Al-Qaeda and Iranian ties date from the early 1990s. The Iranian regime viewed Al-Qaeda through the prism of political opportunism. From the Iranian leaders’ perspective, Al-Qaeda was an invaluable non-state terrorist group that could accomplish Iran’s two main revolutionary principles — anti-Americanism and undermining Saudi Arabia’s interests in the region.
The Sunni-Shiite division between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime was never an issue for Iran as long as the terrorist group could help Tehran accomplish its revolutionary principles, destabilize the region, and achieve the mullahs’ regional ambitions.
In the early 1990s, Al-Qaeda was in desperate need of funds — and, more importantly, sophisticated tactical, technical, and militia training that would enable it to carry out large scale-terrorist attacks. Hezbollah had carried out attacks against American forces, such as the 1983 bombing of the US Marine base outside Beirut barracks, which killed 241 Americans. The US pulled out of Lebanon, which was viewed as a significant strategic victory for Iran and Hezbollah.
This is when the honeymoon between Al-Qaeda and Iran began. The convergence of interests led to the blossoming of ties. Iran struck a deal with Al-Qaeda and used Hezbollah to provide funds, arms and explosives. Soon, a meeting took place in Sudan between bin Laden and Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah security chief.
Bin Laden advised his followers to revere the Iranian regime, and he wrote that Iran was the “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication” for Al-Qaeda. Three of Iran’s institutions were also keys to assisting Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its elite Quds Force and Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, Etela’at.
Even the first federal indictments of Al-Qaeda under the Clinton administration stated: “Osama bin Laden, the defendant, and Al-Qaeda also forged alliances with the National Islamic Front in Sudan and with representatives of the government of Iran, and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah, for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.”
Iran and Hezbollah’s sophisticated training of Al-Qaeda operatives was instrumental. In December 1992, Al-Qaeda carried out its first known terrorist attack, bombing the Gold Mohur hotel in Aden, Yemen. The following year it bombed the World Trade Center in New York.
For more sophisticated training, Al-Qaeda members traveled to Lebanon. According to the files, Iran offered Al-Qaeda fighters “money and arms and everything they need, and offered them training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in return for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia.”
Newly released documents showing the extent of the links between Osama bin Laden and Tehran are shocking, but no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.
Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi was fully shaped by the Iranian regime and its proxy, Hezbollah. This included vehicle bombs, suicide bombs and multidimensional attacks simultaneously on several targets.
After acquiring the tactical, technical and bombing expertise, Al-Qaeda carried out its first large-scale attacks in August 1998 — truck bombs at US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in which more than 200 people died. A US district court found that before Iran and Hezbollah’s training, Al-Qaeda “did not possess the technical expertise required to carry out the embassy bombings.” In fact, they were replicas of Hezbollah attacks in 1983.
Before the 9/11 attacks in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the Iranian regime allowed Al-Qaeda operatives to cross through Iran without visas or passports. Robust evidence, including a federal court ruling, found that “Iran furnished material and direct support for the 9/11 terrorists.” Eight of the hijackers passed through Iran before coming to the US. Iran provided funds, logistical support and ammunition to Al-Qaeda leaders and sheltered several of its leaders in exchange for attacks on US interests. The Iranian regime continued to support Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other countries with the goal of pushing out forces that are rivals to Iran.
In addition, this alliance clearly explains why Al-Qaeda has never attacked Iran.
Iran and Al-Qaeda have been cooperating for almost three decades. The Iranian regime is the leading state sponsor of terrorism, and it funds, arms, and trains any terrorist group that advances the mullahs’ agenda. Iran should be held liable for terrorist attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda that resulted in thousands of innocent people losing their lives. The Iranian leaders who were engaged in these heinous acts should be brought to the International Criminal Court. The regime should be sanctioned and isolated. If it were not for Iran and Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda would have not had the chance to blossom and carry out its terrorist attacks.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh