After the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel formally became the head of al-Qaeda. Due to Osama bin Laden’s (OBL) successor suffering from health issues, Adel had been steering the outfit as its de facto leader from Iran. Five months ago, his photo with two others in Tehran was leaked on Twitter. The photo dates back to sometime prior to 2015. US officials confirmed the individuals to be Saif al-Adel, Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri. Tehran kept quiet but now denies Adel’s presence in Iran.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian responded recently, “I advise the White House to stop the failed Iranophobia game. Linking Al-Qaeda to Iran is patently absurd and baseless.”
Zawahiri’s successor is also an Egyptian whose association with al-Qaeda predates 9/11. Adel’s experience as a former special services officer is said to be among the key factors in his ascent. He is thought to have received training to handle explosives in Iran from Hezbollah instructors sometime during the late 1990s. The 9/11 Commission also noted that al-Qaeda used this training to develop the “tactical expertise” to target US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The cooperation between Iran and al-Qaeda has strengthened over the years but has been meticulously cloaked in the narrative of condemnation and rivalry. When Sunni Baloch tribesmen started providing safe havens to al-Qaeda operatives in Sistan-Balochistan, Tehran looked the other way. Under pressure from the Bush administration ahead of and after the Iraq invasion, Tehran started arresting them along with their families. They were relocated to different parts and put up in secure compounds while providing education and health services along with allowances. Al-Qaeda operatives or their family members were not allowed to leave the compounds or travel abroad. The only exception was Afghanistan but that was limited to some.
For everything Iran was secretly doing to ally with al-Qaeda, its leader chose Pakistan’s northwestern city to hide with his three wives and children. OBL’s targeting in Abbottabad heightened the pressure on Pakistan, while Iran operated seamlessly below the radar. Taliban Emir Mullah Mansoor’s killing in May 2016 as he entered Pakistan from Iran further validated the perception of safety for al-Qaeda operatives in the “Islamic Republic.”
Adel’s elevation as the outfit’s leader complicates matters for the United States as well as for Iran. The denial by Abdollahian does not hold much ground. The confirmation of his presence at this stage by US officials is a warning that the man with a $10 million bounty on his head can be targeted via hitmen or a drone strike. After the recent leak to Bloomberg, claiming the discovery of Iran’s uranium enrichment soaring to 84 percent, the nuclear deal appears dead.
Probably, Tehran patiently invested so long in al-Qaeda for such a testing time. The terror outfit is both a bargaining chip and a Sunni proxy. Add to the equation Tehran’s cordial relations with the Taliban. If the militia ruling the war-ravaged country could host Zawahiri, then why would it not provide bases to his successor? Taliban, al-Qaeda and Iran can form a perfect team to unleash terror and revenge on their foes near and far. Iran provides a land bridge all the way to Lebanon. For instance, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri who can be seen in the leaked photo was killed in a US drone strike in Idlib, Syria, in February 2017. How could a wanted terrorist living in Tehran reach Idlib without the Qud Force’s consent and facilitation? The man who was among al-Qaeda’s top brass was a pawn for Iran.
Adel resides in Iran not just for security cover but also on the instruction of his mentors. True that al-Qaeda is no more a well-disciplined outfit that can operate as a well-oiled machine, but its leader still exercises unparalleled control over its operatives. The Taliban in Afghanistan can neither provide the organization safety from over-the-horizon strikes nor financial and logistical support to execute spectacular terror missions.
The befuddling scenario of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Iran operating as a team cannot be undone by a few drone strikes or a handful of assassins. The United States, too bogged down with Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion, requires a strategy to contain Iran if it seeks to reduce or eliminate the threat of terrorism on its soil or elsewhere. Iran’s tenacious pursuit of nuclear weapons, its possession of a wide range of delivery systems and drones, as well as an undeterred supply of arms from Russia and sponsorship of a diverse range of militant proxies are integrated elements of its forward defense doctrine.
Iran’s neighbors realize the compounding threat more than the Biden administration or Macron’s office. One key element of the multipronged strategy could be eliminating al-Qaeda’s leadership on Iranian soil in the same fashion as Zawahiri in Kabul. Tehran is likely to rely more on al-Qaeda than Hezbollah for transnational terror operations with the luxury of denying any responsibility.