Analysis: Spinning Iran and al Qaeda, part 1
Do Osama bin Laden's files disprove the idea that al Qaeda and Iran collude against their common enemies?
The answer to that question would be affirmative, according to a report published by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point on May 3. CTC's analysts concluded: "References to Iran [in bin Laden's files] 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 Ladin's family." The CTC went on to characterize the relationship between al Qaeda and Iran as "antagonistic."
The CTC's report was based on a slim release of just 17 declassified documents, and only some of those deal with Iran. Thousands of other files seized during the Abbottabad raid have been translated but were not included in the CTC's release. The CTC's broad conclusion about Iran and al Qaeda is based on a narrow set of documents that focus on the abduction of an Iranian diplomat named Hesmatollah Atharzadeh and other unspecified covert activities. Al Qaeda had pressured Iran to speed up the release of al Qaeda operatives and family members in exchange for Atharzadeh's freedom.
According to senior US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal, however, the documents dealing with this tense detainee exchange present just one window on a broader relationship. Other documents from bin Laden's files that were not included in the document release point to instances of collusion between al Qaeda and Iran.
Some of the documents not included in the CTC's release deal with a top al Qaeda operative known as Yasin al Suri, according to one senior US intelligence official. This same official said that the documents pertaining to al Suri in bin Laden's files were used to support the US Treasury Department's July 28, 2011 terrorist designation of al Suri and five other al Qaeda operatives who are part of an Iran-based network that exists under an "agreement" between the Iranian government and al Qaeda.
"Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today," Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said when announcing the designation. "By exposing Iran's secret deal with al Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran's unmatched support for terrorism. Today's action also seeks to disrupt this key network and deny al Qaeda's senior leadership much-needed support."
The Treasury Department described al Suri as "an Iran based senior al Qaeda facilitator currently living and operating in Iran under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government." Treasury also described al Suri's network as a "core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia, including to Atiyah Abd al Rahman, a key al Qaeda leader based in Pakistan, also designated today." Rahman was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in August 2011.
On Dec. 22, 2011, the US Treasury Department and State Department announced that a reward of $10 million was being offered for information leading to al Suri's capture. The reward is one of the highest offered by the US government for any terrorist.
"Under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Government of Iran, Yasin al Suri has helped move money and recruits through Iran to al Qaeda leaders in neighboring countries in the region," Robert Hartung, the State Department Assistant Director for Threat Investigations and Analysis, explained during the briefing announcing the reward.
Less than two months later, on Feb. 16, 2012, the Treasury Department issued another designation saying that Iran was supporting al Qaeda. It is not clear if bin Laden's files played any part in the February designation. The Treasury Department accused Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) of assisting al Qaeda in a variety of ways.
According to Treasury, the "MOIS has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports." In addition, the MOIS has "provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)...and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives."
Over the course of just seven months, therefore, the Obama administration accused Iran of directly supporting al Qaeda on three occasions. And less than three months before the CTC came to its conclusion about Iran and al Qaeda, the Treasury Department publicly accused the Iranian MOIS of supporting al Qaeda.
Obviously, the US government's reporting is at odds with the CTC's conclusion, which is based on a tiny collection of documents. The reason for this disparity is simple. The CTC looked at only a small part of the overall relationship between Iran and al Qaeda.
Al Suri's network in Iran
While the authors of the CTC report make a footnote mention of Yasin al Suri and the Treasury Department's July 2011 designation of him, they ignore the logical contradiction between their report's sweeping conclusion and the Treasury Department's analysis.
The CTC speculated that al Suri's network may have been involved in returning al Qaeda detainees to points in Pakistan, using al Qaeda transit points in eastern Iran. The CTC did not note that al Qaeda fighters and operatives selected to target the West have also used those transit points, or that those routes exist as part of an "agreement" between Iran and al Qaeda.
In March, an al Qaeda recruit named Ahmad Wali Siddiqui went on trial in Koblenz, Germany. Siddiqui and his fellow al Qaeda operatives had been selected to take part in one of the last plots ordered by Osama bin Laden - a Mumbai-style assault on Europe. The plot was broken up in 2010 after Siddiqui was arrested in Afghanistan and divulged the details.
