There will always be those that ridicule the idea of a pact between Iran and al-Qaeda, due to the Shiite/Sunni divide, but it has been proven many times over, how Shiite Iran will side with radical Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ) when it comes to fighting a common enemy, and al-Qaeda will do the same, especially when the target is their most hated enemy the US.
The belief by certain commanders in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is if they could persuade al-Qaeda to come on side in any future conflict with the West, with the offer of financial assistance and weapons, as well as the use of the IRGC’s vast terror and sleeper network; with the aid of Hezbollah, the result would be catastrophic.
In July 2002, soon after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden went on the run. Seeking a safe haven, the al-Qaeda leader crossed the border near Zabol with his close advisor Ayman al-Zawahiri, and making contact with the IRGC, he was given a safe house. As the months went by, other members of the al-Qaeda hierarchy joined the Sheikh, including his son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and Saif al-Adel, said to be the successor of Khalid Shaikh, the commander of al-Qaeda’s military wing, a self-confessed mastermind of 9/11, presently in US custody, and also bin Laden’s sons Saad, Mohammad and Hamza.
According to a US State Department official in 2006, Iran continued to host a group of senior al-Qaeda leaders, and some were not only using Iran as a safe haven, but also to facilitate terrorist operations in various countries. US Intelligence has for some time believed most of the surviving al-Qaeda leadership had been based in Iran at some point, many living in a luxury compound just outside of Tehran, protected by the IRGC.
During operation Enduring Freedom, one high ranking member who made his way to Iran was Musab Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor of ISIS, who according to Western intelligence was harboured by the IRGC. During his time in Iran, Zarqawi made plans for a chemical attack in Europe, but luckily for Europe the plot was thwarted. Then in May, 2005, after a US missile attack on his convoy, Zarqawi suffered shrapnel wounds, and after being treated in Ramadi, as soon as he was fit to move, he headed for Iran to recuperate.
According to intelligence sources, this was the start of an ongoing relationship, as through the aid of the IRGC Qods Force, Zarqawi was able to set up terror cells in Europe, and with his organization having taken a battering from Coalition troops, he was supplied with resources by the IRGC to help reconstruct it.
Grade-A intelligence suggested that during Ahmadinejad’s term of presidency, he had come close to the goal of controlling al-Qaeda in the same way the Iranian regime controls Hezbollah. Since seeking refuge in Iran, high ranking leaders of the group had been carefully groomed by the IRGC, in the hope of persuading them to come on side.
When considering an alliance between Iran and al-Qaeda, it must be remembered that since the death of Osama bin Laden, his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri was left with an organization suffering from a serious funding problem. But it wasn’t just funding that had hit the group hard, it also had a serious depletion of leaders through a series of drone attacks by the US, which had taken out its top-ranking members.
As well as losing leaders, there was infighting within the organisation as to what direction it should now take, and due to this, loyalty problems with various affiliates became a problem. At the same time, there had been crackdowns in various countries that had thinned the ranks of its foot soldiers, making it a much less effective terror force, and since the forming of ISIS, al-Qaeda had lost numerous numbers of potential recruits to its ranks.
So, with al-Qaeda in complete disarray, there were many pluses for high-ranking leaders such as Saif al-Adel – a leader that had spent long periods in Iran - to align himself with the regime, and a big plus as far as al-Qaeda is concerned, would be a solid link with Hezbollah.
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