Iran - Al-Qaeda Relation: A Marriage of Convenience

Despite Divergent Ideological and Strategic Goals, Both Have Identified Tactical or Operational Interests

Captured Afghan al Qaeda members sit on a bench as they are presented to the media in Tora Bora, in this file picture taken December 17, 2001. REUTERS/Erik de Castro
Captured Afghan al Qaeda members sit on a bench as they are presented to the media in Tora Bora, in this file picture taken December 17, 2001. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

Iran - Al-Qaeda Relation: A Marriage of Convenience

Discussing the relation between al-Qaeda and Iran develops into a conversation about quite a perilous situation. After all, the two conjoin over terroris operations on an international level in terms of securing safe havens, training, planning, financing, and implementation. The danger lies in Iran’s allowing al-Qaeda to operate training camps, recruit militants, establish command headquarters to carry out terrorist plots around the world, and obtain access to advanced technologies for operations that serve Iran’s interests. At the end of the day, al-Qaeda continues to be an imminent threat to global security.

Iran hosts Al-Qaeda leaders

Based on the history of Iran’s relation with al-Qaeda after September 11, and on the documents that were found during the raid of Usama bin Laden’s Abbotabad Compound, the cooperation between al-Qaeda and Iran becomes evident. Some analysts, however, have had a contrary viewpoint. When the US forces arrived in Afghanistan, dozens of second-ranking leaders and al-Qaeda members fled with their families to Iran, where authorities there set up camps. At the same time, the top leaders took shelter in Pakistan.

The Abbotabad documents reveal extensive correspondence between Usama bin Laden and Abu Abd al-Rahman Anas al-Subay'i, known by the nom de guerre Abu Anas al-Libi. The latter explained in detail how the Iranians dealt with al-Qaeda leaders and provided their transportation. After Usama bin Laden was killed, the relation between Iran and al-Qaeda under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri has had its ups and downs. The disputes between ISIS and the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, in 2015 revealed the alliance between the two sides.  In one of his audio speeches entitled, “Apologies Emir of al-Qaeda,” former ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said, “ISIS did not target the ‘rawafed’ in Iran, in compliance with al-Qaeda's order to preserve its interests and supply lines in Iran... Yes, let it be written in history that Iran owes al-Qaeda a heavy debt!"

The most notable al-Qaeda personnel that Iran has hosted include some members of Usama bin Laden’s family. These include one of his wives, his sons Khaled and Saad, and his daughter Iman, in addition to Saif al-Adl, the prominent security commander in al-Qaeda, as well as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Abu Musab al-Suri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who were under house arrest for a certain period.

Moreover, the assassination of al-Qaeda leader Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah, known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and his daughter Maryam in Tehran revealed the depth of this relationship. Although Iran's tolerance of al-Qaeda might provoke the West, it does not compare to the broad support that Tehran has given to extremist proxy groups in the region.

Afghan Taliban militants and villagers celebrate the peace deal and their victory in the Afghan conflict in the Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP

Tracing back the history between Iran and al-Qaeda

The relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran is neither new nor old. It has been documented through a combination of publicly available US intelligence assessments, declassified al-Qaeda documents, statements, and publications. Iran continues to provide great support to al-Qaeda, which has helped the organization survive and continue. This support becomes very crucial in times of crisis.

The roots of the relationship date back to the early 1990s. At the time, al-Qaeda and Iran struck a deal that included al-Qaeda members training with Iranian intelligence operatives in Iran and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. In the mid-1990s, after al-Qaeda moved from Sudan to Afghanistan, Iran provided al-Qaeda operatives with logistical and travel support. As per the 9/11 Commission Report, “Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and … some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.” Immediately after 9/11, Iran offered to open its borders for Arab fighters wanting to travel to Afghanistan.

In tandem with Iran's relationship with al-Qaeda, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards provided practical and financial support to Hezbollah during the Lebanese civil war in the early 1980s. Hezbollah has accordingly grown into an Iranian arm that underwent training, and was equipped with both armaments and an extremist ideology. Al-Qaeda's relationship with Iran has mitigated the differences between both, perhaps thanks to Hezbollah’s senior operative Imad Mughniyeh.

