Relations With al-Qaeda & Sunni Extremists Under Scrutiny
“The fact that Iran has consistently supported and nurtured
proxy extremist Shiite groups is not a matter of dispute;
less clear are Tehran’s relations with Sunni extremists.”
-Struan Stevenson, EIFA President
European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA)
From early on the regime in Tehran was based on the dual pillars of internal crackdown and the export of terrorism and reactionary religious beliefs. The policy of exporting Islamic fundamentalism and extremism has been an explicit aspect of state strategy, pursued at the highest levels of the regime, for the past 38 years.
Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor wrote on 31 July 2006 that Iran leaders should decide “whether they are representing a cause or a nation.” And insofar as the regime represents a hard line Islamist cause, there is a further question about the types of alliances it is willing to maintain in service of that cause.
The fact that Iran has consistently supported and nurtured proxy extremist Shiite groups is not a matter of dispute. What is less clear are Tehran’s relations with Sunni extremists.
On one hand, the disputes between Shiite and Sunnis are so significant that many believe Iran will not and cannot pursue relations with its Sunni competitors and has actually acted as a de facto ally of the West in confronting Sunni extremists, albeit on rare occasions.
But others believe that despite the differences between Shiite and Sunni extremist groups, they have much more in common than it may seem. On this view, Iran is able to look past sectarian differences in the interest of acting as the epicentre of Islamic fundamentalism in general.
Subsequent to the recent revelation of another batch of documents obtained by the US during the raid on the residence of Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011, there is a more imperative need to review and understand the Iranian regime’s ties with Sunni extremist groups in general and with al-Qaeda and ISIS (Daesh) in particular.
New revelation on Iran’s ties with Al-Qaeda
The newly declassified documents from the Osama bin Laden compound at Abbottabad in Pakistan included a 19-page report by a senior al-Qaeda official.
The document says that an al-Qaeda operative named Abu Hafs al-Mauritani negotiated the arrangement for some al-Qaeda operatives to enjoy safe haven in Iran after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan following the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001.
The document, which was written in Arabic and has been translated for this report, reads in part:
“These pages include a number of brotherly recommendations from our elders and friends as to how our fellow Mujahideen brothers treated the regime of the Rafidis (Shiites) in Iran, and how they see it now and in future…
Great shock, confusion and distraction:
There is no doubt that the consequences and reverberations of the September 11 attacks were very big and beyond the imaginations of a majority of the people…
…And large numbers went to Iran, and I will explain in the second part how the situation developed.
The enmity between Iran and America is real:
Yes, the enmity between Iran and America is enmity between reality and truth, and whoever thinks differently and says that whatever hostility and war of words is going on between them is play-acting and a show, he is ignorant and does not know the facts!
The Iranians are Shiite Muslims, believe in 12 Imams, their religion and beliefs regarding Sunni Muslims and particularly regarding us, as Salafi Muslims, is known; so is their aspiration to control the whole of Islamic world and to take over its leadership. Their belief in sectarianism which is based on their imaginations as well as their slogans are all very well known to us…However, they are ready to cooperate even with most Salafists and Wahhabis where they believe that this cooperation would achieve something for them, though cooperation will be temporary and will end at a suitable time.
– Any person who wants to hit America, Iran is ready to support him and help him with money, weapons, and whatever else, openly and clearly… They are working very hard on the United States, but they are afraid of leaving any evidence and therefore are very diligent to leave no clues of their work!!
-For example, they offered money, arms and everything they needed to some of our Saudi brothers who supported them, and offered them training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in return for striking America’s interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf!!
I will refer to this later.
-They offered, and still offer support to a group of Uzbeks, with money and weapons and safe passage to and from Iran and whatever else they need, in return for targeting United States’ targets in Uzbekistan. I have other examples, but I am content with what I have said for now.
You may wonder how Shiite Iranians could have supported Salafists or Wahhabis to strike America!!
One who does not understand this situation, or doubts it, is due to his lack of knowledge and nothing else, otherwise the situation is clear for whoever understands it!!
As an example, and in order to get it fixed in minds, I can say that in current circumstances, Iran would be ready to support and help Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (i.e. the founder of Wahhabism) if he was alive with whatever needed to target the United States.
After the fall of Islamic government in Afghanistan, and the withdrawal of our Mujahideen brothers, both Arab and others, most of them went to Pakistan and some to Iran…
I personally went to Waziristan and from there to Karachi and stayed there for about 3 months, and then we got the orders from our brothers to go to Iran. Many of our brothers did not like the idea but this was the order from our leadership, both al-Qaeda and other fighters. A large number of our brothers went to Iran, some with official visas, which we got from the Iranian consulate in Karachi, and some without visas…
The first person who went to Iran from the leadership was Abu Hafs al-Mauritani…
The mandate of Abu Hafs was to establish an understanding with the Iranians to allow our brothers to cross the border and to stay in the country.
