Al Qaeda and Iran: Enemies with Benefits

Al-Qaeda leaders Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden and Suleiman Abu Ghaith in 2002.

by Matthew Duss

via USIP

On April 22, Canadian authorities arrested two men who allegedly planned to derail a U.S.-bound passenger train. Officials said al Qaeda elements in Iran gave “direction and guidance” to Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35. But police have not found evidence of Iranian state sponsorship. And Tehran has denied any connection to the plot.

What has been the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda?

Iran and al Qaeda have had a complex and rocky relationship for two decades. The Shiite theocracy and the Sunni terrorist organization are not natural allies. Al Qaeda’s hardline Salafi/Wahhabi interpretation of Islam believes that Shiites are heretics. In 2009, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula proclaimed that Shiites, particularly Iranians, posed more of a danger to Sunnis than Jews or Christians. Iran has likewise been hostile toward al Qaeda and its former Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.

But countries and movements with seemingly inimical views can work together when circumstances warrant. The 9/11 Commission reported that Iran and al Qaeda contacts go back two decades, beginning when Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan. The report also noted “strong but indirect evidence” that al Qaeda played “some as yet unknown role” in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, by the Iran-supported Saudi Hezbollah. A number of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through Iran to Afghanistan, although there is no evidence that Tehran was aware of the plot.

Some of the best information available on the al Qaeda-Iran relationship was found during the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Documents “show that the relationship is not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of detained jihadis and their families, including members of Bin Laden’s family,” according to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “The detention of prominent al Qa`ida members seems to have sparked a campaign of threats, taking hostages and indirect negotiations between al-Qa`ida and Iran that have been drawn out for years and may still be ongoing.”

Iran and al Qaeda are clearly at odds in the Syrian civil war. Bashar Assad’s regime is Iran’s key Arab ally, and Tehran is expending considerable effort to prop up Damascus. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has joined the anti-Assad insurgency. Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, has urged fighters from around the region to join the battle against Assad. The Nusra Front, one of Syria’s strongest rebel groups, recently pledged its allegiance to al Qaeda.

Are there known al Qaeda elements in Iran? Where?

Hundreds of al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan fled west to Iran after the U.S.-led coalition intervention in October 2001, and many were detained by Iranian authorities in eastern Iran, near the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. Iran claims to have extradited more than 500 to their home countries in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Some high-profile detainees, including top al Qaeda strategist Saif al Adel and Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, were held with their families under house arrest in Iran, possibly as insurance against al Qaeda attacks on Iranian interests or for use as bargaining chips. Al Adel and Abu Ghaith were given greater freedom to travel in exchange for the 2010 release of an Iranian diplomat who had been held in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Abu Gaith was captured in Jordan by the United States in February 2013.

It’s unclear how close an eye Iranian security services are keeping on al Qaeda elements currently living in eastern Iran. The remote area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is sparsely populated and home to the Baloch ? a Sunni ethnic group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against Pakistan and Iran. A 2011 U.S. Treasury Department report accused Tehran of having a secret deal with al Qaeda that allows the group to funnel funds and operatives through Iranian territory. But the report did not cite Iranian officials for complicity in terrorism.

Canadian police said there is no evidence of Iranian sponsorship so far. What is known about Iran’s role?

It would mark a shift in strategy if Iran was actively involved in the planning of al Qaeda attacks. Canadian officials have claimed that al Qaeda leaders in Iran gave the two men considerable independence in planning and carrying out the alleged plot. The Iranian government probably would not have allowed them that operational freedom. Based on the evidence released by Canada, Tehran was probably not involved in any significant way.

The costs would not have been worth the benefits to Iran either. Any proven Iranian role in a terrorist attack that derailed a passenger train would have further strengthened international opinion against Tehran. It is already isolated and faced with many layers of economic sanctions. The timing is also awkward. Iranian complicity could jeopardize negotiations over its controversial nuclear program with the United States and five major world powers. At the same time, Iranian strategy has been opaque even to those who have observed Iran for decades.

— Matthew Duss is a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

– Photo: Al-Qaida leaders Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden and Suleiman Abu Ghaith in 2002.

Guest Contributor

Articles by guest writers.