Iran and Al-Qaeda: A long-time relationship

By Hayyan Sorour

Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed, as Osama bin Laden before him. With the death of both Al-Qaeda leaders the question arises: What is left of Al-Qaeda, and who is sheltering them?

This fact is joined by the Iranian messages, saying that the Mullahs in Tehran will be fighting Al-Qaeda and the Takfiris. At least this is what Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, says. In all his speeches he talked about the “war on terrorism”, justified by invoking, in front of the Lebanese people, with this war.

What kind of war is this, if “Khomeinist Iran” was the anchor of stability for Al-Qaeda, starting from its inception until now?

The decision of the US Treasury Department to impose sanctions against three leaders of Al-Qaeda residing in Iran has once again highlighted Tehran’s relationship with this terrorist organization.

There has recently been a lot of talk about this relationship, especially after the the director of NSA published the second batch of letters of former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, documents that were found during the raid carried out by US special forces in May 2011 on the compound where bin Laden resided in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, led to his death and revealed many secrets of the organization.

According to the statement, the leaders targeted by the sanctions are responsible for transferring funds belonging to Al-Qaeda in the Middle East, as well as organizing the transport of extremists from some Asian countries to the Middle East.

The persons targeted by the sanctions are:

  • Faisal Jassim Muhammad Al-Omari Al-Khalidi, a senior official of Al-Qaeda and a link between the Shura council of the terror group and the”Taliban Pakistan” movement.
  • Yazra Mohammad Ibrahim Bayoumi, a member of Al-Qaeda since 2006 and resident in Iran since 2014. Al-Bayoumi since mid-2015 had a role in the release of Al-Qaeda members in Iran. In early 2015, he was an intermediary for Iranian authorities and a year before that he collected donations for the organization. The US statement had indicated that Al-Bayoumi sent these funds to the organization Jabhat Al-Nusra, , the Syrian Al-Qaeda faction.
  • Abubakar Mohammad Mohammad Ghomin, responsible for the financing and organizational matters of Al-Qaeda members in Iran. According to the US, before moving to Iran, he worked in the intelligence service of Al-Qaeda.

A secret 2008 document published by the Washington Post last year revealed information and data collected from interviews with current and former US intelligence officials.

According to the article, some Al-Qaeda figures with pseudonyms were included among the figures affiliated with the Iranian regime, especially when dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters fled to Iran after the 9/11 events.

Some of these characters are:

  • Abu Hafs Al-Mauritani, who returned to Mauritania in 2012, was bin Laden’s religious affairs adviser and Al-Qaeda’s expert regarding Islamic law. His real name is Mahfouz Ould Al-Walid.
  • Abu Al-Khair Al-Masri, who served as chairman of the board of directors of Al-Qaeda, was also responsible for the organization’s external relations, including communication with the Taliban and has a long-standing relationship with both Al-Qaeda leaders Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden.
  • Saif Al-Adl, a member of the board of directors of Al-Qaeda, one of the participants in the planning of terrorist operations and propaganda expert, also headed the military operations of the organization, is believed to live in Iran.
  • Abu Mohammed Al-Masri, another member of the Al-Qaeda leaders, one of the most „effective“ members in planning operations, was former head of training for the organization’s personnel, is also believed to be in Iran.
  • Suleiman Abu Ghaith, the official spokesman of the organization before his arrest and detention in the US.
  • Abu Al-Laith Al-Libi, also known as Ali Ammar Ashour Al-Rifai, worked as a paramilitary commander before he was killed by an American drone strike, was active in eastern Afghanistan and the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, exercised autonomy there with great powers, and enjoyed long-term relations with senior leaders of the organization.
  • Abdulaziz Al-Masri, also known as Ali Sayed Mohammed Mustafa Al-Bakri, is an active high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda, a senior explosives and poisons expert, well versed in nuclear research since the late 1990s, and has a close relationship with Saif Al-Adl and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
  • Abu Dujana Al-Masri, who worked as a bombing instructor before his arrest, member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Movement and the son-in-law of late Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
  • Mohammed Ahmed Shawki Al-Islambouli, who facilitated the missions and operations of Al-Qaeda, a prominent member of Egyptian Islamist groups, was on good terms with Iranian intelligence earlier, and is the brother of the murderer of former Egyptian President Sadat, Khaled Al-Islambouli.
  • Tharwat Shehata, a former deputy of Zawahiri and an expert in operational planning, had a close relationship with Al-Qaeda leaders and Al-Zarqawi before leaving for Iran later.
  • Ali Mujahid, delivered explosives, trained recruits on IT, facilitated the movement of high-level militants from Iran to Iraq, reportedly suspected of carrying out the attack on the New York subway in December 2005.
  • Abu Anas Al-Libi, suspected of links to the 1998 East African bombings, a prominent member of Al-Qaeda and the Libyan Fighter Brigades before he was arrested and detained to the US.
  • Abu Al-Dahak, also known as Ali Saleh Hussein Al-Tabuki, worked as a representative of Chechen fighters in Afghanistan.
  • Khaled Al-Sudani, member of Al-Qaeda’s Shura Council, and presumably located in Jordan, Pakistan or Iran.
  • Qasim Al-Suri, also known as Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Al-Suri, linking Al-Qaeda leaders in Waziristan, Pakistan and Iraq, planned and coordinated terrorist operations in Europe with many Al-Qaeda affiliated cells.
  • Jafar Al-Uzbek, worked as a representative of the high command of Al-Qaeda to negotiate the release of Al-Qaeda members held in Iran.
  • Two notable names are added to this list, the first is Mohsen Al-Fadhli, the founder of the Khorasan terrorist organization, killed in an airstrike last year, and Majed Al-Majed, the Emir of the Abdullah Azzam terrorist brigades, trained in Iran and excelled in recruiting Saudis for terrorist groups.
  • Bin Laden family members lived in Iran, e.g. his son Saad and his family, his brothers and sisters, his sons Mohammed, Hamza, Ladin, their sisters and an aunt.