What I leaned later from brothers who were close to Abu Hafs in the early days of their stay in Iran was that they were very welcomed, and in practice they agreed on some issues with him, and they were dealing with him as the person in charge of the group. One of the Iranians’ conditions was that since the Americans monitor all their communications they must refrain from use of telephone completely and stay in the houses they rent, and they should not have any kind of activities or gatherings which may draw attention… These were all security conditions.
Abu Hafs and other brothers agreed with them.
Abu Hafs al-Mauritani
Treatment of our brothers by the Iranian intelligence people and others was not only good, but they were showing affection towards them and calling them heroes, obviously we do not know whether they were being honest or just pretending?? Or anything else? God knows…
What became clear for me was, as far as the Intelligence and Basiji personnel and ordinary people were concerned, they were honest with their feelings towards our brothers, and were looking at them as heroes who had hit United States…
We found Shiites who loved us and respected us very much. Our brothers stayed in Iran, most of them in the city of Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchestan.
However, brothers gradually went to different Iranian cities: Many, including my people, to Tehran and Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad and Bandar-Abbas and other places.
How did the Iranians deal with those brothers whom they arrested, and how were they asked to leave?
They treated brothers very respectfully. When they took the brothers, they treated them as respectable brothers; they apologized to the brothers and always told them: We have to arrest you for our benefit and for your benefit, we are under great pressure, as you know, and we love you and so on…!!. : The treatment was very respectable. No beating or insulting and not a word of distress, and otherwise, O God something rare.
However, we said what is very secret, but wrote it out of necessity,
Dated: 1/1428 Hijri (January 2007).
Some features of Islamic Fundamentalism
Islamic extremism emerged some 40 years ago as an aggressive and destabilizing force in the region with growing impact, injecting itself into geo-political equations and gradually evolving as the main threat to the international community.
The great majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims are Sunnis. Shiites make up only 10-15 percent. The rift between the two branches appeared first after the demise of the Prophet Mohammad during the disputes over his succession.
Despite their differences and verbal hostilities, both Shiite and Sunni extremists adhere to the same underlying ideology in the most basic elements of their beliefs and behaviour:
•Seeking to establish a dreadful tyranny under the name of the government of God
The announced objective of Islamic fundamentalism is to implement Sharia law by force. This is the common denominator of Shiite mullahs’ rule in Iran and that of the Sunni caliphates of ISIS in other areas. One describes it as “velāyat-e faqīh,” [absolute rule of clergy], another dubs it a caliphate.
The pivotal tactic of Islamic fundamentalism is never-ending crimes against humanity. This belligerence is not fundamentally the product of power; in fact it results from this entity’s weakness in responding to the real necessities of modern society, specifically, in regards to the theocracy ruling Iran, the tactic of continuous aggression is practiced to fill the void of social isolation, lack of political-spiritual legitimacy, and profound contradiction of Tehran’s theocratic state with the advanced demands of Iran’s educated and civilized society, being a deeply disenchanted population.
•War of Destiny
Islamic fundamentalism views this battle as a war of fate/destiny. It never accepts any kind of ceasefire, limitation, or moderation because this is against its raison d’être. To the final day of its survival it will continue its war and expansion.
•Non-Recognition of Geographic Limits
Proponents of an Islamic caliphate view it as a global prophecy recognizing no political or geographic borders. Their mission of jihad spans the globe.
This horrendous force bows to no limits in viciousness and savagery, recognizing no such thing as a red line. Crimes associated with Islamic fundamentalism include the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran in 1988, splashing acid into the eyes and faces of women, beheading Western citizens in Syria, forced migration of Christians, ethnic cleansing and genocide by militants associated with the Iranian regime in Iraq, burning an entire city in Nigeria, setting prisoners ablaze, bombing sacred sites, and conducting group executions in public.
In his book, Islamic Government, written before seizing power in Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Islamic Republic in Iran, formulated this ruthless approach as “an effort to uproot the numerous sources of corruption that are harmful to society.”
Contempt for women is a vivid characteristic of Islamic fundamentalism. ISIS forced women into slavery as war booty, Boko Haram has kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, and Taliban brutally repressed women. Iran and other countries in the region have instituted numerous legal and social restrictions on women.
•Deception and Demagoguery
Resorting to deception and demagoguery, especially to provide religious pretexts to resort to violence, is yet another feature of this viewpoint of Islam.
Islamic fundamentalism after the 1979 Revolution in Iran
Islamic fundamentalism came into existence in modern times with Ayatollah Khomeini ascending to power in Iran in 1979 following the fall of the US-backed Shah dictatorship. Iran became the first country in recent history to have a theocratic regime.
The impact and direct result of the formation of an Islamic fundamentalist regime in a country as large as Iran, having an unprecedented position in the Islamic World, was that it allowed Tehran to become the political, substantial, spiritual and strategic sponsor of all Islamic fundamentalists across the globe, even if they had differences with the regime. The mere establishment of a theocracy in a country as enormous as Iran provided such a capacity and prospect to Islamic extremist groups – previously marginalized with no expectation or outlook of political power – to rise as a destructive political force.