During the trial, and beforehand, evidence emerged that Siddiqui's compatriots transited through Iran into northern Pakistan using al Suri's network. Some of the operatives were told to go back to Iran to receive their final instructions for the plot from senior al Qaeda leaders. And, as of Jan. 2012, the surviving leadership of Siddiqui's cell was being harbored inside Iran. [See LWJ report, Leaders of German al Qaeda cell living in Iran.]
"Western intelligence officials are suspicious not just of the men's intentions, but also of Iran," The New York Times reported in January, referring to the leaders of Siddiqui's cell. "While not directing these men, Iran appears to be harboring them in hopes that, when and if they leave, they will cause trouble in the West."
Needless to say, this aspect of Iran-al Qaeda relations is not "antagonistic."
'Al Qaeda's emissary in Iran'
One of the key authors and recipients of the letters mentioned in the CTC's report is Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who was also designated by the US Treasury Department in July 2011, before his death in a US drone strike.
The Treasury Department described Rahman as al Qaeda's "overall commander in Pakistan's tribal areas and as of late 2010, the leader of al Qaeda in North and South Waziristan, Pakistan."
The Treasury Department also added: "Rahman was previously appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda's emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials."
Prior to his demise, Rahman was one of the senior al Qaeda leaders who benefited from Yasin al Suri's Iran-based network. Through Iran, according to the Treasury Department, Al Suri delivered recruits and operatives to Rahman in northern Pakistan.
Although Rahman's role as bin Laden's "emissary in Iran" has long been known, it is not mentioned in the CTC report. Nor do the CTC report's authors delve into two interesting observations about Rahman contained in the publicly released bin Laden files. Both of these observations undermine the claim that the documents show only "mutual distrust and antagonism" between the two sides.
One document, CTC says, is dated March 28, 2007 and "is addressed to a legal scholar by the name of Hafiz Sultan, and it is authored by someone who is of Egyptian origin." The author asks for "guidance...on the issue of using chlorine gas technology." At the time, al Qaeda in Iraq was involved in a spree of bombings that used just such "technology."
The author continues by saying that "the brothers where Mahmud is...have the potential to use [chlorine gas] on the forces of the apostates," Iraqi president Jalal Talibani and the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masud Barzani. The al Qaeda-linked operatives "have already considered using it," the author says. Mahmud, as the translator notes, is Atiyah Abd al Rahman. The translator adds that the author is making a "possible reference" to Rahman "being in Iran."
If this is the meaning of the underlying text, then it implies that al Qaeda operatives inside Iran are plotting chlorine gas attacks inside Iraq. Taking it one step further, this suggests a fairly permissive operating environment inside Iran -- an observation which is buttressed by other evidence, as described above. The text is fairly murky, however, and it is not possible to draw a firm conclusion.
In any event, the author "informed" the al Qaeda operatives "that matters as serious as this required centralized [coordination] and permission from the senior [al Qaeda] leadership, because the gas could be difficult to control and might harm some people, which could tarnish our image, alienate people from us, and so on." The project was put "on hold for now."
The second reference is less murky. In a letter written sometime in late 2006, Rahman responds to a request for advice from Jaysh al Islam, an al Qaeda-linked Palestinian terrorist group. The Jaysh al Islam correspondent notes that Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) "[r]eceives vast sums from abroad (Iran, in particular), and some of their people have adopted Shiite thought, God forbid." But the Jaysh al Islam man continues, saying of the PIJ:
However, they have offered funding to us, in exchange for which we are to work with them and participate jointly in qualitative operations, as a sort of propaganda; the catch being that we would conduct the operation with funding through them, and afterwards it would be announced that we cooperated with them [Translator's Note (TN): in the operation].
Rahman offers a lengthy response, citing a hadith and discussing what is and is not permissible in terms of raising funds for jihad. But here is the crux of Rahman's response with respect to Iranian funds [emphasis added]:
As the al-Jihad movement's funding comes primarily from support (TN: provided by) the Rafidite (TN: "refuser"; common euphemism for Shi'ite) nation (Iran), which is not in and of itself harmful, by which I mean that it is permitted to eat of what is given of it and to accept it, God willing. It (TN: Iran) is to us an infidel state, and accepting monies from infidel states and kings is permitted, in and of itself, unless another prohibiting factor arises.
