Iran and al-Qaeda: Covert cooperation veiled by apparent animosity

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a televised speech on the occasion of the Iranian New Year Nowruz, in Tehran. (File photo: Reuters)

No amount of denial can hide the complex relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda. The amount of evidence that Western intelligence agencies have proving this strong long-standing relationship is overwhelming. It appears that ever since the killing of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, in Tehran that the Mossad and the CIA have an abundance of classified information discrediting Iran’s claims of denial.

In fact, the assassination of al-Masri took place on the same hour and day that coincided with the anniversary of the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998, which were planned by al-Masri.

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This indicates that these two agencies possess, not only details of the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s leaders in Iran, but they even have the luxury to choose the exact time for carrying out the operation in a manner that sends a symbolic message.

As for Iran’s silence following this operation over a period of about three months was enough to reveal that Iran was trying to cover up the whole incident.

Read more: Al-Qaeda leader’s death in Tehran shines spotlight on terrorist ties

This became clear after Iran’s laughable attempt to mislead the public by denying al-Masri’s presence in Tehran and claiming that the man that was killed was a Lebanese history teacher named Habib Daoud. It was later revealed that he had no connections to Lebanon, history or education; in fact, he was one of the most prominent masterminds of numerous terrorist operations carried out by the organization.

A man burns a portrait of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, left, and Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Jan. 3, 2010. (AP)

A man burns a portrait of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, left, and Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Jan. 3, 2010. (AP)

What was even more laughable was when the Qaeda branch in Syria, called ‘Hurras al-Din’ confirmed al-Masri’s death in Iran, along with his daughter Maryam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden. However, they claimed that al-Rafidah army had kept him as a prisoner for nearly 16 years.

The alleged “prisoner” was, in fact, free as evidenced by the fact that he was killed while driving his car with his daughter. We all know that prisoners do not own cars, and they are not given fake IDs to cover their names and roles.

One of the reasons many analysts find the relationship between the Iranian regime and al-Qaeda so complex has to do with the fact that both sides have never shied away from publicly attacking each other on the pretext of ideological disagreements. However, this apparent animosity is a cover concealing the strong, long-standing pragmatic relations between them.

Several Iranian officials have actually acknowledged this fact. All the available information about the ties between Iran and al-Qaeda, including reports by the United Nations and the US Department of State, in addition to the documents unearthed after the killing of Osama bin Laden in and the statements by senior Iranian officials, as well as officials in the organizations affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard leave no room for doubt. We can no longer deny that Iran has been providing financial, logistical and military support to al-Qaeda no matter how strongly both sides try to refute this fact with their mutual outward hostility.

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade. (File photo: AFP)

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade. (File photo: AFP)

It was this substantial evidence that helped the New York federal court in 2018 reach a ruling ordering Iran to pay a fine of about $ 10.7 billion for its involvement with al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks by facilitating the passage for the perpetrators of the attack and persons associated with them.

On the same basis, the European Court in Luxembourg issued a decision to seize $1.6 billion worth of funds from the Central Bank of Iran in Europe for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Iran’s attempt to mislead the public by denying al-Masri’s presence in Tehran and claiming that the man that was killed was a Lebanese history teacher named Habib Daoud, was truly laughable. It was later revealed that he had no connections to Lebanon, history or education whatsoever.

At this point, our concern should not be finding evidence proving the close ties between al-Qaeda and Iran or their mutual interests since it is now a known fact and no further proof is needed. We should be more concerned with the controversial silence and lack of action from the US’s side which spared no effort to pursue the organization in Afghanistan, while turning a blind eye to its ties with Iran without attempting to inflict even a tenth of the damage that afflicted Taliban.

U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army (ANA) Base in Logar province, Afghanistan. (Reuters)

U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army (ANA) Base in Logar province, Afghanistan. (Reuters)

Ideologically, Iran and al-Qaeda stand on opposite sides. However, this seems highly irrelevant since it serves as a cover that allows them to pursue their mutual goals, each in their own way. Political Islam stands to serve all those who practice it regardless of the differences in their ideologies.

