ANALYSIS: History of the IRGC’s grooming of top al-Qaeda members

Tony Duheaume
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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.

Although al-Qaeda has connections throughout the globe, it has nowhere near the extensive reach of Hezbollah, and by teaming up with Iran, Hezbollah would come with the deal, lengthening al-Qaeda’s area of operations vastly. This would also give AQ the essential backup it would need for foreign operations, where it could be supplied through a myriad of Hezbollah sleeper cells, to carry out attacks in areas where its operatives are thin on the ground. Plus, with al-Qaeda operatives carrying out attacks, Iran could in the same way as it does with Hezbollah, wash its hands of any involvement.

During his time with al-Qaeda, Saif al-Adel had built up the same shadowy aura as Osama bin Laden, and as far as his identity was concerned, the consensus is that Adel was in fact the former (Special Forces) Egyptian Army Colonel Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi. But as far as his past history goes, Adel really is a force to be reckoned with, as on October 6, 1981, he was suspected of being one of the masterminds behind the assassination of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, but before he could be arrested, he had fled the country in 1988.

Having headed for Afghanistan to join the mujahedeen, Adel took part in the campaign to repel the Soviet invasion of the country. While serving with the mujahidin, his prowess in battle came to the attention of Osama bin Laden himself, and Adel fast became a key player in al-Qaeda’s inner circle, as well as a legend amongst its foot-soldiers.

It has also been suggested Saif al-Adel was one of the commanders involved in the downing of the US Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia in 1993, resulting in the Battle of Mogadishu, a clash between US troops and Somali militia, during which 18 US Army Rangers lost their lives. As legend has it, Adel was also said to have been central to the planning of the bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, he was also said to have played a role in training of some of the 911 hijackers, and Saudi intelligence put him in the frame for giving the green light for the attack on the residential compounds in Riyadh, in May 2003, which targeted Westerners, attacks which left 39 people dead and over 160 wounded.

Rising fast through the ranks, Adel was eventually entrusted with much of the group’s operational planning, and having been taken under Osama bin Laden’s wing, he became the organisation’s military commander. During his reign as commander; Adel had built up quite a warrior mystique, especially following the 911 attacks.


Close to Zawahiri

Since the death of Osama bin Laden, Saif al-Adel has become very close to bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, and being third in command in the al-Qaeda rankings, Adel would prove to be an illustrious conquest for the IRGC. Just to prove his worth to the Iranian regime, Adel is known to have been living for long periods in Iran, and with him constantly flitting in and out of the country, there have been no restrictions placed on him by Tehran; proving he is well established there. So, with Adel seeming to be so popular in the ranks of al-Qaeda, it looked at the time to be a big plus for his bid for leadership, should he have ever decided to actively pursue it.

Then during the time of the meteoric rise of ISIS, with the new group taking all the headlines, with its talk of creating an Islamic State, plus the fact that it had seized vast amounts of territory in both Syria and Iraq as a solid base to build one, Ayman al-Zawahiri, soon lost face as the leader of the world’s most powerful terror group. Due to his organization playing second fiddle to the new arrival, al-Qaeda began to fade into insignificance. But what was the final humiliation for Zawahiri, was when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, refused to take orders from the fast-fading al-Qaeda leader, leaving Zawahiri looking jaded.

So, with ISIS a growing problem to Iran, which had sent troops to both Iraq and Syria, and organized militias to aid in a fight back against the group, al-Qaeda was no longer in the limelight. Adding this to the fact that Baghdadi had broken ranks with al-Qaeda, refusing to take orders from Zawahiri, after a very public falling out over the organisations direction, it left al-Qaeda wanting for allies.

But as far as the future leadership of al-Qaeda was concerned, just before Osama bin Laden’s untimely demise, rumours had been circulating about the Sheikh’s lack of interest in the organization, and some suggested that his son Hamza was being groomed to take over the leadership, and it was at this point, it was beginning to look as though Adel was being sidestepped by al-Qaeda’s hierarchy. Then on 9 May, 2006, the leadership stakes seemed to have diminished as far as Adel was concerned, when the then 24-year-old Hamza bin Laden, delivered an audio message, which contained the distinct warning that “Jerusalem is a bride and her blood is our dowry.”

Ready to take back its crown?

This message might not have seemed much at the time, but coming at a point when ISIS was beginning to find itself on the back foot, due to mounting losses of territory, it pointed at Hamza showing the world al-Qaeda was in the wings, ready to take back its crown from ISIS. Then in June of the same year, came the fall of Fallujah to Iraqi troops, which proved to be the beginning of the end for ISIS, and within months, ended its meteoritic rise.

As far as a future alliance between Iran and AQ is concerned, with the Donald Trump now US president, it could leave the door wide open for future co-operation between the IRGC and Hamza. With Iran outmanoeuvred over the nuclear deal, Trump has threatened to decertify it, and with his placing of new sanctions on Iran over its missile program, it could play into the hands of hardliners in both Iran and the USA.

In the US, neoconservatives within the administration have been itching for a war with Iran, and will push Donald Trump as far as they can to get one. While the hardliners in Iran’s administration, are itching to get their nuclear weapons program back on track. So, should the worst come to the worst, with too much pressure placed on Iran by the US administration over the deal, its path for nuclear weapons will soon be fast-forwarded, which could eventually lead to a military clash between the two nations.

But in the meantime, Iran is certain to revert to its old terror tactics, and wanting to make the Trump administration deeply regret any decision to decertify the Iran Deal, it could carry out an effective terror campaign against American interests through proxy, and having al-Qaeda on board alongside Hezbollah, it would greatly strengthen its hand of plausible deniability.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the viewpoint of Al Arabiya English.

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