There is no mention in the CTC report that Rahman said al Qaeda and its allies were permitted to take funds from Iran and the PIJ, a longtime proxy of Iran. This argument, coming from al Qaeda's one-time "emissary in Iran," is noteworthy as it shows the flexibility al Qaeda maintains when it comes to cooperating with other actors. While objecting to financial gains from the sale of wine, pork, and "improperly slaughtered animals," Rahman did not object to receiving funds from the "infidel" Iran.
"So take it, if there is no other way [to finance yourselves], and strike the Jews," Rahman concludes.
The documents released by CTC do not deal directly with Rahman's longstanding ties to the Iranian regime outside the context of the al Qaeda-Iran detainee swap, even though Rahman's relationship with Iran dated to long before this episode. Rahman is known to have had dealings with Iran beginning in the 1990s. And there are reports that Rahman was dealing with the Iranians as recently as just a few months before his death.
All of the documents dealing with Rahman's ties to the Iranian regime, if more exist, should be released to the public.
A narrow window
The CTC's broad conclusion about Iran and al Qaeda is based on a narrow set of documents showing that al Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in order to force the release of detained al Qaeda operatives and family members. The tension between al Qaeda and Iran over this issue was very real.
The CTC report's authors claim, however, that the "documents provide evidence for the first time of al Qaeda's covert campaign against Iran."
But that is not true. The basic outline of the story told in the documents released by the CTC was first reported by slain Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad. In both his articles online for the Asia Times and his book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Shahzad described the kidnapping of Hesmatollah Atharzadeh and a subsequent deal between Iran and al Qaeda.
Shahzad's take on this episode was more sophisticated than the CTC's interpretation. Shahzad saw the move as a form of power politics in which al Qaeda used this operation to not only free detainees that Iran continued to hold despite al Qaeda's objections, but also for "broadening ties with Iran."
This may seem counterintuitive to those analysts who take a myopic view of human behavior. But Shahzad's analysis of the relationship between al Qaeda and Iran is consistent with al Qaeda's preferred methods of using violence and pressure to force others to do its bidding. Indeed, bin Laden reportedly first threatened the Iranians in 2003, when he demanded that al Qaeda members be freed from house arrest. Bin Laden promised terrorist attacks if he didn't get his way. The attacks never came, Iran continued to hold some detainees under house arrest, and the two sides continued to cooperate on other issues. Years later, tensions surrounding this issue boiled over.
The details of Shahzad's account cannot be verified in full, and in some cases they do not ring true. But when analyzing the kidnapping of Atharzadeh, Shahzad looked at more of the picture than the CTC's analysts did. Shahzad even reported that, as a result of the deal for Atharzadeh, "Iran supplied weapons to a top Taliban commander allied with al Qaeda."
In a letter accompanying the CTC report, General John Abizaid cautioned that the 17 declassified documents released to the public "likely represent only a fraction of the materials reportedly taken from" bin Laden's compound. Abizaid also warned that the report should not be taken as a "definitive commentary on al Qaeda's evolution or the group's current status." Abizaid continued by explaining that "analysis based on captured documents alone is fraught with risk," and the documents "are most valuable when contextualized with information drawn from other sources."
The CTC's analysts proceeded to ignore these cautionary remarks and issued a strongly-worded conclusion, based on a paltry set of documents, about Iran's relationship with al Qaeda. In the process, they ignored everything - including Yasin al Suri's network and the "agreement" between Iran and al Qaeda that allows it to exist on Iranian soil - that got in the way of their apparently preconceived conclusion.
A senior US intelligence official tells the Long War Journal that additional documents dealing with the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda were excluded from what the CTC was shown. Those documents are a "mixed bag," the official says, with some showing other "antagonistic" incidents and still others showing collusion.
The American public should see all of these documents, not just the small set released through the CTC.
**Editor's Note: Part 2 of this series will be released on Monday, May 7.