Iran’s regime and Al-Qaeda: An axis of convenience
With less than two weeks left in office, the Trump administration has publicly accused the Iranian regime of having ties with the terrorist group Al-Qaeda. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed the link on Tuesday using recently declassified intelligence material during a speech to the National Press Club in Washington.
This was the first time a US secretary of state had provided evidence of the links between the Tehran regime and Al-Qaeda. The intelligence included information on the assassination of Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, also known as Abu Mohammad Al-Masri, in Tehran on Aug. 7 last year.
Al-Masri, who would most likely have succeeded current Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was accused of being involved in the bombings of two US embassies in Africa in 1998.
At first, Iranian authorities attempted to cover up his death, apparently because they would have preferred it not to be known that they have any links to Al-Qaeda. But the theocratic Iranian establishment may well have provided Al-Masri with the resources to carry out his campaigns against the US.
The Trump administration is not only attempting to reveal Iran’s ties to Al-Qaeda, but it is also trying to complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s intention to return to the Iran nuclear deal and make it more difficult for his administration to pursue appeasement policies and normalize relations with Tehran.
Biden has indicated that his administration intends to rejoin the nuclear deal and even lift sanctions against Iran.
The Trump administration has invested significant political capital over the last four years imposing sanctions pressure on the Islamic Republic, which has led to the significant weakening of the regime and its economy, as well as a substantial decline in its oil exports.
When it comes to Iran’s deep ties with Al-Qaeda, unfortunately little attention has been given to the subject by mainstream media outlets, politicians and scholars.
Some might have bought the false narrative — buttressed by the Tehran regime, its agents and some media outlets — that Al-Qaeda and Tehran are enemies because the former is Sunni and the latter is Shiite. But I think more attention should be paid to the three-decade-long relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime.
These ties date back to the early 1990s. The Iranian regime then viewed Al-Qaeda through the prism of ideological and political opportunism. From the Iranian leaders’ perspective, Al-Qaeda was an invaluable non-state terrorist group that could help accomplish Iran’s three main revolutionary aims: Anti-Americanism, undermining Saudi Arabia’s interests in the region, and destabilizing the Middle East so that Tehran could exploit the chaos and instability.
The Sunni-Shiite division was never an issue for the Iranian regime as long as the terrorist group could help it accomplish its revolutionary aims.
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. Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, had previously carried out attacks against US forces, such as the 1983 bombing of the Marines barracks outside Beirut, which killed 241 Americans. This is when the Iran-Al-Qaeda marriage of convenience began.
A convergence of interests led to a blossoming of ties and the empowerment of Al-Qaeda. Iran struck a deal with Al-Qaeda and used Hezbollah to provide funds, arms and explosives. Soon, a meeting took place in Sudan between Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah security chief.
Bin Laden advised his followers to revere the Iranian regime and wrote that Iran was the “main artery for funds, personnel and communication” for Al-Qaeda. Three of Iran’s institutions were key to assisting Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its elite Quds Force, and the Ministry of Intelligence.
Although Iran attempted to hide its ties to Al-Qaeda, reports about their relationship began to surface in the mid-1990s.
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 also instrumental.
In December 1992, Al-Qaeda carried out its first known terrorist attack: The bombing of the Gold Mohur hotel in Aden, Yemen. The following year, it bombed the World Trade Center in New York. The group’s modus operandi was entirely shaped by the Iranian regime. This included bombs in vehicles, suicide bombers and simultaneous multidimensional attacks on several targets.
After acquiring tactical, technical and bombing expertise, Al-Qaeda carried out its second large-scale attack in August 1998 — the truck bombs at the 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 the Hezbollah attacks of 1983. In other words, the Iranian regime was responsible for the attacks.
Al-Qaeda has helped Iran against Western forces in Syria and Iraq and has provided the pretext for the IRGC to increase its influence in Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Later, ahead of the 9/11 attacks, the Iranian regime allowed Al-Qaeda operatives to cross through its territory without visas or passports. Robust evidence, including a federal court ruling, found that “Iran furnished material and direct support for the 9/11 terrorists.”
Al least eight of the hijackers passed through Iran before heading to the US. Iran also provided funds, logistical support and ammunition to Al-Qaeda leaders and sheltered several of them in exchange for the terrorist group attacking US interests.
The Iranian regime also supported Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Syria and other countries with the goal of pushing out forces that were rivals to Tehran.
In fact, the regime released Al-Qaeda operatives to Syria during the country’s civil war in order to impose fear in the society, battle Western elements, provide an excuse for the IRGC to ratchet up its influence in the country, and to buttress Bashar Assad and Tehran’s argument that the Syrian government was fighting “terror groups,” not legitimate oppositional groups.
In 2017, a trove of 470,000 documents released by the CIA revealed close ties between Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime. The files confirmed what had been known by several intelligence agencies, courts and experts for a long time. 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.”
Further evidence came from former IRGC general Saeed Ghasemi, who shared a surprising revelation in 2019. He statedthat the Iranian government sent agents to Bosnia in the 1990s to train Al-Qaeda members, and that these operatives hid their identity by posing as humanitarian workers for Iran’s Red Crescent Society.
Another Iranian official, Hossein Allahkaram, confirmed this account. He said: “Al-Qaeda has different ranks, and the rank that was in Bosnia were connected to us in some ways. Occasionally, some of them, after they were trained in Al-Qaeda bases and received their weapons, for some reasons, they would leave that place and come to us.”
Al-Qaeda has helped Iran against Western forces in Syria and Iraq and has provided the pretext for the IRGC to increase its influence in Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa. Their alliance likely explains why the terrorist group has never carried out an attack against the Iranian regime.
Iran is the godfather of many terror groups across the region, including Al-Qaeda. More attention should be paid to the regime’s long-standing ties with this militia. In light of all this evidence, it is incumbent on the international community — and particularly the next US administration — to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its funding, arming and empowering of one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh