One of the most useful maxims is to beware of the pitfalls of conventional wisdom. It is said that Iran and Al-Qaeda could not have any relationship because of the deeply entrenched Sunni/Shia difference between them. Perhaps, this divide does exist but there has been an operational relationship between the two sides, which has spanned for decades. This relationship began in early 1990’s in Sudan, which developed further when Al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan and continued even after the September 11 attacks. In July 2011, the United States formally accused Iran of having direct ties with Al Qaeda which resulted in the September 11 attacks.
There is strong evidence for such a cooperation which includes Iran providing sanctuary to Al Qaeda operatives and its senior leadership inside the country, in addition to allowing the supply of money, weapons and fighters to the organization through a vital logistics lifeline. It can also be proved that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), the Quds Force along with Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security have been the agencies of this association between the two sides.
The terrorist lynchpin
One of the most notorious terrorists in history, Imad Moghniyeh (who worked at the behest of the Iranian regime) features prominently in this narrative for over a decade. His involvement in providing training, logistical support, and a consultative role remains a consistent thread that was disclosed in the 9/11 Commission Report of the United States. He would not have been involved in such an operation without the knowledge of Tehran or had it not been in the Iranian regime’s interest to see this terrorist attack being successfully carried out.
If one looks at the conventional wisdom that discounts the possibility of Sunni-Shia relationship, then please ask why has there never been an attack inside Iran from foreign Sunni terrorist groups?Faisal Al-Shammeri
A closer look at the available evidence easily establishes this relationship. A US court record, submitted for the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania reveals that a representative of the Tehran regime, Sheikh Nomani met senior Al Qaeda leadership in Sudan and that he “had access to the highest echelons of power in Tehran.” Following this initial meeting in Sudan, the court record states that “Iran and Al Qaeda reached an informal agreement to cooperate, with Iran providing critical explosives, intelligence, and security training for the organization for actions carried out primarily against Israel and The United States.” The 9/11 Commission Report has a section specifically covering Iran’s ties to Al-Qaeda, titled ‘Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to Al Qaeda’. Included in this section is the summation that shortly after these meetings in Sudan, “senior Al-Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives in the fall of 1993. Another such delegation went to The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security matters. Senior Al-Qaeda leadership showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 US Marines in Lebanon in 1983. The relationship between Al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divide did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier for cooperation in terrorist operations.” The instructors for training in explosives would be Hezbollah. It is Tehran and the IRGC (internationally branded as a terrorist organization) which has financially and operationally supported Hezbollah for nearly 40 years. It was this sponsorship and support that turned the Hezbollah into one of the three most dangerous terrorist organizations the world has ever seen.
Creating and maintaining Hezbollah was not only in Tehran’s interests for exporting its radical ideology throughout the region and the world but it gave it the instrument to carry out terrorist operations when and where it wanted to do so.
Cooperation since 9/11
Since the September 11 attacks, operational ties between Iran and Al-Qaeda have further strengthened. The relationship between Ayman Al Zawahiri and Ahmad Vahidi — then acting as Iran’s Minister of Defense (along with The IRGC’s Quds Force) — proved vital in providing Al-Qaeda safe passage from and eventual sanctuary within Iran, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban in 2001. This relationship was instrumental in the eventual relocation of Al Qaeda’s operational structure inside Iran, which hosted the terror group’s operatives such as Saif Al Adel (security chief), Saad bin Laden (senior operative), Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (chief financial officer of Al Qaeda), along with Abu Musab Al Zarqawi (first leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq). These individuals were said to be placed under ‘house arrest’, but n reality Al Qaeda was using Iran as a new base for its operations under the protection of The Quds Force. By providing Al-Qaeda operatives sanctuary in this manner Iran was, and continues to be, in flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1390 which explicitly prohibits the harboring of Al-Qaeda members.
Iran safe from Al-Qaeda attacks
If one looks at the conventional wisdom that discounts the possibility of Sunni-Shia relationship, then please ask why has there never been an attack inside Iran from foreign Sunni terrorist groups? Why have victims of Sunni terrorist groups in the region been primarily in Sunni areas? Specifically speaking, why has there never been an attack of Al-Qaeda inside Iran or a prolonged campaign of attacks against Iranian interests in the region? Why has every Sunni Arab state which shares a border or is in the immediate vicinity of Iran has suffered an attack from Al Qaeda but not Iran? And why has the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism chosen not to work with Al-Qaeda even as they both share hostility towards the Gulf States and the United States?
Looking from the prism of conventional wisdom Iran should also be attacked on the basis of the sectarian divide and a Sunni group like Al Qaeda should try to attack Iran all the time. Yet evidence shows there has not been a single terror strike inside Iran. Perhaps we will let Ayman Al Zawahiri answer these questions in his own words. Following a September 19, 2008 attack on the US Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, an Al-Qaeda letter whose intended recipient was the IRGC, was intercepted. The Daily Telegraph published some of its contents it and the stated: “Without its (IRGC’s) ‘monetary and infrastructure assistance’ it would not have been possible for the group (Al-Qaeda) to carry out the attacks. The letter also thanked Iran for having the ‘vision’ to help Al-Qaeda establish new bases in Yemen after the group was forced to abandon much of its terrorist infrastructure in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.”
Faisal Al-Shammeri is a political analyst based in Washington DC. He tweets @mr_alshammeri.
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