Credit must be given to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. During his testimony before Britain’s Iraq inquiry, Blair addressed an issue considered taboo in many Western national security circles: the alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al-Qaeda. “What nobody foresaw,” Blair said, “was that Iran would actually end up supporting al-Qaeda. The conventional wisdom was these two are completely different types of people because Iran is Shi’a, the al-Qaeda people are Sunni, and therefore, you know, the two would never mix. What happened in the end was that they did because they both had a common interest” in fighting the United States.
The Iran-al-Qaeda relationship is long and extensive. As with Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, the Iran-al-Qaeda alliance can best be understood simply by reanalyzing the very same documents that are said to contain evidence to the contrary. The 9/11 Commission, for example, states: “On November 4, 1998, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed its indictment of bin Laden, charging him with conspiracy to attack U.S. defense installations. The indictment also charged that al-Qaeda had allied itself with Sudan, Iran, and Hezbollah.”
The Iranian regime created Hezbollah in 1982 to serve as its terrorist proxy army throughout the world. Hezbollah and al-Qaeda have collaborated for many years. The Saudi branch of Hezbollah helped al-Qaeda commit the deadly Khobar Towers attack in June 1996. The 9/11 Commission elaborates:
In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al-Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support — even if only training — for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long afterward, 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. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983. The relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shi’a divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations (emphasis added).
The Commission continues:
Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al-Qaeda figures.… Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with al-Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, but was rebuffed because bin Laden did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia.
In this case, it was Iran reaching out to al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda had been an underling of Iran’s for some time.
The Commission points to Iranian and Hezbollah assistance to al-Qaeda’s 9/11-team. Though the Commission “found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack,” there was “evidence suggesting that eight to ten of the fourteen ‘muscle’ [9/11] operatives traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001.”
The hijackers in question — Wail al-Shehri, Waleed al-Shehri, Ahmed al-Nami, and others — had taken advantage of the Iranian government’s practice of not stamping the passports of Saudi members of al-Qaeda. During interrogation, al-Qaeda leaders Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confirmed this Iranian policy, explaining how beneficial it was to members of al-Qaeda.
Iran also spent the better part of the previous decade sheltering high-ranking al-Qaeda members such as Saif al-Adel, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Osama bin Laden’s son and heir, Saad bin Laden. In 2008, a letter written by al-Qaeda’s number-two leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and intended for Saad bin Laden in Iran was intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
In the letter, Zawahiri thanks the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for its “monetary and infrastructure assistance” in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater and credits Iranian sponsorship for al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks and strategic gains in Yemen. The Iranians had long supported Zawahiri prior to the formation of al-Qaeda. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Iranians assigned the notorious Hezbollah chieftain Imad Moughniyeh to train Zawahiri’s men.
This alliance is not an American-created fantasy. In early 2009, Saudi Arabia publicized a list of eighty-five of its “most wanted” terrorists. Eighty-three of these terrorists were Saudi nationals and forty-one were “currently in Iran,” including Abdullah al-Qarawi, leader of al-Qaeda’s Persian Gulf operations.
According to the Saudi documents, Qarawi has hundreds of men under his oversight and is operating freely in Iran and with the Iranian government’s approval. The recent WikiLeaks documents, as well, contained Saudi intelligence regarding Iran’s ties to al-Qaeda. According to one cable, Saudi Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, in a 2009 meeting with U.S. officials, “complained that over the past two years Iran [had] hosted Saudis (all Sunnis) — including Osama bin Laden’s son Ibrahim — who had contacts with terrorists and worked against the Kingdom.”
The previous WikiLeaks document dump pointed to Iranian support for al-Qaedists in Somalia, the al-Qaeda ally and Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Afghan Taliban, and al-Qaeda insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan. To some, this information was striking. It shouldn’t have been. U.S. military officials in Iraq and Afghanistan have spoken of Iranian-sponsored terrorism for years. In 2008, a former Sunni Iraqi insurgent named Abu Azzam al-Tamimi told Al Arabiya television that Iran “interferes in every aspect in Iraq.”
When asked whom the Iranians support, Tamimi responded:
Everybody — [Iran] works with the [Iraqi] government, with the opponents of the government, with the opponents of the government’s opponents, with al-Qaeda, with the enemies of al-Qaeda, with the militias, with the enemies of the militias. … Iran spreads its investments everywhere — with the Shi’ites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds.
This might be one of the most accurate quotations an intelligence analyst could read about Iran and the state of its affairs in the Middle East.
Then why is the Iran-al-Qaeda relationship so overlooked? There are several reasons. The first reason is political. Unbelievably, some intelligence analysts are actually intent on making Iran’s leadership seem more benign than it is. As Tony Blair stated, sometimes intelligence agencies are “at pains to separate … not to link [adversaries].”
The second reason is because of the sectarian violence in Iraq from 2006-08. In February 2006, Sunni al-Qaedists bombed and destroyed one of the holiest sites in Shi’a Islam, the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. The strategic purpose of this attack was to provoke Iraq’s Shi’ites into retaliatory murder and reprisal on their Sunni neighbors, spiraling Iraq toward implosion and civil war. For more than a year, that is precisely what happened. The Middle East hadn’t seen such large scale Sunni-Shi’a violence in generations, which convinced the intelligence community that the historical schism between the denominations had never calmed (when it had), or at least that in having flared back up was here to stay (when it wasn’t).
The third reason is bureaucratic. When sectarian fighting erupted in Iraq, the intelligence community was accused of not adequately anticipating the possibility of Sunni-Shi’a violence. This intelligence failure, along with the WMD intelligence failure, created something of a reactionary hyper-sensitivity to the issue within the intelligence community — perhaps even group-think. Put simply, Sunnis and Shi’ites were suddenly enemies in Iraq, and therefore it was assumed they would be hostile to one another everywhere else. This was wrong.
The fourth reason is ethnic. Not only is Iran Shi’a and al-Qaeda Sunni, but the Iranians are mostly Persian whereas the al-Qaedists are mostly Arab. This analysis fails to take into account that Islamism usually eschews racial, ethnic, or even nationalistic considerations. It is true that the ruling mullahs of Iran view Arabs scornfully. But the mullahs view Persian history scornfully, as well (a fact that is not lost on the proud Iranian people). “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah,” the Ayatollah Khomeini once infamously said. “I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”
The fifth and final reason is Afghanistan. During the 2001 takedown of the Taliban, the U.S.-led alliance sought Tehran’s assistance in formulating a new Afghan government. Seizing the opportunity for greater influence in Afghanistan, the mullahs cooperated. But while the Iranians were “helping” the United States in Afghanistan, they were also sending assassination teams into the theater to kill Americans. The mullahs are quite cunning and capable of doing two things at once.
The lessons are clear. As former CIA Director James Woolsey once said, our Middle Eastern adversaries are like mafia families:
They do hate each other and they do kill each other from time to time, but they hate us a great deal more and they’re perfectly willing and perfectly capable to assist one another in one way or another.
Policymakers seem to listen to intelligence as if it were infallible. Oftentimes it is not. But when it is as concrete as it can be — such as Iran’s sponsorship of al-Qaeda — it is paramount that intelligence analysts make this evident, so that the proper national security decisions can be made in a timely manner.