Iran and al-Qaeda: A complex and deadly anti-US ‘alliance’
Beirut - Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the nightmare of Western intelligence services was that Shia and Sunni Muslim terrorists would set aside the deep religious schism that has separated the two main branches of Islam for 1,300 years and join forces to create a potentially devastating alliance.
That never happened on a concerted scale but many US officials and some Western commentators say that Shia Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has a secret alliance of convenience — if not of religious commitment — with the Salafist Sunnis of al-Qaeda.
They maintain Tehran has links to other Sunni organisations, part of the regime’s strategy of seeking leverage over the United States as well as to deter attacks on it by al-Qaeda and others.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo on October 19 said the agency would soon publish documentation on Iran’s links with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, although he did not specify a date.
“It’s an open secret… that there have been relationships,” Pompeo said. “There have been times the Iranians have worked alongside al- Qaeda.”
The rightist Weekly Standard says the documents “are among the most important and explosive documents still being withheld from the American people.”
The most common version of this apocalyptic amalgamation is that the IRGC’s clandestine special operations arm, al-Quds Force, has a modus vivendi with al-Qaeda and that several senior jihadist figures, including veteran military chief Saif al- Adel and two of Osama bin Laden’s sons, have long cooperated with the Iranians.
Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) is reported to have connections with al-Qaeda to oppose their common enemies — the United States and Israel.
The ministry’s Department 15, which is responsible for subversive activities outside Iran, has established “liaisons with many types of resistance and terrorist movements throughout the world, not just Islamic groups,” an analysis of Iran’s intelligence establishment by the US global security consultancy Stratfor stated as far back as 2010.
“The Iranians will never fully trust a Sunni group, though it’s as much an infiltration of the group for intelligence purposes as it is an alliance,” the analysis said.
“As long as these elements share similar goals with Tehran, Iran will work with them… Reports differ on how close the MOIS and other Iranian services are with the jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda, but the cooperation is definitely selective and tactical.”
Security analyst Daniel Byman observed in a report for IHS Defence, Risk and Security Consulting: “Iran has lent support to al-Qaeda, enabling the group to conduct attacks more effectively and avoid US and coalition counterterrorism efforts.
“Nevertheless, distrust between Tehran and the group’s members also appears to have prevented the two sides from developing a closer working relationship…
“Ideological differences have hindered the development of deeper connections… and the relationship has often been contentious and defined by mutual suspicion.”
Given the nature of such clandestine connections, hard evidence to support the claims by US right-wingers that Iran is in cahoots with al-Qaeda against the West is difficult to come by but the support of the Tehran regime for Sunni terrorist groups was laid out in the report of the bipartisan US 9/11 Commission released in July 2004.
Brushing aside the deep-rooted religious schism in Islam between mainstream Sunnis and the breakaway radical Shias that dates to the death of the Prophet Mohammad in the seventh century, the commission spoke of cooperation between al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s powerful proxy in the Levant.
“The relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations,” the commission observed.
As far as is known, this partnership — and the prospect of the deadly attacks these two Islamic forces could inflict on their mutual enemies — had its origins in Sudan in the 1990s, even before al-Qaeda came into being, when Khartoum was a magnet for Islamist militants.
Declassified US intelligence documents and interrogations of senior al-Qaeda members indicate that, in April 1991, al-Qaeda’s current leader and long-time bin Laden deputy, veteran Egyptian jihadist Ayman al- Zawahiri, secretly visited Iran.
He sought Tehran’s backing for his group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), to overthrow the Cairo regime. Tehran began training EIJ fighters in Iran and Sudan. EIJ was a founding member of al-Qaeda.
In Khartoum, Zawahiri also met with Imad Mughniyeh, operational commander of the Iran-backed Hezbollah and the most wanted terrorist fugitive in the world — a meeting that cemented the partnership between al-Qaeda and Iran with its proxy Hezbollah, America’s No. 1 terrorist enemy.
This was during the heyday of Hassan al-Turabi, then a powerful Islamic ideologue in Sudan who was a close adviser of the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir. Turabi was advocating Sunnis and Shias set aside their centuries of enmity to fight the common “Crusader” enemy.
Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian who joined the US Special Forces and later became bin Laden’s bodyguard and trained al-Qaeda’s core cadres, testified in a New York court in October 2000 that he arranged security for the terror summit in Khartoum, where bin Laden was then based.
Mohammed was captured following al-Qaeda’s August 7, 1998, bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people and wounded hundreds more.
Bin Laden supposedly instructed Mohammed to pattern the attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on Hezbollah’s deadly suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut in April 1983 that destroyed the seven-storey seaside building and killed key CIA operatives.
The 9/11 Commission noted: “In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al-Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support… 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,” the commission reported.
It said that another delegation went to the Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah’s stronghold in northern Lebanon, in autumn 1993 for advanced training covering explosives, intelligence and security.
“Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs like those that killed 241 US Marines in Lebanon in 1983,” and pioneered by Mughniyeh, the commission reported.
Whether Mughniyeh’s specialists showed al-Qaeda’s people how to fashion the huge truck bombs or not, bin Laden’s operatives used such weapons to destructive effect in the 1998 attacks. That was the last big jihadist operation before the carnage of September 11, 2001.
There has been speculation that Saif al-Adel, the Egyptian former special forces colonel who is considered one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world, is in line to take over al- Qaeda at some point from Zawahiri.
Rick Nelson, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said if Adel does become leader he will owe it all to Tehran where he was confined, often with great liberty, for a decade.
“Being in Iran for a prolonged period of time, through most of the US war against al-Qaeda, prolonged his life in many ways,” said Nelson, who monitors al-Qaeda, because the United States could not target him there.
“Now it has put him in a position to possibly take over the organisation.”