After the meeting between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah in Khartoum, al-Qaeda sent a number of military leaders to Lebanon. It did not only end up with training videos and a propaganda while in Lebanon, but it also received a major shipment of explosives from Iran that the organization has since used against targets in East Africa.

During this visit, Zawahiri met with Mughniyeh and later sent members of his movement to train with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Zawahiri managed to pave the way for the relationship between bin Laden and Iranian officials. The result was a cooperation agreement to provide support, even if it meant only training for operations carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Tehran helped al-Qaeda in many of its activities and operations by providing facilitation, training, and logistical support. This enabled the organization to strengthen the presence of its network in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, in addition to its activities around the world.

Tactical Cooperation

The cooperation between extremist groups and rogue governments such as the Iranian government is based on terrorist tactics at the level of terrorist states or organizations. A review of the literature of terrorist cooperation indicates four general types of cooperation in a decreasing order of collaboration: mergers, strategic alliances, tactical cooperation, and transactional cooperation. Cooperation varies according to the following factors: the expected duration of cooperation, the degree of interdependence between the two entities, the diversity of cooperative activities in which groups participate, the ideological affinity, and the level of mutual trust.

The cooperation between Iran and al-Qaeda was limited to the logistical and operational fields, yet it did not include ideological cooperation. There is no doubt that Iran and al-Qaeda have maintained two separate and incompatible ideologies, which deems the relationship between them a "pragmatic" one that guarantees mutual friendship and interests.

The relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda alternated between periods of focused cooperation. Despite the tensions that rocked the boat at times, it was a relationship that could described as a “long-term marriage or a marriage of convenience.” Despite their divergent ideological and strategic goals at different points in their shared history, both have identified tactical or operational interests that could be enhanced through mutual cooperation and that transcended any ideological reservations about such a cooperation.

Iranian flag flies at half-mast at the country's embassy in Berlin following the killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani. Photo: Paul Zinken/DPA/AFP.

Herat Camp on the Iranian Borders

The city of Herat is situated 150 kilometers from the Iranian border and the province’s capital that has the same name. Throughout the years, Iran has been accused of cooperating with al-Qaeda. During the 10 years of Soviet occupation, more than 1.5 million refugees crossed the western borders of Afghanistan into Iran.

The Iranian government took care of those refugees who could sense a cultural and linguistic familiarity, without the need of any help from the international community. These refugee camps later grew to become stable communities highly integrated with the Iranian community. However, in 1996 and 1997, new groups of people started moving to the eastern borders, running away from drought and the ruthless presence of Taliban. Many of these people belonged to the Hazara ethnic minority, highly despised by Taliban because they are Shiite Muslims. The others varied among Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns. Iran has taken advantage of the states of poverty and destitution that prevailed in the Herat camps to find new recruits for al-Qaeda as well as mercenaries for its militias in Syria and other countries.

The statements of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on January 15, 2021 - which came just a week before President Donald Trump left office - revealed that Iran has become the "new Afghanistan" for al-Qaeda fighters. Pompeo stated publicly for the first time that al-Qaeda’s No.2 Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah, known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was assassinated in Tehran in August 2020. The statement verified that Iran has been providing protection and a safe haven to al-Qaeda leaders.

The Biden Administration Appeases Iran

An open question remains unanswered: What are the reasons that withhold the USA, the UN, and the Security Council from condemning Iran? The answer could be the policy of turning a blind eye to Iran, or rather the policy of appeasement of Iran, especially during the former Obama administration and the current Biden administration. The Obama administration is still working to reach an agreement with Iran at all costs. The reason may be an "American vision" that wants to see Iran stripped off nuclear weapons, because that poses a threat to international security.

What the United States, specifically the US Treasury Department, should do is to put an end to all threats. It should accordingly add Iran and Iranian leaders, especially from the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force on the lists of terrorism. Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda and other similar extremist groups should also be exposed.


* Jassim Mohamad is a researcher who focuses on international security & counter-terrorism; his work covers Europe, Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Iran and Yemen), and African Sahel. He is the Head of the European Center for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies ECCI.

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