Reports that Al Qaeda’s second-in-command was assassinated in Tehran over the summer have refocused attention on relations between the international terrorist organization and Iran’s government.
On Friday, the New York Times cited anonymous US intelligence officials to report that Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was assassinated on the streets of Tehran on August 7.
Al-Masri was one of al-Qaeda’s founders and the mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed over 200 people and wounded hundreds more.
According to the Times citing four unnamed intelligence officials, al-Masri was shot and killed by two “Israeli operatives at the behest of the United States.” The report is in line with an Al Arabiya interview with Nabil Naeem, the former leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, who said last month that al-Masri had been using a cover name.
Al-Masri’s daughter Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza, was also killed in the same attack, said the report.
At the time of the shooting, official Iranian media said that the victims were “Habib Daoud,” a Lebanese history professor, and his daughter Miriam. The Lebanese news channel MTV identified Daoud as a member of the Iran-backed Hezbollah organization, whose members have often been seen in Tehran.
Iran denied the reports on Friday, claiming that it has no links with al-Qaeda.
However, analysts have pointed out that despite religious differences, the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran and Sunni al-Qaeda have had long-term relations, with Tehran harboring various al-Qaeda senior figures responsible for atrocities across the world.
“Iran and al-Qaeda have always flirted. Iran has historically helped both the Taliban and the Taliban’s Shia enemies in Afghanistan,” Danielle Pletka, Senior Fellow at American Enterprise Institute, told Al Arabiya English.
Early links between Tehran and al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda was founded in 1988 by Salafist militants Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abdullah Azzam and other volunteers who were fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Under bin Laden, the organization sought to wage a global war against the US and its allies.
The US government’s 9/11 Commission – established after Bin Laden masterminded the September 11, 2001 attacks against the US that killed almost 3,000 people – found that relations between Iran and al-Qaeda were established as early as 1991 in Sudan.
According to the commission, Sudan hosted meetings between al-Qaeda leaders and Iranian officials, as well as personnel from the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah.
Bin Laden reportedly then met with Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah commander, who was also an officer of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Under Mughniyeh, the IRGC trained al-Qaeda militants in Lebanon, said the commission.
In 1996, truck bombing attacks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, killed 19 US personnel and injured almost 500 others of various nationalities. The US has blamed Iran and the Hezbollah al-Hijaz organization, and Bin Laden welcomed the bombing. The 9/11 Commission said, “we have seen strong but indirect evidence that his organization did, in fact, play some as yet unknown role in the Khobar attack.”
Both Tehran and al-Qaeda were also implicated in the 1998 attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
According to witnesses cited in The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)’s The Long War Journal, al-Qaeda attackers had received training from the Iran-backed Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah provided explosives training for al-Qaeda and al-Jihad. Iran supplied Egyptian Jihad with weapons. Iran also used Hezbollah to supply explosives that were disguised to look like rocks,” the FDD quoted Ali Mohamed, one of the militants involved in the bombings, as saying in his plea deal.
Iran also helped facilitate al-Qaeda members’ movements.
Before 2001, Iran allowed al-Qaeda members to pass through its borders without stamping their passports or with visas from its consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, revealed a 19-page report found among Bin Laden’s items in the US raid on his Abbottabad compound in which he was killed.
Iran offered al-Qaeda “money and arms and everything they needed, and offered them training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in return for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia,” the report said, as quoted by The Associated Press.
IRGC welcomes Al-Qaeda leaders in Tehran
Iran has hosted various al-Qaeda leaders, including senior figures responsible for terror attacks across the region.
“Al-Qaeda serves Iran’s interests, and they manipulate the relationship to their advantage,” Pletka said.
Many al-Qaeda militants fled from Afghanistan to Iran following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, launched in part to destroy al-Qaeda’s base there following the September 11 attacks.
