Salahuddin al Maqdisi. Image courtesy of the SITE Intelligence Group.
An al Qaeda operative who was close to slain al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi has been released from Iranian custody and has recently returned to Afghanistan to fight NATO and Afghan forces.
After eight years in Iranian custody, Salahuddin al Maqdisi has come back to Afghanistan and is now “catching up with the lions of al Qaeda and the Taliban,” according to a statement published on a jihadist website and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. Salahuddin is the brother of Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi, a leading radical Islamist cleric from Jordan who mentored Zarqawi.
In addition to the statement, multiple pictures of Salahuddin were posted on the website, showing him holding an AK-47 assault rifle, sitting at a heavy machine gun, and looking into a mortar tube.
Salahuddin has been working with al Qaeda for at least 13 years. He first left Jordan in 1999 and traveled to Herat, Afghanistan, “where Sheikh Abu Musab al Zarqawi was.” Zarqawi established a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan, near the Iranian border.
Salahuddin stayed in Afghanistan until the fall of the Taliban government, then traveled with Zarqawi to Iran and then northern Iraq.
“He stayed there until the fall [of the Taliban regime], and after, he went with the Sheikh to Iran and then to Iraqi Kurdistan, where the brothers of Ansar al Islam were. He stayed there for several months and then returned to Iran for a certain task…,” the statement said. No further information on the “task” he performed in Iran was provided.
Zarqawi’s network in Iraq received support from the Iranian regime, according to an intelligence dossier written by German investigators that was leaked to Cicero magazine in 2005. Iran became an “important logistical” base, and Zarqawi had stayed in IRGC safe houses and was allowed to move about freely, according to the German report. The report has been corroborated by multiple statements from al Qaeda operatives held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
Salahuddin returned to Iran, and was detained by Iranian security forces “approximately 10 months” after entering the country. He “spent more than 8 years in prison with patience and anticipation of reward…,” according to the statement.
Iran is known to have placed scores of al Qaeda leaders, operatives, and their families, into protective custody after many fled Afghanistan during the US invasion and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001-2002. But top al Qaeda leaders and operatives, including Saif al Adel, who is now al Qaeda’s acting leader after Osama bin Laden’s death, and Saad bin Laden, are known to have planned and executed attacks in the region while in Iranian custody.
And in recent years, Adel, Saad, Hamza bin Laden, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Mafouz Ould Walid (Abu Hafs al Mauritanian), and dozens of other al Qaeda leaders, operatives, and family members have been released from Iranian custody. [For more information on Iran’s detention of al Qaeda leaders, see LWJ reports, Osama bin Laden’s spokesman freed by Iran, and Analysis: Al Qaeda’s interim emir and Iran.]
Iran also supports al Qaeda and Taiban operations in Afghanistan. The Qods Force, the special operations branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has tasked the Ansar Corps, a subcommand, with aiding the Taliban and other terror groups in Afghanistan. Based in Mashhad in northeastern Iran, the Ansar Corps operates much like the Ramazan Corps, which supports and directs Shia terror groups in Iraq. [See LWJ report, Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq.]
The US government has sanctioned the Ansar Corps commander for aiding the Taliban. On Aug. 6, 2010, General Hossein Musavi, the commander of the Ansar Corps, was one of two Qods Force commanders added to the US Treasury’s list of specially designated global terrorists, for directly providing support to the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
ISAF and Afghan forces have targeted several Taliban commanders with known links to Iran’s Qods Force – Ansar Corps. [See LWJ report, Taliban commander linked to Iran, al Qaeda targeted in western Afghanistan.]
In addition to Taliban fighters entering from Iran, Al Qaeda is known to facilitate travel for its operatives moving into Afghanistan from Mashhad, where the Ansar Corps is based. Al Qaeda additionally uses the eastern cities of Tayyebat and Zahedan to move its operatives into Afghanistan. [See LWJ report, Return to Jihad.]