Regardless of any political and material bond between these types of groups and the Iranian regime, what is important is the presence of a ruling fundamentalist State – Iran – as a role model and inspiration for the formation of all fundamentalist groups and cells. Without the existence of such a State, there would be no intellectual, ideological and political atmosphere, nor a central base to rely on for the birth and growth of these groups.
As a counterterrorism analyst of the US government put it: “In 1979, Iran became the first modern Islamic republic, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew Iran’s secular regime and established a new order in which shari’a became law. Suddenly, Islamism was no longer an ideology of movements. It had inspired a State.”
Tehran’s active and systematic policy, in line with recruiting and using its proxy groups, intensified this process significantly. The ayatollahs ruling Iran sought to become the epicentre for exportation of fundamentalism to the Islamic World; what they overtly described as the ‘mother’ of the Islamic World.
Tehran calls for a global Islamic State both in its constitution and other texts and instructions. Khomeini, and the current leader Ali Khamenei, very openly considered themselves leaders of all Muslims around the world, and not just Shiites.
This very concept was engraved in the constitution of the theocracy ruling Iran. It states:
“The constitution, given the Islamic characteristics of Iran’s revolution – being a move for the victory of all the weak people over dictators – provides the grounds for the growth of this revolution inside the country and abroad; especially in the expansion of international relations, it strives with other Islamic and popular movements to pave the path for the establishment of a unified people across the globe, and continue the struggle to save the deprived nations and those under cruelty across the globe.
“The army of the Islamic republic and Revolutionary Guards are established in line with the above-mentioned objective, and not only to protect the borders, but also with the mission to carry out jihad in the path of God and the struggle to expand the state of God’s rule in the world.”
– In the mullahs’ constitution, the export of fundamentalism under the pretext of “unsparing support for the weak people of the world” or “unity of the Islamic world” is underscored in Principles 3, 11, and 154.
Principle 11 states, “All Muslims are one nation and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran is obligated to base its general policy on the foundation of a coalition and union of Islamic nations, and make utmost efforts to realize political, economic and cultural unity in the Islamic World.”
– In his will, Khomeini called for the overthrow of all States ruling Muslim countries and expulsion of their rulers. He encouraged all Muslims to “rally all under the honourable flag of Islam, and rise against the enemies of Islam and the deprived people of the world; and go on to advance towards an Islamic State with free and independent republics”.
Supporting “Liberation Movements”
From the regime’s inception in exporting terrorism and fundamentalism, Tehran did not make a demarcation based on religious differences. This became evident from the wide range of groups that were nurtured and supported by the clerical regime.
Javad Mansouri (the first commander of the IRGC and the deputy minister of foreign affairs in 1981) said in an exclusive interview on 20 June 2016: “Assistance to the movements (i.e. terrorist and extremist groups) had begun in 1979, and they would occasionally go to Mr. Rafighdoost, who headed the IRGC’s logistics unit, and would get money, weapons, and location.”
He added: “In April 1981, the Office of the Movements was officially established in the IRGC… In 1981, martyr Rajai was the head of the Foreign Ministry and I was his deputy and we had regular meetings. At one of the meetings, I told him that there are eight entities that receive money from the government for the export of revolutionary activities. You gather the officials of these eight institutions and appoint one person and tell him I will give the budget to this person and he will divide it and everyone must be accountable to him.”
And to this effect, Tehran’s tentacles were extended throughout the Islamic world.
In a report to Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the designated heir to Khomeini in early 1980s, Mehdi Hashemi, who was in charge of “Liberation Movements Unit” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) specified in great details the regime’s activities to identify, establish, nurture, and support fundamentalist groups in Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Morocco. (In Iranian regime’s terminology, these terrorist and extremist groups are dubbed ‘liberation movements’.)
Tehran had dispatched units of the IRGC to Lebanon since 1982. This led to the establishment of Hezbollah as the main entity of Tehran’s terror apparatus outside of Iran. Tehran’s slogan was “conquering Quds (Jerusalem) via Karbala”. This was not just a mantra but a comprehensive policy that Tehran pursued by various means.
All of these activities indicated that although Tehran is a theocracy based on Shiite beliefs, in contrast to simplistic impressions, it is very seriously pursuing its strategy and does not limit itself to any Sunni-Shiite boundaries.
In the authoritative book, Islamic Fundamentalism: The New Global Threat published in 1993, Mohammad Mohaddessin, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman of the democratic opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) , described how subsequent to the Iranian regime’s defeat in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, Tehran stepped up spreading its recipe for Islamic fundamentalism through the Middle East, the Caucasus and Mid-Asia region, all the way to North Africa. Mohaddessin – himself the son of a renowned ayatollah in the city of Qom, the epicentre of Iran’s fundamentalism – pointed out that this was done to compensate for the military defeat and to bring Iraq under its control. For this purpose, Iran organized all its government bodies to carry out internal crackdowns and spread terrorism abroad.
Promoting Islamic fundamentalism
Iran is probably the only state that has established organizations and institutions tasked with exporting and promoting Islamic fundamentalism in different forms. As such, Tehran has specific bodies to influence and recruit Shiite groups and figures, along with specific entities to influence and recruit Sunni groups and personalities.
