s videos, should be declassified and released to the public.   

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  

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