The long-time alliance between Al-Qaeda and the Iran regime

The long-time alliance between Al-Qaeda and the Iran regime

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has dismissed the link between the Islamic Republic and Al-Qaeda (File/AFP)
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In spite of the Iranian leaders’ frequent claims that Tehran does not have any links to Al-Qaeda, the relationship between the Islamic Republic and the terrorist group is well-documented and thriving.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian last week dismissed a new link between his government and Al-Qaeda. He denounced the US for publishing a report stating that Saif Al-Adel is based in Iran. Al-Adel, an Egyptian, became the leader of Al-Qaeda following the death of Ayman Al-Zawahiri last July, according to the US State Department. “Our assessment aligns with that of the UN — that Al-Qaeda’s new de facto leader Saif Al-Adel is based in Iran,” a spokesperson pointed out.

A UN report released last week indicated that the fact that the head of Al-Qaeda is based in Iran raises questions that “have a bearing on Al-Qaeda’s ambitions to assert leadership of a global movement in the face of challenges from (Daesh).”

Some scholars, policy analysts or politicians may argue that any relationship between the Islamic Republic and Al-Qaeda is unlikely because the former is Shiite and the latter is Sunni. But it is important to point out that the sectarian differences between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime have never been an issue for Iran, as long as the terrorist group helps it accomplish its revolutionary goals, destabilize the region and achieve the mullahs’ ambitions. The Iranian regime is happy to build alliances with non-Shiite states, such as Venezuela and North Korea, or nonstate actors that advance its parochial interests.

The relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime dates back to the early 1990s. Tehran viewed the terror group through the prism of political opportunism. From the Iranian leaders’ perspective, Al-Qaeda was an invaluable nonstate terrorist group that could assist with its two main revolutionary principles — anti-Americanism and undermining Saudi Arabia’s interests in the region.

Al-Qaeda owes its prominence as a major terrorist group to its training and support from the Iranian regime and Hezbollah

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The Iranian regime came to Al-Qaeda’s aid in the 1990s, when Al-Qaeda was in desperate need of funds and, more importantly, sophisticated tactical and technical training that would enable it to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks. A convergence of interests led to the blossoming of ties. In fact, Osama bin Laden advised his followers to revere the Iranian regime, writing 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 the regime’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its elite Quds Force and the Ministry of Intelligence.

Several critical pieces of evidence have substantiated the close ties between the Iranian regime and Al-Qaeda. Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, the Iranian regime allowed Al-Qaeda operatives to cross its territory without visas or passports. Robust evidence, including a federal court ruling, found that “Iran furnished material and direct support” for at least eight of the 9/11 attackers.

Iran provided funds, logistical support and ammunition to Al-Qaeda and sheltered several of its leaders in exchange for attacks on US interests. After 9/11, the Iranian regime continued to support Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other countries with the goal of pushing out any forces that were rivals to Iran.

Finally, more than 400,000 documents were released by the CIA in 2017, disclosing alliances 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.”

Al-Qaeda owes its prominence as a major terrorist group to its training and support from the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. This included advice on vehicle bombs, suicide bombs and simultaneous multidimensional attacks 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 the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people. 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.” They were replicas of Hezbollah attacks in 1983.

Furthermore, the close relationship between Al-Qaeda and the theocratic establishment explains why the terror group has never carried out attacks against the Iranian regime.

In summary, the Iranian regime and Al-Qaeda have had close links for more than three decades. Tehran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism and it funds, arms and trains any terrorist group that advances its revolutionary and ideological agenda, regardless of their religious orientation.

  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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