The apparatus pursues a two-pronged approach:
•Setting up religious and cultural centres, seminaries, and recruiting preachers to prepare ideological indoctrination aimed at attracting and recruiting Islamic extremists.
•Recruiting, sponsoring, and nurturing extremist groups by providing funds, weapons, logistics and training.
Throughout the years, Tehran has made this strategy and establishment of an Islamic caliphate with its heart beating in Tehran more institutionalized. All matters related to realizing this objective have been determined and finalized at the highest level of this regime, namely Supreme Leader Khamenei.
In a letter to the then President Ali Khamenei, on 5 September 1988, Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi acknowledged this reality. He wrote “extraterritorial operations take place without the knowledge and orders of the administration. We get informed of a hijacking after it has happened. We find out about machine guns firing in the streets of Lebanon after it has occurred and its noise has been heard all over the world. I found out about confiscation of explosives from our pilgrims in Jeddah during Haj (in 1986) after they were confiscated.”
Ali Khamenei has been a key person in this respect from the inception of the regime. In a letter to Ayatollah Montazeri, Mehdi Hashemi stipulated that Khamenei received the reports of extremist groups in Egypt before Hashemi’s office, which was supposedly in charge of these activities. Hashemi underscored that actually it was Khamenei who provided him with the report of the Egyptian extremists.
Based on credible intelligence, the international relations section of Khamenei’s office is the main body pursuing fundamentalism amongst Shiites and Sunnis.
In particular, Khamenei’s special office (also known as the special operations office) chaired by Mullah Mohammad Hejazi, is the main organ behind terrorism. Its headquarters consists of commanders of the Quds Force, the Minister of Intelligence, and the head of the IRGC Intelligence Organization.
Some organisations involved in recruiting Islamists
The ‘World Forum for the Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought’ is a body focused on rallying Sunnis under Iran’s banner. The ‘Ahl Al-Bayt World Assembly’ is responsible for recruiting and using Shiites in various countries. Both entities enjoy massive budgets. Scores of other bodies are also involved in recruiting Islamists. They include:
-Imam Aid Committee: Active in Islamic countries providing aid to people and groups they believe can be recruited for the IRGC’s foreign wing, the Quds Force.
-Shaheed (martyr) Foundation: Recruiting troops for the Quds Force through providing financial aid to the families of those killed in countries where the Quds Force is active.
-Al-Mostafa Society: Accepting religion students from various countries into the city of Qom, providing training and finally dispatching them back to their countries to advertise and rally support for fundamentalism.
Sponsoring Shiite and Sunni extremist groups
The Quds Force, established a quarter of a century ago as the IRGC’s foreign arm has been the main tool in the policy of exporting fundamentalism, with nine branches each targeting a country or specific region. The Quds Force has specific headquarters for various strategically significant countries including Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. It is carrying out its activities in these countries overtly and publicly, and in some cases under various front entities.
It is interesting to note that the Quds Force supports a wide range of Sunni groups as well as Shiites.
Among Shiites, Lebanese Hezbollah stands out. It was founded by Tehran in 1982. It conducts its terrorist and extraterritorial activities under the command of the Quds Force. All its affairs, including expenses and policies, are under the supervision of Khamenei’s office. Other groups include dozens of Iraqi Shiite extremist bodies such as the Badr Organization, Katai’b Hezbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl- Haq.
Among Sunnis, the Quds Force and the Iranian regime support organisations such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, the Taliban and many others. Islamic Jihad is totally dependent on Tehran for finances and political directions.
Tehran’s strategic harmony with al-Qaeda and ISIS
Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda and ISIS is actually more complex than it seems at first glance.
What is clear is that groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS are not similar to Lebanese Hezbollah or Shiite militant groups in Iraq, that directly receive their orders from Tehran, like Asa’ib Ahl- Haq and Katai’b Hezbollah. But they are not adversaries either. Rather, Iran and Sunni extremist groups, while having their differences, actually have much more in common.
Their most important common denominator is their enmity towards the West, especially the US, and towards the Arab states.
In line with this strategy, the Iranian regime has never shied away from aiding and providing active cooperation, support, and logistics for Sunni fundamentalists such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, wherever and whenever it served Tehran’s interests.
According to some assessments, al-Qaeda was established around 1988, stationed in Pakistan and the Afghan border area in the 1990s. With the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan, it relocated its headquarters to Afghanistan.
Iran has collaborated with al-Qaeda covertly and often by proxy due to the latter’s notorious reputation. This covert cooperation began in the early 1990’s in Sudan, continued after al-Qaeda relocated to Afghanistan, and even manifested itself on Iranian soil before, during, and after the September 11 attacks.
The 9/11 Commission Report, the official report of the events leading up to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has a section devoted exclusively to investigating Iranian ties to al-Qaeda. It explains:
In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al-Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support—even if only training—for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, senior al-Qaeda operatives and trainers travelled to Iran to receive training in explosives.
In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983. The relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shiia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.
