TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s “Bazaar Diplomacy” with al Qaeda
April 9, 2013

As of early April 2013, several developments signal a new trend in the relationship between the Iranian government and al Qaeda. Although a number of al Qaeda fighters and facilitators have long been granted safe haven and support within Iran, Tehran’s February 2013 move to expel Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a former al Qaeda spokesman (and a son-in-law of Usama bin Laden), marked the third time since the beginning of 2012 that a senior al Qaeda operative was forced to leave Iran after living for years in a transitional state of house arrest.

The implications of this new development are not yet clear, since other al Qaeda operatives and their families are reported to remain in Iran. Tehran continues to engage in a form of realpolitik bazaar diplomacy with al Qaeda and its affiliates, an informal framework where anything is possible given that this mode of “diplomacy” is shaped almost exclusively on self-interest rather than ideology. In this system, where “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” it is perfectly logical for Iran — whose Supreme Ayatollah embodies the highest jurisdiction and spiritual guide for Shi’ites around the world (based on the notion of vilayat-e faqih or guardianship of the jurist) — to host and support to al Qaeda operatives, while at the same time the Sunni-based organization and its affiliates in Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria specifically target the Shi’ite communities in those countries for attacks.

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How the Relationship Works  

In the Iranian-al Qaeda relationship, the Iranian government provides safe haven, logistical support, and funding to al Qaeda operatives and their families. Although their links may have been formed earlier than 2001 (which is the subject of much controversy despite a 2011 US District Court ruling against Iran), this phase in their relationship began around October 2001, following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the flight of most of al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives into neighboring Pakistan. A contingent estimated at several hundred, including families, made their way to Iran following Tehran’s guarantee of safe travel.

According to Rand terrorism expert Seth Jones, by 2002 al Qaeda had established a “management council” in Iran that was tasked with providing strategic support to the organization’s leaders in Pakistan. Key members of the council included Saif al-Adel (an al Qaeda military commander), Abu Muhammad al-Masri (one of the masterminds of the 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa), the aforementioned Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (also known as Muhammad Abdallah Hasan Abu al Khayr and a senior operational manager), and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani (a top spiritual leader). Around 2002, Saad bin Laden, one of bin Laden’s older sons, also found refuge in Iran (as did one of bin Laden’s wives and several of his younger children). Saad bin Laden subsequently left Iran for northern Pakistan, where he was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in 2009.

Eventually, Yasin al Suri (also known as Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil), a senior financier and facilitator, became head of al Qaeda’s network in Iran, but was later replaced by Muhsin al Fadhli. According to the US State Department, al-Fadhli helped move operatives from Iran to destinations in Europe, North Africa, and Syria, and used a network of jihadist donors to deliver money to opposition groups in Syria. His deputy, Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi, is said to have facilitated the travel of extremists through Iran to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2002, Iran has permitted these al Qaeda operatives to operate a pipeline through Iranian territory that enables its operatives to carry funds and move facilitators to South Asia and elsewhere. Several major al Qaeda terrorist operations were planned by its Iranian contingent, such as the attacks in Saudi Arabia in May 2003 that killed dozens of Saudis and foreign expatriates.

As an example of the curious nature of the Iranian-al Qaeda relationship, these operational activities were carried out despite that fact that, as reported by the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in a February 2012 congressional testimony, some of these operatives (exact figures are unknown) were under “house arrest conditions.”

Nonetheless, refuge for al Qaeda’s operatives in Iran has been far more secure than for their colleagues in Pakistan who have risked continuous potential capture by Pakistani security forces or being targeted by American drones.

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A Most Complicated Relationship  

The relationship between Tehran and al Qaeda is nothing if not complicated. In late 2008, for example, al Qaeda operatives kidnapped Heshmatollah Attarzadeh-Niaki, an Iranian diplomat, in the western Pakistan city of Peshawar. After holding him for over a year, he was released to Iran in the spring of 2010 after several al Qaeda operatives were released from their house arrest by Iran and allowed to depart the country.

In the most recent departure of an al Qaeda operative, Abu Ghaith was reportedly expelled from Iran in February 2013. Following several detours (Kuwait had refused to accept him), he was arrested by agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation during a layover in Amman, Jordan, and is currently awaiting trial in New York on terrorism-related charges.

It is also a highly contradictory relationship, a partnership of “convenience,” which both sides have preserved despite their deep mistrust and sharp differences over ideology and tactics. It is unlikely leaders in Tehran were ever concerned that al Qaeda would attack Iran. Given the reality that Iran has been a longstanding state sponsor of terrorism — with its Revolutionary Guards serving as a “state terrorist” force — al Qaeda would have faced the probability of being severely crippled in response to a direct attack on Iranian interests. On the other hand, in the event of a US or Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities, it is possible that Tehran would add al Qaeda’s affiliates to the terrorist consortium, one led by Hezbollah’s operatives around the world, all of whom would retaliate against Western and Israeli targets.

But even now, events appear to be undermining the relationship. Shi’ite-based Iran and Sunni-based al Qaeda are fierce religious rivals, with al Qaeda and its affiliates frequently targeting Shi’ite communities and mosques in the Muslim world. In the first 3 months of 2013, for example, an estimated 300 Shi’ites have been killed in Pakistan.

In addition, al Qaeda-affiliated groups are currently battling the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. Curiously, al Fadhli is, according to a US Treasury Department report, nonetheless continuing to use his safe haven in Iran to mobilize a network of jihadist donors to provide funding, via Turkey, to their fighters in Syria.

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The Outcome of Bazaar Diplomacy  

Despite such religious doctrinal differences, and the targeting of Shi’ites by al Qaeda and its affiliates, the bazaar diplomacy component makes strategic sense when viewed against the backdrop of their shared common interests. Both intensely oppose the United States and its allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. In fact, with both seeking to hasten the exit of United States and NATO forces from Afghanistan, Iran has quietly cooperated with the Taliban — its erstwhile adversary — by allegedly providing training to Taliban fighters, arranging arms shipments, and permitting the Taliban to open an office in Iran.

It is evident there has been some change in Iran’s policy towards its al Qaeda “guests,” which led to the recent expulsion of several al Qaeda operatives. This likely resulted from outrage over the participation by al Qaeda and its affiliates in the insurgency against the Syrian regime (and its potential spillover into Iraq), as well as the deliberate attacks against the Shi’ite populations in Iraq and Pakistan.

But with the failure of the recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program — and the increased threat of further sanctions that are already crippling the Iranian economy and isolating Tehran in the international community — Iran may continue to view al Qaeda, despite the lingering friction of competitive interests, as a potential friend in time of need.

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