When al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri spoke in an audio message broadcast to supporters earlier this month, he had harsh words for Iran. Its true face, he said, had been unmasked by its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against fighters loyal to al Qaeda.
Yet it is symptomatic of the peculiar relationship between Tehran and al Qaeda that in the same month Canadian police would accuse “al Qaeda elements in Iran” of backing a plot to derail a passenger train.
Shi’ite Muslim Iran and strict Sunni militant group al Qaeda are natural enemies on either side of the Muslim world’s great sectarian divide.
Yet intelligence veterans say that Iran, in pursuing its own ends, has in the past taken advantage of al Qaeda fighters’ need to shelter or pass through its territory. It is a murky relationship that has been fluid and, some say in the intelligence community, has deteriorated in recent years.
“I wouldn’t even call it a marriage of convenience. It’s an association of convenience,” said Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism for Britain’s MI6 Secret Intelligence Service and later head of the U.N. Security Council’s monitoring team maintaining the world body’s al Qaeda and Taliban sanctions blacklists.
“It’s not a strategic alliance. An al Qaeda presence may suit the Iranians because it allows them to keep an eye on them, it gives them leverage in the form of people who are akin to hostages,” he added.
“There has been a lot of travel between Iraq and Pakistan and I cannot imagine the Iranians are not aware of that,” he said. But it was unlikely that Iran would take the risk of actively collaborating with al Qaeda against North America: “I don’t think the Iranians would take it kindly if it turned out that there had been plotting by al Qaeda on their territory.”
Canadian police have said there was no sign the plot had been sponsored by the Iranian state. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said al Qaeda’s beliefs were in no way consistent with Tehran’s.
As yet, many details of the alleged plot remain unclear. However, a U.S. government source cited a network of al Qaeda fixers based in the Iranian city of Zahedan, close to the borders of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The source said they served as go-betweens, travel agents and financial intermediaries for al Qaeda operatives and cells operating in Pakistan and moving through the area.
Another Western source suggested that with relations deteriorating between Iran and al Qaeda over the civil war in Syria, Tehran had acted recently to stop fighters crossing through from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas(FATA) to join Islamist militants fighting to overthrow Assad.
“Although the relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda has always been strained, this worsened after 2011 when the two sides lined up on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war,” said Shashank Joshi, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.
“Syria’s strongest rebel group is allied to Al Qaeda, and both have sharply criticized Iranian support for the Assad regime.”
It is unclear whether the planning for the alleged Canadian plot, which Canadian police said had been in the works for some time, was carried out before Syria’s war deepened the strain between Tehran and al Qaeda.
“There has been a loosening of the ties,” said Barrett, noting that documents released after U.S. forces caught and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 showed the al Qaeda leader saying he was not able to trust the Iranians at all.
“Since then we have Zawahri castigating Iran quite recently. So clearly something had gone wrong.”
نستخدم ملفات الكوكيز لنسهل عليك استخدام مواقعنا الإلكترونية ونكيف المحتوى والإعلانات وفقا لمتطلباتك واحتياجاتك الخاصة، لتوفير ميزات وسائل التواصل الاجتماعية ولتحليل حركة المرور لدينا...اعرف أكثر