The report pointed out:
Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al-Qaeda figures after Bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan. Khallad (Tawfiq bin Attash) has said that Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al-Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, but was rebuffed because Bin Laden did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia. Khallad and other detainees have described the willingness of Iranian officials to facilitate the travel of al-Qaeda members through Iran, on their way to and from Afghanistan.
For example, Iranian border inspectors would be told not to place telltale stamps in the passports of these travellers. Such arrangements were particularly beneficial to Saudi members of al-Qaeda.
The 9/11 Commission Report stated that evidence “suggested 8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi ‘muscle’ operatives travelled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001.”
“In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers,” the report established.
It is very telling that the report concluded that the relationship of Iran and Hezbollah with al-Qaeda and those who were implicated in 9/11 attack “requires further investigation by the U.S. government.”
Special role of Lebanese Hezbollah
The Lebanese Hezbollah has played a unique role in the Iranian regime’s terror apparatus. It has been useful not only in exporting the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology but also in providing Iran with a convenient terrorist proxy through which to operate with impunity.
For instance, in dealing with al-Qaeda, in some cases Iran was able to limit the risks of direct cooperation by engaging al-Qaeda through Hezbollah.
In 1992, bin Laden met Imad Mughniyeh, who was in charge of Hezbollah’s military affairs and was the mastermind of the 1983 bombing of the US barracks in Beirut. Apparently, that was the prelude to a meeting between bin Laden, Mughniyeh and IRGC Brigadier General Mohamad Bagher Zolghadr who was the Chief of Staff of the IRGC in Sudan in 1993. According to NCRI, that created the roadmap of cooperation between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah under the control of Tehran.
U.S. Embassy in Nairobi-after the 1993 bombing
In the mid-1990s, senior al-Qaeda operatives negotiated a secret relationship between Osama bin Laden and Iran that allowed many al-Qaeda members safe transit through Iran to Afghanistan. Iranian border guards were instructed not to stamp their passports, presumably to prevent their home governments from suspecting that they had travelled to Afghanistan.
Prior to the September 11 attacks, Iran, primarily through Hezbollah, provided al-Qaeda with critical training, explosives and logistical support.
For the first time, on 7 August 1998, al-Qaeda successfully employed Iran-Hezbollah terrorist tactics to devastating effect. Al-Qaeda carried out two simultaneous suicide truck bombings outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 223 people and injuring thousands more.
On 28 November 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the bombings would not have been possible without “direct assistance” from Tehran as well as Sudan. “The government of Iran,” Judge John D. Bates wrote in his 45-page decision, “aided, abetted and conspired with Hezbollah, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda to launch large-scale bombing attacks against the United States by utilizing the sophisticated delivery mechanism of powerful suicide truck bombs.”
The judgment added: “Prior to their meetings with Iranian officials and agents, bin Laden and al-Qaeda did not possess the technical expertise required to carry out the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The Iranian defendants, through Hezbollah, provided explosives training to bin Laden and al-Qaeda and rendered direct assistance to al-Qaeda operatives.”
The Council on Foreign Relations wrote on 6 June 2012: “Intelligence officials and terrorism experts also say that al-Qaeda has stepped up its cooperation on logistics and training with Hezbollah, a radical, Iran-backed Lebanese militia drawn from the minority Shiite strain of Islam.”
Iran and al-Qaeda after 9/11 and US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq
While Iran has constantly maintained contacts and relationships at various levels of Sunni extremist groups, it has also tried to conceal its relationship in order to prevent any liability. This became a more systematic modus operandi subsequent to 9/11 and the rising international concern and anxiety regarding extremism by Sunni groups.
In some cases, while Tehran played a key role in instigating terror and extremism, it also presented itself as a solution or meditator in the conflict. It is an undeniable fact that in Iraq the Iranian regime and ISIS were engaged in conflicts in various areas. However, by exaggerating and hyping these conflicts due to political objectives, the Iranian regime sought to depict itself as an ally of the West in the fight against ISIS, while Tehran’s main objective remained to strengthen and expand its sphere of influence in various parts of Iraq.
Regarding al-Qaeda, after the international community made the dissolution of al-Qaeda a top priority, Iran downplayed its ties to the organization and at times portrayed itself as al-Qaeda’s enemy. On some occasions Iran even claimed that it would put the al-Qaeda members who were given sanctuary in Iran on trial. Not only did this not happen, but Iran never specified which members of al-Qaeda it was hosting.
It is a known fact that a large number of al-Qaeda leaders fled to Iran in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. That included a number of bin Laden’s immediate family members and some of the most senior figures of al-Qaeda.
The Iranian regime, via the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, provided key members of al-Qaeda’s leadership with safe haven to continue their terrorist operations and avoid arrest by international authorities.
Among those who went to Iran were the head of al-Qaeda’s Security Committee, Saif al-Adel and the head of al-Qaeda’s Training Sub-Section, Ahmad Abdallah Ahmad (alias Abu Muhammad al-Masri), Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (CFO of al-Qaeda) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (future Chief of al-Qaeda in Iraq). The group also came to include Osama bin Laden’s two sons Hamza and Saad bin Laden. Adel, described by some security analysts and experts on al-Qaeda as a “founding father,” is listed on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, and was indicted for the 1998 United States Embassy bombings in East Africa. Al-Qaeda operatives have described him as the organization’s operational boss.