“Al Qaeda’s Egyptian branch, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, operated openly in Tehran. It is no coincidence that many of the al Qaeda management team, or Shura Council, moved across the border into Iran after US forces invaded Afghanistan,” wrote former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke in his book “Against All Enemies.”
While Bin Laden and some others retreated to cave hideouts along the Afghan-Pakistan border, several of al-Qaeda’s top leaders relocated to Iran between 2001 and 2003.
In 2001, Mahfouz ibn al-Waleed, the Mauritanian head of al-Qaeda’s sharia committee who was wanted by the FBI for his role in the 1998 US embassy bombings, fled to the Iranian border under disguise.
According to The Atlantic, Iran’s IRGC welcomed al-Waleed and granted him an audience with its chief, General Qassem Soleimani.
The IRGC allowed al-Waleed to contact other al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and Pakistan and invite them to come over to Iran, giving them false travel documents on entry, and discussed their presence with the US, according to a report by The Atlantic that drew upon interviews with al-Qaeda members.
The following year, senior al-Qaeda leaders Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Saif al-Adel, and Abu Musab al-Suri – as well as al-Masri – all arrived in Iran. Alongside them also came Bin Laden’s own family.
“The IRGC is nominally the ‘supervising’ power of al-Qaeda figures inside Iran. It should be assumed they have substantial information about everything that al-Qaeda figures are doing,” Pletka said.
Hamza bin Laden
Hamza was Osama’s 11th son and was widely seen as his potential successor until US President Donald Trump announced that he was killed last year.
Along with other Bin Laden family members, Hamza arrived in Iran in mid-2002 and initially settled in a fortified farmhouse before being moved by the IRGC to a heavily guarded training center in northern Tehran, reported The Atlantic.
He lived in Iran until March 2010, where he was reportedly under house arrest, although video footage surfaced that showed his wedding in Tehran.
Iran released the Bin Laden’s from house arrest in 2010 after al-Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Pakistan, after which it is thought that Hamza went to Pakistan.
Documents recovered from the Abbottabad raid revealed letter correspondence between Hamza and his father, who had sought a reunion with his son.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
The Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (real name Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah) was also able to travel to and from Iran.
Zarqawi fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, where he founded a training camp that hosted up to 3,000 fighters and their family members.
He was reportedly in Iran at the time of the September 11 attacks and returned to Afghanistan after the US invasion of the country.
However, he suffered a disputed injury and fled back to Iran, where he was given medical treatment in Iran’s Mashhad.
Iranian authorities reportedly refused the Jordanian government’s requests to extradite Zarqawi, despite him being a wanted man.
He subsequently was allowed to leave to neighboring Iraq, where he quickly established a reputation for brutality, earning the nickname “Sheikh of the slaughterers.”
Zarqawi has often been attributed with the creation of ISIS, as he founded its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, in 2006. He was killed in the same year but left behind a legacy of violence in Iraq and beyond.
The Egyptian al-Adel is one of al-Qaeda’s top military trainers. He entered Iran in 2002, where he was then put under house arrest.
Along with Osama’s son, Saad, al-Adel reportedly ordered an al-Qaeda cell to carry out the 2003 Riyadh compound bombings that killed 39 people and injured 160 at residential compounds in the Saudi capital.
He reportedly served as al-Qaeda’s interim head after Bin Laden was killed in 2011.
In 2018, the United Nations reported that al-Adel and al-Masri were operating out of Iran, where they had the freedom to make managerial decisions for al-Qaeda.
According to the report, Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri had, “partly through the agency of senior al-Qaeda leadership figures based in the Islamic Republic of Iran … been able to exert influence on the situation in northwestern Syrian Arab Republic.”
The UN added that al-Adel had “influenced events in the Syrian Arab Republic ... causing formations, breakaways and mergers of various Al Qaeda-aligned groups in Idlib.”
His current whereabouts are unknown, and the US State Department has issued a $10 million reward for information about him.
Illustration by Steven Castelluccia.