Saif Al-Adel: The Next Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

Iran started housing many al-Qaeda leaders, including probably Osama bin Laden, after the war in Afghanistan began. This was a way of helping a partner in the fight against the West, but it was also self-serving as it gave the Iranian regime a certain degree of control over the al-Qaeda elements in their country. The terrorist group had relative freedom in Iran until February 2003, when Saif al-Adel’s communications authorizing the attacks in Riyadh were intercepted. The regime placed him and others under “house arrest,” restricting their freedom of movement but still giving them enough freedom to serve in a terrorist capacity.

Al-Adel and others were moved to villas near Chalous and in Lavizan under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Force. Al-Adel lived in Iran with his wife and five children until this year. He complained about Iran’s restrictions on his activity, saying that they were “trapped” there and that “the steps taken by Iran against us shook us and caused the failure of 75 percent of our plan,” when they were moving operatives into Iraq in 2002.

There is a consistent stream of testimony describing al-Qaeda’s presence in Iran as being "half prisoners, half guests." Two of Osama bin Laden’s sons have complained about their dozens of family members not being allowed to leave Iran. One account claims that members of the terrorist group held at a camp in Iran went on a hunger strike in 2006 to protest the food they were being given. Al-Qaeda is unhappy with the lack of freedom Iran permits its members, and the kidnapping of the Iranian diplomat may have been the card they played.

This should not, however, be seen as the end of the partnership. Many al-Qaeda members remain in Iran. General Petraeus testified in March that al-Qaeda “continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates.” Al-Qaeda may not have been allowed to do all they wanted, but the network in Iran was still allowed to serve a crucial role. The continued presence of al-Qaeda members and their families in Iran preserves the relationship out of dependency, common interests, and, if nothing else, coercion. This means that for the Iranian regime, Saif al-Adel’s release is not only part of a deal but also a deployment. The regime has stepped up its support for the Taliban and sees al-Adel’s presence in Pakistan as beneficial to their fight against NATO in Afghanistan. Al-Adel can and will still call on the Iranians for help when he needs it.

Saif al-Adel now sits in the driver’s seat. Perhaps it’s time to target those 150 terrorist training camps in Pakistan that the U.S. military has identified.