Ostensibly Iran held these al-Qaeda operatives under “house arrest,” but in reality, al-Qaeda was using Iran as a base of operations under the protection of the Quds Force. One al-Qaeda member noted that there were several stages of restrictions, but in the end, it was “not really house arrest but rather a hospitality.” Over the years, the Iranian regime would permit al-Qaeda use of its territory to plan terrorist attacks abroad as well as transit money, arms and fighters across the region.
According to U.S. and European intelligence officials, the Quds Force maintained ties with the al-Qaeda terrorist network since the early 1990s. According to these officials bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, used his decade-old relationship with IRGC Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, then commander of the Quds Force, to negotiate a safe haven for some of al-Qaeda’s leaders who were trapped in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001.
The Quds Force is “a state within a state, and that is why they are able to offer protection to al-Qaeda,” one European intelligence analyst said. “The Force’s senior leaders have long-standing ties to al-Qaeda, and, since the fall of Afghanistan, have provided some al-Qaeda leaders with travel documents and safe haven.”
In a report that was published by “The Atlantic” on 11 November 2017, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark established that al-Qaeda has rebuilt itself with the help of Iran.
The conclusion was based on new evidence, including interviews with senior al-Qaeda members and Osama bin Laden’s family, gathered by the authors over the past five years.
The report detailed how on 19 December 2001, Mahfouz Ibn el Waleed, an Islamic scholar from Mauritania, boarded a bus in Quetta, in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, heading for Taftan, the official border crossing into Iran. At Osama bin Laden’s side for a decade prior to 2001, Mahfouz had become a pivotal figure on al-Qaeda’s leadership council and the head of its sharia (legal) committee.
When he began his journey to Taftan, he was on the UN Security Council’s sanctions list, and was wanted by the FBI for questioning about his involvement in managing the logistics for the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa. Mahfouz hoped, as his bus headed for the Iranian border, to persuade Iranian agents to offer a more permanent sanctuary to al-Qaeda’s leaders and bin Laden’s family.
Mahfouz had been to the Persian Gulf before, sent there by bin Laden in 1995 to win military support for al-Qaeda. Mahfouz had first visited Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had rejected his request; however, in Iran, according to Mahfouz, the Quds Force was sympathetic. On the table was an offer of advanced military training, with al-Qaeda fighters invited in 1995 to attend a camp run by Hezbollah and sponsored by the Iranian Quds force in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
On 20 December 2001 Mahfouz, travelling with a forged document was greeted on the Iranian side by agents from the Ansar ul-Mahdi Corps, an elite cell within the Quds Quds Force. He eventually won an audience in Tehran with Qasem Soleimani.
The Quds Force gave a green light to the sanctuary plan in 2002. The Mauritanian contacted the remnants of al-Qaeda’s council in Baluchistan, Pakistan. The first to be sent over were al-Qaeda wives and daughters, along with hundreds of low-level volunteers who were escorted to Tehran.
The next wave came early in the summer of 2002, when high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders arrived in Iran intending to stay and galvanize the outfit.
They were marshalled by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would form al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner to ISIS. The first to come was Saif al-Adel.
He was accompanied by fellow Egyptian and al-Qaeda council member Abu Mohammed al-Masri—whose papers identified him as Daoud Shirizi—a former professional soccer player who was also wanted by the FBI for involvement in the 1998 embassy attacks. Joining them was Abu Musab al-Suri, one of the most important strategic voices in the movement. Immediately, a re-formed al-Qaeda military council planned its first attack from within Iran, according to Mahfouz, striking three residential compounds, housing foreign workers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which killed 35 people, including nine Americans, on 12 May 2003.
Senior US officials said the US had intercepted communications strongly suggesting that a cell of al-Qaeda leaders in Iran directed the attack.
A senior US official told the New York Times on 21 May 2003 that the United States had ”rock-hard intelligence” that at least a dozen Qaeda members, had been ”directing some operations from Iran.”
Mahfouz, certain the pact was holding, then called for bin Laden’s family.
By 2006, the outfit had rebounded, and bin Laden’s family decided to try to reach him, wherever he was hiding in Pakistan, against the wishes of the Iranians.
Over the years Iran gradually dispatched the al-Qaeda senior officials to Iraq and other Arab countries to launch terrorist factions. Scores of these individuals ended up in Syria and Iraq leading extremist groups.
In 2015 Iran released five senior members of al-Qaeda, including Saif al-Adel who apparently stepped in to serve as the group’s interim leader immediately after Osama bin Laden’s death and who is the subject of a $5 million bounty. Iran’s release of the five men was part of a prisoner swap in March with al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, the group holding an Iranian diplomat, Nour Ahmad Nikbakht. Nikbakht was kidnapped in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in July 2013.
CNN reported on 11 March 2013, “… For al-Qaeda’s operatives, life in Iran was more secure than for many of their colleagues in Pakistan who risked capture by Pakistani forces working with the CIA or death by CIA drones.”
Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, former intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, in a piece published by al-Sharq al-Awsat on 12 January 2015 pointed out that subsequent to the 9/11 attack and the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian regime allowed various al-Qaeda leaders to flee to Iran and provided them with a safe haven. In 2003 the Iranian regime allowed a number of al-Qaeda leaders to go from Iran to Iraq where they formed ‘al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia’.
According to Seth G. Jones, writing in Foreign Affairs on 29 January 2012: “Over the past several years, al Qaeda has taken a beating in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa… But the group’s outpost in Iran has remained almost untouched for the past decade…. Around October 2001, the Government dispatched a delegation to Afghanistan to guarantee the safe travel of operatives and their families to Iran…. By 2002, al-Qaeda had established in Iran its ’management council,’ a body that bin Laden reportedly tasked with providing strategic support to the organization’s leaders in Pakistan. According to Jones’ assessment “Perhaps more disturbing, Iran appears willing to expand its limited relationship with al-Qaeda,” and “today, Iran is still an important al-Qaeda hub.”
Bin Laden’s letters also shed light on the group’s ties to Iran.
On 20 May 2015, and 1 March 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a number of documents that were obtained during the raid on bin Laden’s home in Abbottabad in 2011. Among the documents, there was a 2007 letter by bin Laden to a terrorist named “Karim.” In it bin Laden explained the group’s relationship with Iran.
“Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages…There is no need to fight with Iran unless you are forced to,” bin Laden wrote. He strongly advised against any attack on Iran.
Another bin Laden letter explains how al-Qaeda members sought refuge in Iran after 9/11. In a message to Sheikh Abu Muhammad he says, “Following the September 11 attacks…they entered Iran swiftly through various routes and not through the official gates. A month later, other brothers joined with their families…”
Requests from US to swap opposition members with al-Qaeda leaders
During a May 2003 meeting between senior Iranian officials and their American counterparts, the Iranians proposed exchanging al-Qaeda leaders for leaders of the main Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) who were in Camp Ashraf, Iraq under US protection. Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US Ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the UN, was in the meeting and explained in his book, that Iranians aired the possibility “of a direct exchange — MEK leaders for al-Qaeda leaders.”
A former senior US intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity told to NBC News on 24 June, 2005 “several general offers were made through third parties, not all of them diplomatic.”
The US administration rejected the notion and then shut down the diplomatic channel that month after it linked the terrorist attack in Riyadh to al-Qaeda leaders in Iran.
U.S. acknowledgement of Iran – al Qaeda relationship in recent years
•On 28 July 2011, the U.S. Department of the Treasury “announced the designation of six members of an al-Qaeda network headed by Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a prominent Iran-based al-Qaeda facilitator, operating under an agreement between al-Qaeda and the Iranian government. Today’s action, taken pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, demonstrates that Iran is a critical transit point for funding to support al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This network serves as the core pipeline through which al-Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia.”
•At the same time, the US Treasury provided evidence of an extensive fund-raising operation that draws from donors in Persian Gulf countries such as Kuwait and Qatar and uses Iran-based al-Qaeda operatives. Six al-Qaeda members were sanctioned for overseeing this network. The U.S. offered up to a $10 million reward for information leading to Khalil.
•On 16 February 2012, the US Treasury announced the designation of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), Iran’s primary intelligence organization, for its support of terrorist groups as well as its central role in perpetrating human rights abuses against the citizens of Iran and its role in supporting the Syrian regime as it continues to commit human rights abuses against the people of Syria.
“Today we have designated the MOIS for abusing the basic human rights of Iranian citizens and exporting its vicious practices to support the Syrian regime’s abhorrent crackdown on its own population,” said Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen. “In addition, we are designating the MOIS for its support to terrorist groups, including al Qa’ida, al Qa’ida in Iraq, Hezbollah and Hamas, again exposing the extent of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a matter of Iranian state policy.”
•On 18 October 2012, the US Treasury further exposed the Iran-based al-Qaeda network, designating Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi (al-Harbi), a key member of an al-Qaeda network operating in Iran under the leadership of Muhsin al-Fadhli (al-Fadhli). The Treasury Department underscored that Iran continued to allow al-Qaeda to operate a core pipeline that moves money and fighters through Iran to support al-Qaeda activities in South Asia. This network also sends funding and fighters to Syria. David S. Cohen said the Iran-based funding and facilitation network was critically important for al-Qaeda.
•The U.S. government again revealed Iran’s collaboration with al-Qaeda on 20 July 2016. The Treasury Department blacklisted three members of al-Qaeda living in Iran, saying they had helped the group. The US Treasury found that Yisra Muhammad Ibrahim Bayumi had mediated with Iranian authorities as of early 2015 and helped al-Qaeda members living in Iran. Bayumi has been residing in Iran since 2014 and had been able to facilitate al-Qaeda financial transfers in 2015, suggesting he had some freedom to operate since moving to Iran. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ghumayn had control of the group’s financing and organization inside Iran as of 2015.
