Is Iran lousy with al-Qaeda?

Once again the question of whether al-Qaeda is granted safe haven by Iran raises its ugly head. It makes its appearance just in time to maintain the temperature of relations between Iran and the United States at 0° C and avert any thaw.

An article in the May issue of the CTC Sentinel, the journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, brought it to our attention. In Saudi Arabia’s 85 Most Wanted List, Christopher Boucek writes:

Several on the list are accused of belonging to a cell in Iran led by Saleh al-Qaraawi (#34), the alleged leader of an al-Qaida group in Iran.A senior Saudi security official told the author in Feb­ruary 2009 that roughly 35 of the 85 are in Iran, protect­ed by elements of the Iranian government who facilitate the Saudis’ movement and transit in official vehicles. [Emphasis added.]

Boucek also cites an early May article on the 85 most wanted in the prominent Saudi news outlet Asharq Al-Awsat. Turki Al-Saheil reported:

The latest list of 85 wanted militants issued by the Saudi ministry of interior has renewed the issue of an al-Qaeda link with Iran. … al-Qaeda elements in Iran are plotting an attack on Saudi or Jordanian interests, and. . . a number of these individuals intend on returning to their home countries to personally participate in these terrorist operations, while others intend on joining the al Qaeda cell in Yemen to participate in terrorist activities there. …Al-Qarawi [Boucek spells his name with two “a”s], 35, is believed to have been behind recent terror attacks in Saudi Arabia and leads Al-Qaeda’s operations in the Persian Gulf and Iran. … It is believed al-Qawari has more than 100 Saudis working for him in Iran, where they move about freely. …

Al-Qarawi has purportedly been in Iran since 2006 and is reported to have helped several Saudi Al-Qaeda fugitives flee to Iraq and Lebanon where they have trained to carry out attacks.

Al-Saheil also mentions a couple of other especially vicious members of al-Qaeda ostensibly based in Iran.

In January, prior to his article, before the Saudis announced their list, Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson of the conservative think tank WINEP (Washington Institute for Near East Policy) wrote:

Last week, the Treasury Department issued terrorist designations for three senior al-Qaeda operatives who spent time in Iran, including Usama bin Laden’s son, Saad. … During the designation announcement, Treasury undersecretary Stuart Levey noted, “It is important that Iran give a public accounting of how it is meeting its international obligations to constrain al-Qaeda.”

The authors provide some (however unfootnoted) background:

Ties between [Iran and al-Qaeda] first blossomed during the early 1990s when al-Qaeda was based in Sudan. Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of Sudan’s National Islamic Front, encouraged relationships between Shiite and Sunni entities as part of his attempt to establish a unified global effort against the common enemy. As a result, Iran and al-Qaeda reached an informal agreement to cooperate, with Iran providing critical explosives, intelligence, and security training to bin Laden’s organization.

Levitt and Jacobson then explain that, after 9/11 and again after the start of the Iraq War, Iran made a show of cracking down on al-Qaeda:

When reports surfaced that al-Qaeda leaders were residing in Iran, for example, Iranian officials regularly claimed that they had the terrorists under arrest. U.S. and Arab officials have frequently taken issue with these statements, believing that Tehran was overstating the measures it was taking against these dangerous operatives.

Is al-Qaeda in contact with the Iranian authorities then? Mustafa Hamid, one of its members, they write:

. . . was the primary interlocutor between al-Qaeda and the Iranian government, and. . . while living in Iran, was “harbored by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. . . which served as Hamid’s [contact] between al-Qaeda and Iran.” Hamid’s ties to Iran date back to the 1990s, when he reportedly negotiated a secret relationship between Usama bin Laden and Tehran, allowing many al-Qaeda members to safely transit through Iran to Afghanistan.


Although Iran has certainly provided some much-needed assistance to al-Qaeda over the years, the two have always been extremely wary and distrustful of one another due to religious and political differences. …Given these tensions. . . Iran’s tactical motivations for helping al-Qaeda are opaque. It seems likely that Tehran has allowed senior al-Qaeda leaders to remain in the country at least in part as leverage to prevent the Sunni extremist group from attacking the Shiite state (indeed, Sunni extremist attacks have been a problem in Iran, such as the repeated attacks by Jundallah in Baluchistan) [See below. — RW]. … Tolerating the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in Iran also serves as a point of leverage against the West.

It’s tough to argue with how the authors frame their conclusion:

As the Obama administration develops its Iran strategy, most of its attention will be focused, understandably, on Iran’s nuclear activities and its ties to Middle East terrorist groups like Hamas, Hizballah, and the Taliban. [But] the new administration should not lose sight of Iran’s longstanding ties to al-Qaeda as well. … to develop a successful and comprehensive strategy to deal with Tehran.

If you’re not a conservative to whom al-Qaeda’s presence in Iran suits you just fine, your first response might be to wonder: Are the Saudis spreading disinformation about Iran in their ongoing Sunni-Shia tug of war for the title of preeminent Islamic state? Is the Treasury Department pushing this agenda? We asked other writers and bloggers for help with these questions.