Both Iran and al-Qaeda realize that their opposing sectarian agendas serve one another. When one takes action, the other, naturally, has an opposing reaction. Iran firmly believes that this approach serves its expansionist agenda by allowing it to expand in a number of countries in the region with sectarian division. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda believes that this approach helps it gain a foothold in the Islamic world.

The more brutal and deadly Iranian sectarianism is in its dealings with other sects, the more grounds it provides for al-Qaeda to spread its ideology among members of these sects.

Both parties have a list of common enemies, which includes the United States (with its regional influence), local powers that adopt national agendas, as well as all independent figures who take a stand against ethnic and sectarian division.

Ayman al-Zawahri, left, holds a press conference with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan. (File photo: AP)

Ayman al-Zawahri, left, holds a press conference with Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan. (File photo: AP)

This list of common enemies is what makes Iran and al-Qaeda strategic allies.

Furthermore, both sides seek to impose new identities on the people of the region. For instance, an Iraqi citizen, who used to identify as an Iraqi and nothing more, is now forced to provide further introductions to show his full identity and sectarian affiliations. This serves the sectarian interests of Iran as well as al-Qaeda, since a person can only be affiliated to one sect and not the other.

The attacks they wage against each other not only serve to mislead and deceive, but also help both sides stake their claim on the battlefield. They might be in a direct clash with each other now; however, this will not always be the case, and at some point, they will take separate paths.

Just as Iran wants to establish an “imamate state” that extends beyond its current borders, al-Qaeda wants to establish a “caliphate” that extends beyond the boundaries of its influence as well, and in both cases they seek to establish these states over the ruins of existing social and political entities regardless of the millions of lives that will be lost in the process due to their brutality and ruthlessness.

Political Islam is only concerned with achieving the end-goal no matter the cost. It follows a strategy known as the “Management of Savagery” which seeks to spread devastation, poverty, corruption, and ignorance as much as possible in order to increase its chances of successfully feeding terrorism and extremism.

This vicious partnership stands on the basis of mutual ideological agendas that seek mass destruction, deep-rooted division, and toppled states.
It is safe to assume that al-Qaeda, which today appears to be a mere instrument that serves Iranian interests, will not remain a pawn in Iran’s schemes for long. In fact, al-Qaeda has ideological aspirations to stand on its own as an ‘independent force’ even as it operates in the shadows of Iran for now.

There is no way to defeat this pawn without defeating its guardians and supporters first.

All of this is well-known by now. The long battle waged by the United States against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan simply failed because the organization found a safe haven in Iran. In order to avoid suffering the same fate as Afghanistan, Iran and the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist claimed that the organization is no longer an international threat, and that its activities are limited to local agendas.

This means that just because we may not witness another massive act of terror on the news like the 9/11 attacks, this does not mean that al-Qaeda and its supporter are not preoccupied with carrying out other massacres far from New York, Paris and London.

Civilian children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked ISIS in Mosul, Iraq June 10, 2014. (Reuters)

Civilian children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked ISIS in Mosul, Iraq June 10, 2014. (Reuters)

We can begin to understand these connections if we take a look at the timeframe of al-Qaeda’s presence in Iran in relation to the latest operations carried out against the United States. The US and Iran recognized the importance of containing this organization by redirecting its shortsighted leaders and driving them to unwittingly do Iran’s bidding.

The killing of Abu Muhammad al-Masri was carried out with Iran’s approval, as a compromise for past missteps.

The proof here is Iran’s silence after the assassination. We can also deduce so much upon attempting to understand the US’s silence regarding Iran’s ties with al-Qaeda.

Iran gave the Mossad the green light to carry out this operation for a price, and only time will reveal what that price is.

This piece was originally published in, and translated from, Al-Arab newspaper.

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Last Update: Monday, 23 November 2020 KSA 18:53 - GMT 15:53
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