•In its 2015 “Country Reports on Terrorism “the U.S. State Department wrote that “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida (AQ) members it continued to detain and refused to publicly identify the members in its custody. Iran previously allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.”
Al-Qaeda in Iraq and relations with Tehran
Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Iran also provided a safe haven to al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who went on to establish al-Qaeda in Iraq, an al-Qaeda offshoot that would later evolve into ISIS.
Zarqawi, a terrorist who gained notoriety for his unmatched brutality and ruthlessness, was a close associate of bin Laden. He initially operated under the protection of the IRGC and its elite Quds Force. After spending some time in Iran, with the help of Iran in general and the Quds Force in particular, he went to Iraq and established al-Qaeda in Iraq.
IRGC support for al-Qaeda in Iraq included money, weapons, and most importantly leaving the borders open for operatives passing from Iran to Iraq. According to intelligence officials, the time Zarqawi spent in Iran was crucial for rebuilding his network before relocating to Iraq.
In a 125-page report dated 6 September 2004, the German Federal Criminal Investigation Bureau (BKA) described how in early 2002, Zarqawi set up new camps and safe houses in Zahedan, Isfahan and Tehran with the knowledge of Iranian authorities. Iran thus became a hub in Zarqawi’s fast-growing network stretching from the northern Caucasus to Syria, Turkey and into Europe, with forged passports, money and fresh instructions channelled in all directions.
According to intelligence obtained by the network of the Iranian opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran in 2005, Zarqawi had several highly secure safe houses in Iran including one in the Nivaran area of northern Tehran. That area had very tight security.
Zarqawi also maintained multiple phone numbers under assumed names, for use in different areas of the country.
Zarqawi was killed on 7 June 2006 in an airstrike by the coalition forces. His work led to the establishment of the Islamic State, currently led by Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, widely known as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
In an interview on November 2015 John Kerry, then US Secretary of State, said: “ISIS was created by Assad releasing 1,500 prisoners from jail and Maliki releasing 1,000 people in Iraq who were put together as a force of terror… as an effort to help Assad, so that he could say, ‘It’s me or the terrorists.’” This happening as both Maliki and Assad were under Tehran’s complete control, indicates the fact that points squarely at Tehran’s role in the establishment of ISIS.
Conclusion and Policy Recommendations
While Iran’s role in consistently supporting and nurturing extremist Shiite proxies has been established, there is also growing evidence that Tehran has been actively and systematically supporting Sunni terrorist groups.
While differences between Sunnis and Shiites are indisputable, Tehran has not allowed these to affect its policies but has established specific entities to accommodate the needs of these groups in line with the regime’s ominous goals. The IRGC Quds Force is the key instrument of these objectives and Lebanese Hezbollah contributes to them as well, being under the control of the IRGC.
Tehran has pursued its objectives cunningly over the years, at times depicting itself as a “partner” in combating terror, even while it remains the key instigator of the same.
Although it has been little noticed, al-Qaeda has maintained relations with Tehran and the IRGC Quds Force since the early 1990s. Tehran’s role in providing support and safe havens to al-Qaeda expanded after 11 September 2001. This support has been a key factor in helping al-Qaeda to rebuild itself.
New evidence suggests that Tehran’s role in supporting and enabling al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda in Iraq (the forerunner of ISIS) has been under-estimated.
In other words, it is becoming evident that the policy of exporting extremism has been a matter of statecraft for Tehran, which has made itself the epicentre of Islamic fundamentalism. This policy has been established and developed at the highest levels of the Iranian regime, with the support of all political factions.
Given the prominence of terrorist sponsorship in the Iranian regime’s objectives, more efforts must be made to challenge it. The following policy recommendations may help:
1.World powers that are combating Islamic extremism and the terrorism that emanates from it should emphasize the peculiar role of the Iranian regime. This has to be articulated and addressed publicly without any political consideration.
2.Expansive sanctions should be imposed on the IRGC in its entirety and on Hezbollah. There has to be a comprehensive campaign to identify, expose, and punish all trading partners of the IRGC and Hezbollah throughout the world.
3.The U.S., Europe and all civilized states should act in unison to expel all of the Iranian regime’s agents of terror from their territory.
4.The IRGC, Hezbollah and all other Tehran proxies should be removed from countries in the region, in particular from Syria.
European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA)
Founded on 4 April 2014, EIFA is a non-governmental and non-profit organisation based in Brussels
President: Struan Stevenson, was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), President of the Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and Chairman of Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (caucus) (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East.
Members of the board: Giulio Terzi, Former Foreign Minister of Italy; Ryszard Czarnecki, Vice-President of the European Parliament; Alejo Vidal-Quadras, Former Vice President of the European Parliament (1999-2014); Stephen Hughes, Former Vice-President of S&D Group in European Parliament (2009-2014); Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC; Paulo Casaca, Middle East Expert, former MEP (1999-2009); Kimmo Sasi, former President of the Nordic Council (Finland);
Honorary Members: Tariq al-Hashimi, former Vice President of Iraq; Sid Ahmed Ghozali, Former Prime Minister of Algeria