Eric Martin of American Footprints and the Progressive Realist starts by explaining how, as Jacobson and Levitt write, “al-Qaeda operatives in Iran. . . serve as a point of leverage against the West”:

Most likely, Iran is keeping those operatives as bargaining chips to be used if the right situation arises. It is highly unlikely that Iran would let them actually plan/coordinate attacks considering the probable consequences.

He confirms the tug of war:

As for the Saudis, these noises are likely part of the effort to drum up anti-Iranian animus amongst the “moderate” Sunni dictatorships that the US and Israel are trying to string together into an alliance to isolate/punish Iran.

Mark Safranski of ZenPundit writes:

Generally, a radical Shia and a radical Sunni-takfiri would be adverse to helping one another. That said, Iran is not just a vehicle for radical Shiism but is a state with state interests. The intelligence arm of the Pasdaran is an intelligence agency not unlike the SVR, CIA, Mossad etc.

As such:

It will work with or talk to a vast array of players — including the United States and Israel — and Iran is a key supporter of HAMAS and PIJ, despite those groups being Sunnis.

Then Safranski suggests:

Iran giving limited aid or assistance to al-Qaeda or “freelance” terrorists working with al-Qaeda, if that suited Iranian tactical interests at the moment, is highly probable in my view. [But] Iran having a sponsoring relationship with al-Qaeda akin to that of Hezbollah is wildly improbable, at best. I cannot see that as being ideologically tolerable to Zawahiri and Bin Laden. [Emphasis added.]

Investigative historian and IPS News analyst Gareth Porter is not convinced:

In an article I wrote for the American Prospect June 2006 issue, I told about how the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis successfully used CBS news to plant the story line that Iran was complicit in allowing al Qaeda personnel to use Iran to plot against Saudi Arabia in May 2003.But in fact U.S. intelligence had no evidence that the Iranian government was intentionally allowing al-Qaeda to remain on Iranian soil. Contrary to Rumsfeld’s disingenuous statement, U.S. intelligence did not conclude that the government knew where the al-Qaeda members from Afghanistan were located in Iran. “The Iran experts agreed that, even if al-Qaeda had come in and out of Iran, it didn’t mean the Iranian government was complicit,” recalls [Lawrence] Wilkerson. “There were parts of Iran where the government would not know what was going on.” I was later told essentially the same thing by the former top CIA analyst on Iran, Paul Pillar. [Emphasis added.]

Sean Paul Kelly of the Agonist relates a revealing anecdote:

When I was in Iran in 2006 I had a very long and fascinating conversation with a Mullah in a mosque courtyard in Shiraz about geopolitics and how obvious it was to him that the US and Iran shared interests. …I specifically asked about the rumor that one of bin Laden’s sons was in Iran, either under house arrest or otherwise. He didn’t scoff at the idea, but he said, more than likely he was under house arrest of some sorts, and that the politicians were keeping him handy for negotiations or a trade at some point. But at no point did he evince any liking for al Qaeda or their methods or the Taliban and reminded me that Iran almost invaded Afghanistan at one point in the 90s because of the Taliban. …

Second, all of the Tehranis I came into contact with indicated that a.) they really, really, really, dislike Saudi Arabia and b.) see al Qaeda as a Saudi foreign policy tool. One going so far to say that, “the Saudis use al Qaeda just like we use Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Quite an admission.

Not to mention how the United States has funded the Mujahedin-e Khalq in a harebrained scheme to overthrow Iran’s Islamic regime. Tehran could be forgiven for viewing the MEK is as the United States does al-Qaeda.

From Balochistan to Balochistan

Whether a warm or unwitting host, Sayed Saleem Shahzad reports at Asia Times Online on a more pressing problem that Iran actually has with al-Qaeda:

[Al-Qaeda plans] to occupy a strategic corridor that stretched from Nangarhar province in Afghanistan through Pakistan’s Khyber Agency and. . . Pakistani Balochistan to Iranian Balochistan [and] establish a new regional alliance. In this regard, Iranian Jundullah leader Abdul Malik Rigi is due to meet an al-Qaeda emissary in the near future. . . to lay the foundation for joint regional operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India.Al-Qaeda has in the past had some reservations about the Iranian Jundullah, an insurgent Sunni Islamic organization opposed to Tehran, on suspicion it had links to US and Pakistani intelligence. [But in] the past three years, a few Pakistani Balochi anti-Shi’ite elements. . . worked with Jundullah [and] carried out joint operations against Iranians and Shi’ites in the region. …

Al-Qaeda wants to sell its franchise to Jundullah, with two main aims:

  • To destroy or disrupt operations at Chabahar port, which could be used for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supplies going to Afghanistan.
  • Establish al-Qaeda’s presence in Iran to carry out operations to create a strategic balance against any Iranian role in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At present, Jundullah is a naive and financially poor organization which only carries out low-profile, stand-alone, sporadic attacks inside Iran. It claims to have killed about 400 Iranian soldiers over the years, but it does not pose any real threat to Tehran.

We’ll give Shahzad the last word:

Al-Qaeda aims to change this, as it did with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Pakistan.