Are Al-Qaeda and Iran really at odds?

The debate about the Islamic Republic’s collaboration with the terrorist group is far from over.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (left) and Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2001. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (left) and Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2001. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan Schanzer (BESA)
Jonathan Schanzer

A photo, first posted on an anonymous Twitter account, circulated last week among terrorism watchers here in Washington. It received scant attention in the mainstream media. The now authenticated photo, dated 2015, shows three of Al Qaeda’s top leaders smiling casually. Their names: Saif al-Adel, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri. Their location: Tehran.

All three men served in key leadership positions for the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization. And all three men were apparently circulating freely in Iran.

Saif al-Adel is now believed to be on the short list of candidates to lead Al-Qaeda after the American assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan in early August. Abu Muhammad al-Masri was a senior Al-Qaeda leader who was gunned down on the streets of Tehran, presumably by the Israeli Mossad, in November 2020.  Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, another senior al-Qaeda leader, was felled in Syria by a U.S. drone strike in 2017.

The photo questions—yet again—the notion that Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic were at odds. If anything, they appear to cooperate, even if Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions prevent a full-blown alliance.

American officials (mostly those advocating for a nuclear deal with Iran) have repeatedly and falsely asserted that the Iranian regime maintained an antagonistic relationship with Al-Qaeda, placing members of the world’s most dangerous terrorist group under house arrest. This assertion has been regurgitated by prominent beltway analysts such as Nelly Lahoud and Peter Bergen. Both wrote books recently, parroting lines proffered by U.S. officialdom, downplaying the ties between Tehran and Al-Qaeda. Both got it wrong.

Here’s just a sample of what we know:

The 9/11 Commission Report (released in 2004) states: “Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11… some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.”

In 2009, the U.S. Treasury department issued sanctions against four al-Qaeda leaders based in Iran. One of them was Sa’ad bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden.

In 2012, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi, a top Al-Qaeda operative in Iran. According to the Treasury press release, “Iran continues to allow al-Qaeda to operate a core pipeline that moves al-Qaeda money and fighters through Iran to support al-Qaeda activities in South Asia. This network also sends funding and fighters to Syria.”

This came on the heels of a designation the year prior in which the Treasury sanctioned “Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a prominent Iran-based al-Qaeda facilitator, operating under an agreement between al-Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Treasury targeted Khalil (aka Yasin al-Suri) along with five other Al-Qaeda operatives, noting how Iran was a “critical transit point for funding to support al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This network serves as the core pipeline through which al-Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia….”

What’s most notable about these revelations is that they were made by the Treasury during the Barack Obama administration. When the Obama administration inked the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accord with the Islamic Republic in Iran, there was no discussion of this pipeline.

The administration yielded an estimated $150 billion dollars to the regime in exchange for fleeting nuclear restrictions. The regime’s malign regional activities, including its collaboration with Al-Qaeda, were deemed outside the purview of the agreement.

While the Obama administration ended its investigation into this collaboration, the Trump administration revived it. In 2017, the Central Intelligence Agency released (thanks to a campaign by FDD’s Long War Journal) a trove of documents from the 2011 raid by U.S. Navy SEALS on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Among the documents was a video which revealed that bin Laden’s son Hamza was married in Iran, with senior Al-Qaeda figures in attendance. In 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo renewed the allegations of Iranian collusion with Al-Qaeda. In early 2021, he charged that Iran was the new home base for Al-Qaeda.

This did not stop the incoming Biden administration from pursuing a return to the nuclear deal that Trump exited in 2018. The deal currently being negotiated in Vienna could yield Iran an estimated $275 billion in the first year, and as much as $1 trillion over the ensuing decade. Once again, the regime’s ties to Al-Qaeda are not addressed.

Earlier this year, a federal judge found in favor of victims and families that sued Iran for providing “material support” to Al-Qaeda, among other groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks against American servicemembers and civilians in Afghanistan. The case offered new insights into this dynamic.

The debate about the Islamic Republic’s collaboration with Al-Qaeda is far from over. Much is already known, and there is ample evidence yet to be released. However, proponents of nuclear diplomacy with Iran hope to sweep it under the rug, for fear of scuttling talks.

Another 9/11 anniversary is approaching. For the sake of those who perished on that day, not to mention the men and women who gave their lives on the battlefields of Afghanistan, it’s time for a full and truthful account of this relationship to be released by the U.S. government. It should be produced without fear or favor.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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