The French newspaper “Le Monde” published a report, in which it was reported that the CIA published reports talking about the relationship that Iran has with Al-Qaeda, which triggered a wave of concern. The Americans discovered this secret relationship and kept it from the public since May 2, 2011, specifically during the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The newspaper said in its report that the CIA revealed the relationship between Shiite Iran and Sunni Al-Qaeda, in the face of the common enemy of the “Americans” in the Middle East. These documents can be accessed through CIA’s website.

The newspaper quoted then CIA-director Mike Pompeo, that there were already common relations between the two parties, as Iran has cooperated – and continues to cooperate – with Al-Qaeda, while they have many agreements, such as a „non aggression“one.

The newspaper added that some of these documents, which have been declassified, speak of the “favorite son” of Osama bin Laden, whose name is Hamza. Among these documents is a video showing Hamza bin Laden’s wedding party in 2007 in Iran. Hamza bin Laden later became the second official spokesman for Al-Qaeda after the late leader al-Zawahiri.

Interestingly, a 19-page document was published that revealed a wave of fighters fleeing Afghanistan to Iran to escape from US forces between 2001 and 2002. These Al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters have easily settled in Iran, under the full sight of the Iranian intelligence services.

The newspaper confirmed that through one of the American documents, it turned out that Iranian intelligence offered al-Qaeda fighters based in Iran money, weapons, and information related to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, how it conducts strikes targeting American interests in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states.

It is worth noting that in addition to Iran’s intention to use Al-Qaeda fighters as a tool to serve its interests, the documents also revealed that Washington, in turn, worked to open lines of communication with Sunni militants, located in southeastern Iran, specifically on the borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Through this, according to the documents, the US were seeking to destabilize the Shiite state.

The newspaper reported that Iran was deeply connected with one representative of Al-Qaeda, Abu Hafs Al-Mauritani, who left Algeria in the 1990s for Afghanistan. He was considered a close associate of bin Laden, was among the most wanted by the US before he took refuge in Iran, where he served as a spokesman for Al-Qaeda, while working to communicate with the Iranian intelligence services during December 2001.

According to US documents, Mauritani agreed with the Iranians to secretly transfer fighters belonging to Al-Qaeda to Iran in the shadow of close US tracking operations. In 2002, the mastermind of the attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the Egyptian Saif al-Adl, joined these fighters, as well as bin Laden’s right-hand man, Abu Mohammed al-Masri.

The newspaper noted that during that period, the US Congress 9/11 Committee accused both Iranians and Al-Qaeda elements of being behind the attacks. This committee has confirmed that Al-Qaeda and Tehran have had a relationship since the 1990s, where envoys representing the parties met in Sudan, where Osama bin Laden was settled at the time.

According to CIA documents, Tehran turned a blind eye to the movement of Al-Qaeda fighters through its territory towards Iraq during the US invasion in 2003. These fighters deliberately strengthened the ranks of one of the main faces of jihad against the Americans at that time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In conclusion, the newspaper quoted what was stated in a letter, written on October 18, 2007, sent by Osama bin Laden to one of his field commanders in Iraq: “Do you know that Iran is the main road through which our funds and men pass, and we use it to exchange information between us”. In his letter, Bin Laden added that “if you decide to open a battlefront against Iran, I advise you not to announce it publicly, and to deal with it in silence.”

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