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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

US Exposes Iran’s Secret Cooperation with al-Qaida

Filed under: Al-Qaeda and Global Jihad, Israel, Israeli Security, Radical Islam, U.S. Policy
Publication: Dore Gold Articles

Israel Hayom

With the U.S. about to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, it is appropriate that Washington decided to disclose last week the close ties between al-Qaida and Iran. The official U.S. government investigation of the attack, known as the 9/11 Commission Report, made some passing references to their cooperation, but did not provide much detail. It noted that there was “strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit” of as many as 10 of the 19 hijackers from Saudi Arabia to Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan. The report then mysteriously added, “We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”

In the U.S., the idea that Iran had ties to al-Qaida was greeted with a large degree of skepticism in certain foreign policy circles. These analysts often asked how a militant Shiite regime could overcome its ideological differences with a radical Sunni organization and work together. They point to the fact that al-Qaida traditionally views the Shiites not as true Muslims but as apostates; they note that al-Qaida in Iraq slaughtered thousands of Shiites in suicide bombings and also destroyed their most important shrines, like the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, the burial place of the 10th and 11th imams.

Typifying this view was Flynt Leverett, a former career CIA analyst who served on the National Security Council and wrote that Iran was an adversary of al-Qaida and was prepared to help the U.S. fight Osama bin Laden back in 2001. His CIA colleague, Bruce Reidel, wrote in 2010, “On balance the evidence of a hostile relationship is much more compelling than evidence of a collaborative one.” A real alliance between Iran and al-Qaida was unthinkable.

Yet now the Obama administration has released specific information about the connections between Iran and al-Qaida. Last week, on July 28, the U.S. Treasury Department disclosed in a document it published that there was a six-man al-Qaida network, whose head is based in Iran, which serves as “the core pipeline” through which al-Qaida moves money, logistical support, and operatives from Arab states in the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Treasury Department explained that the network acted in accordance with a secret agreement between al-Qaida and the Iranian government. The U.S. concluded that Iran served as “a critical transit point” for al-Qaida and the network’s head began to operate in 2005. The Wall Street Journal wrote that it was the first time that the U.S. government formally acknowledged the connection between Iran and al-Qaida.

Prior to this revelation there was only fragmentary information about cooperation between al-Qaida and Iran. For example, in October 2000, Ali Muhammad, a top al-Qaida operative, admitted to a U.S. court that he had brokered a meeting in Sudan between bin Laden and Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mughniyeh. He explained that Iran used Hezbollah to provide weapons to al-Qaida.

There were also reports that al-Qaida delegations went to Iran and to the Biq’a valley in Lebanon for training and that bin Laden’s deputy (and successor), Ayman al-Zawahiri, developed a close working relationship with Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s current defense minister. After 2001, part of the al-Qaida leadership actually took refuge in Iran, but the U.S. intelligence community was divided about the depth of the relationship. Nonetheless, there was accumulating evidence of al-Qaida-Iranian collaboration. In his memoirs, the former director of the CIA, George Tennet, admitted that the Iranian-based al-Qaida leadership was consulted over an offer to purchase three Russian nuclear devices that apparently had been stolen.

In 2003, the U.S. intercepted communications that an al-Qaida cell in Iran planned a triple bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 34 people, including eight Americans. Wikileaks also got hold of a 2008 report that a joint team comprising al-Qaida and an intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards was operating in Afghanistan and planning suicide attacks against NATO forces. The newest revelations from last week about an al-Qaida network operating in Iran have added credibility if they are considered against the background of growing evidence of extensive collaboration between them.

For Israel, the fact that Iran can penetrate al-Qaida is important to note. It has been well known by the Israeli security establishment for many years that, in the Palestinian context, Tehran is prepared to work with Sunni extremists, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But this now appears to be a much broader phenomenon. For example, Iran has also reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

A few days ago, a Jordanian court sentenced the religious mentor of the famous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian commander of al-Qaida in Iraq, who started his career as a guest of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He launched bombing attacks in Amman and tried to recruit Palestinians from the West Bank. Should new branches of al-Qaida spread to Syria and other neighboring countries, Israel will have to take into account that Iran will know how to exploit these organizations in order to pose new challenges along the eastern front.