In a report published at The Atlantic, authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Clark have clarified the nature of the relations between Iran and al-Qaeda, the authors mention that ISIS territory has been falling in quick succession in recent weeks, with the U.S.-backed coalition taking the caliphate’s self-declared capital of Raqqa last month, and then Syrian forces reclaiming the strategic oil city of Deir ez-Zor. While the group’s experiment in a statehood built on rape, slavery, and execution nears its end, an older terror front has been quietly reconstituting itself. Against all odds, and despite the costliest counter-terrorism campaign ever waged by the West, al-Qaeda continues to flourish—its comeback has been assisted by a remarkable pact with Iran.
The report argues that President Trump recently pointed to this relationship to justify de-certifying the Iranian nuclear deal. Facing European opposition to revoking the deal, CIA director Mike Pompeo suggested that the al-Qaeda-Iran pact had been an “open secret” during the Obama administration, which had failed to act.
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Then last week, the CIA declassified a new trove of documents from the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This document stash, which will take years to sort through and analyze, appeared to confirm the relationship—detailing among other things how Hamza, Osama bin Laden’s son, had shelter in Iran and even got married there; and how, according to one 19-page document, negotiations between al-Qaeda and the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran touched on funding and arming the Sunni terror outfit so it could strike at American targets.
The report continues to argue that several commentators, have dismissed these purported connections as being exaggerated, holding the belief that they have been instigated by the White House and its allies to justify the administration’s hostile posture towards Iran. However, important new evidence, including interviews with senior al-Qaeda members and Osama bin Laden’s family, gathered by the authors of the report over the past five years, tells a surprising history of the post-9/11 epoch, and it’s one that severely undercuts the conventional view.
The authors also add that the research done reveals that al-Qaeda and covert agents acting for the Iranian deep state first attempted to broker an unlikely agreement more than two decades back, after Saddam Hussein rejected al-Qaeda’s request for military assistance. The pact then flourished under the George W. Bush administration, when a back-channel contact from the White House to Tehran, running from 2001 to 2003, discussed the pact frequently.
Al-Qaeda’s struggle to revise itself after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan came on November 12, 2001, when Osama bin Laden decided to head to his cave complex in Tora Bora. According to family members, bin Laden told his wives at the farewell that he wanted a different life for the children. “Please discourage them from joining this jihad,” he told his third wife, in a conversation some of his children overheard and described to the authors of report. As bin Laden took off for the caves, and most of his family was smuggled into Pakistan, one of al-Qaeda’s most important officials headed for Iran.
According to the report, Mahfouz Ibn Waleed, at Osama bin Laden’s side for a decade prior to 2001, a scholar from Mauritania, had become a pivotal figure on al-Qaeda’s leadership council and the head of its sharia (legal) committee. When he began his journey to Taftan, he was on the UN Security Council’s sanctions list, and was wanted by the FBI for questioning about his involvement in managing the logistics for the 1998 attacks on U.S. Embassies in East Africa. He had fled only moments before a CIA raid on his home in Sudan in 1998, and he has been on the run ever since. Mahfouz hoped, as his bus headed for the Iranian border, to persuade Iranian agents to offer a more permanent sanctuary to al-Qaeda’s leaders and bin Laden’s family.
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The report adds that Iran shared a common border with Baluchistan in Pakistan, close to where many fighters and bin Laden’s family members were hiding. Mahfouz had also been to the Arabian Gulf before, sent there by bin Laden in 1995 to win military support for al-Qaeda. Mahfouz had first visited Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had rejected his request; however, in Iran, the Quds Force—a covert unit within the Revolutionary Guards responsible for clandestine foreign policy actions—was open to it, by Mahfouz’s account. On the table was an offer of advanced military training, with al-Qaeda fighters invited in 1995 to attend a camp run by Hezbollah and sponsored by the Iranian Quds force in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Trainers there were researching in how to manufacture “shaped charges”—powerful IEDs that could pierce armor platted vehicles, and would later cause havoc amongst U.S. forces in Iraq.
According to senior U.S officials then working on South Asia and Afghanistan for the State Department and the White House, Iran’s Foreign Ministry, fearful that the U.S. would turn its military attentions to Iran after it had finished the invasion of Iraq for which it was then building international support, reached out to the Americans.
The report also says that the Quds force was gambling that other al-Qaeda leaders would follow Mahfouz and seek shelter in Iran, and on that basis Iranian officials proposed potentially offering them to the Americans as part of deal to counter any US plans to attack Iran. U.S. officials involved in these talks recalled that the Bush administration flat-out declined, the President lumped Iran in with the so-called “axis of evil” powers in his State of the Union address in January 2002.
The next wave came early in the summer of 2002, when high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders arrived in Iran intending to stay and galvanize the outfit. They were marshaled by Abu Musab Zarqawi, Seif Adel, Abu Mohammed Masri and Abu Musab Suri, one of the most important strategic voices in the movement. Immediately, a re-formed al-Qaeda military council planned its first attack from within Iran, according to Mahfouz, striking three residential compounds in Saudi Arabia, killing more than 35 people (including nine Americans) in 2003.
The report continues that the Quds Force, which had come under pressure from al-Qaeda to allow bin Laden’s family to leave Tehran, permitted Hamza and his mother to quit the base in Tehran. It had not been a straightforward negotiation—al-Qaeda in Pakistan resorted to kidnapping an Iranian diplomat there to force Tehran to make up its mind in the outfit’s favor. Hamza and his mother had requested that the Quds Force guide them to Qatar, where Hamza intended to study. Instead, the Quds Force insisted they cross into Pakistan. Hamza’s mother eventually arrived at Abbottabad in February 2011, while Hamza hid in the Pakistani tribal areas, from where he wrote to his father again. He and his “pious wife” Maryam now had two children, the second “a son who I gave your name,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter the authors of the report saw. Finally, in April 2011, after many weeks of deliberations, Hamza was cleared by al-Qaeda’s military chief in Waziristan to begin a journey to Abbottabad, just days before the US Navy SEAL team raided. He wrote to his mother first, worrying, “Dear Mother, explain what I can take. … You know how important books are to me. Can I take them or not?” A few days later came her brief reply: “It is preferable to travel light.”
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The report ends that in August 2015, with al-Qaeda needing a propaganda victory amid the ascent of ISIS, Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman Zawahiri found a job for Hamza, who made the first of what are now seven audio statements. A 26-year-old who had still never fired a gun was used as a billboard, al-Qaeda clerics and members of his family say. Zawahiri, though, remained in charge, hiding in Pakistan, while military operations were led by Saif Adel, who the Quds Force moved into a safe house in District 9, Tehran. Saif was now alone. In 2016, his pregnant wife, Asma, had been allowed to leave for Doha, where she stayed with bin Laden’s family members that had been deported from Pakistan. Shortly after landing, she lost her baby and filed for divorce, unable to countenance the prospect of another epoch of jihad—which was precisely what al-Qaeda was planning.
When the Twin Towers fell, damaged by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and then later overshadowed by ISIS, al-Qaeda now, with its leadership split between Iran, Pakistan, and Syria, has quietly rebuilt itself to the point of being able to call on tens of thousands of foot soldiers. Melting with anti-Assad forces, reducing its vulnerability, and toning down the barbarity associated with it during the Zarqawi years, a reformed al-Qaeda found in Hezbollah and the Quds Force a model for how it might now evolve.
Opinions in the article reflect the writers’ point of view, not necessarily the view of The Arabain GCIS