CIA documents expose al-Qaeda-Iran alliance
Al-Qaeda’s murky relationship with Iran over the years has been a big question mark, largely because the jihadists are diehard Sunni extremists, which Iran, a Shia state, bitterly opposes and is fighting in Iraq and Syria.
In recent months the links between al-Qaeda and Iran have increasingly become a political issue in the United States. President Donald Trump has escalated his confrontation with both, not just with verbal accusations but also military action against al-Qaeda’s three functioning satellites — in North Africa, Yemen and Somalia — as well as special forces operations in West Africa.
Trump has locked onto disclosures by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that al-Qaeda has been in cahoots with Tehran since the late 1990s, primarily because of their shared enmity of the United States.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, whom Trump appointed, had, as a US congressman, vociferously opposed the landmark Iran deal under which Tehran agreed to curtail its nuclear project in return for the lifting of crippling US-led sanctions.
The CIA’s release on November 1 of nearly half a million documents, computer files, flash drives and videos seized by US Navy SEALs from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout in May 2011 appeared to shed new light on al-Qaeda’s supposed alliance of convenience with Iran. It is also likely to intensify Trump’s anti-Iran campaign.
The timing of the CIA’s action has raised suspicions that the release of the declassified documents was done for political purposes, intended to give weight to Trump’s position that the Tehran regime cannot be trusted to adhere to the 2015 nuclear agreement it signed with the United States and five leading global powers.
However, the new disclosures to some validate Trump’s hard-line approach to Iran and his October allegation that Iranian proxies, meaning Lebanon’s Hezbollah, trained the al-Qaeda cell that carried out the near-simultaneous August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and wounded hundreds more.
The material seized in bin Laden’s hideout is being used by some to imply that Tehran backed bin Laden’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, a charge that — if ever proven — would almost certainly generate a bipartisan clamour for US military action against Iran. No one, however, has come up with hard evidence of an Iran link to the attacks and the US 9/11 Commission said it found nothing to substantiate such a charge. The release of the bin Laden documents did not contain material relevant to the accusation. The Wall Street Journal said that the files indicated an al-Qaeda-Iran “pragmatic alliance that emerged out of shared hatred of the US and Saudi Arabia…
“Both sides were willing to overlook profound ideological and religious differences to combat common enemies.”
On October 25, the US House of Representatives approved legislation targeting Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its key figures. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that Iran’s missiles were “inherently capable" of delivering weapons of mass destruction.
The November 1 data release was the fourth — and by far the largest — by the US intelligence community since the trove of documents seized from bin Laden’s hideout was unveiled in May 2015.
The CIA released some documents concerning the Iran-al-Qaeda alliance early to the Long War Journal, a publication connected to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a conservative Washington think-tank where some analysts are vociferous supporters of a tough approach to Iran. That includes regime change.
The first three releases were handled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. There has been no explanation why the CIA was responsible for the massive November 1 release.
The assertion of an al-Qaeda- Iran partnership has been around since the administration of President George W. Bush. In April 2002, US intelligence perceived what it claimed was a link between al-Qaeda and Tehran following al-Qaeda’s first post-9/11 attack.
That was the suicide truck bombing of the ancient El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba on April 11, 2002, that killed 14 German tourists, three Tunisians and two Frenchmen. The bomber was Tunisian but the planner was believed to have been bin Laden’s eldest son, Saad, who at that time was also in Iran.
Saad, then in his early 20s, was reportedly being groomed to head al-Qaeda, but he was killed in a July 2009 US drone strike in Pakistan. His younger half-brother Hamza, who also was in Iran during the 2000s, is being mooted as the group’s leader.
With Osama bin Laden and his then-deputy, veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, hiding out from American missile-firing drones in Pakistan, al-Qaeda was effectively run by two of its most senior commanders then operating in Iran, Arab intelligence sources said at that time.
Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian special forces colonel and considered to be one of the group’s most dangerous terrorists, headed al-Qaeda’s military committee while a Mauritanian going by the name Abu Hafs al-Mauritani controlled the religious committee.
At the centre of the contention that there was an agreement between al-Qaeda and Tehran is a 19-page handwritten report from a senior, but unidentified, al-Qaeda operative, apparently penned in 2007.
The memo was among the documents released on November 1 and would appear to spell out the arrangement reportedly reached by al-Qaeda and Iran. The memo, whose provenance was not spelled out, indicates that Iran offered al-Qaeda everything it needed, including “money, arms” and “training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in exchange for attacking US interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.”
In a memo released earlier, bin Laden acknowledged Iran as al-Qaeda’s “main artery for funds, personnel and communications.”
He observed: “In my experience, the Iranian regime is the best example… of pragmatism in politics. Anyone who wants to strike America, Iran is ready to support them with money and arms and all that is required as long as they are not directly and clearly implicated.”
The unidentified jihadist chronicler wrote that the core deal was negotiated for the jihadists by Mauritani following al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Mauritani was among several top al-Qaeda figures who fled to Iran after Afghanistan fell to US forces in November 2001. He was reportedly close to bin Laden.
Mauritani, real name Mahfuz Ould al-Walid, was at that time a senior al-Qaeda Islamic scholar and poet and had been one of the group’s key planners since April 1998.
Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.