Saudis accuse Iran of harboring al Qaeda network

A State Department cable released by WikiLeaks earlier this week contains a new detail about the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda. The Saudis have privately complained to the Obama administration that Iran harbors a dangerous network of al Qaeda operatives who are targeting the kingdom. And at the heart of the relationship is one of Osama bin Laden’s little-known sons.

One cable recounts a meeting that took place on Sept. 5, 2009, between President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and Saudi Prince Nayif bin Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s second deputy prime minister and longtime interior minister.

Just eight days prior to the meeting, Prince Nayif’s son, Muhammad, had survived an assassination attempt by al Qaeda. Muhammad is the head of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism and jihadist rehabilitation programs. At the meeting, Prince Nayif stressed to Brennan that the kingdom’s efforts to combat terrorism and extremism would not waver even though the attack highlighted the risk to members of the royal family.

After exchanging diplomatic niceties, Prince Nayif turned the conversation to Iran. The State Department’s cable reads (under the heading “Iran Promoting Terrorism”):

Nayif complained that over the past two years Iran has hosted Saudis (all Sunnis) — including Osama bin Laden’s son Ibrahim — who had contacts with terrorists and worked against the Kingdom. SAG considered this aggressive action a breach of the 2001 security agreement between the two nations. The SAG has informed Iran through its ambassador and the MFA, asking the GOI to hand over these Saudis. Nayif recalled that after the operations in Khobar in 1996, the SAG tried to open channels with Iran and tried to improve relations during Khatami’s presidency. He himself had met personally with Iranian National Security Secretary General Dr. Hassan Rohani (Iran’s Supreme Council on National Security) and had signed a security agreement in which Iran promised to show respect and not take any actions inside or outside Iran against the Kingdom.

Ibrahim bin Laden is one of Osama’s lesser-known sons. There is little publicly available information on him. However, US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal say that he is quickly rising through al Qaeda’s ranks – just like his brothers.

In the course of the meeting, Brennan did not deny Prince Nayif’s claim. Instead, Brennan assured his Saudi counterpart that the US was willing to work with the Saudis on this issue, even as the Obama administration sought talks with the Iranian regime. The State Department’s cable reads:

Brennan agreed that Iran had the capacity to cause trouble, and assured the Prince that the USG was very concerned and looking carefully at the situation. President Obama’s willingness to talk to the Iranians did not mean he did not understand the problem. Brennan emphasized the SAG’s strong friends in the White House, including President Obama, wanted to work very closely with Saudi Arabia on this front.

The Saudis’ concern over Ibrahim bin Laden is a new revelation. Ibrahim’s older brother, Saad, has commanded far more attention in the press and in Western counterterrorism circles. Saad also lived in Iran for years after the 9/11 attacks and was reportedly killed in a US airstrike in 2009 after moving to northern Pakistan. Al Qaeda has not confirmed Saad’s demise, however, as the group usually does in martyrdom videos when its better-known terrorists perish. US intelligence officials caution that Saad could still be alive.

Like Ibrahim, Saad has been implicated in al Qaeda’s plotting against the House of Saud. After al Qaeda’s May 2003 Riyadh bombings, press reports indicated that Saad had been in contact with the terrorist cell responsible for the attack. Saad was living inside Iran at the time.

In January 2009, the US Treasury Department designated as terrorists four members of al Qaeda’s network inside Iran, including Saad. Ibrahim bin Laden was not included in the designation.

Prince Nayif’s meeting with Brennan was not the first time in 2009 that the Saudis highlighted Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda. In February 2009, the Saudis released a list of their 85 most wanted terrorists. The Saudis said that dozens of the terrorists on the list were operating either inside Iran, or close to the Iranian border in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the terrorists on the most wanted list is Abdullah al Qarawi. An anonymous Saudi security official told The New York Times earlier this year that Qarawi is a Saudi who has long operated inside Iran and is “believed to have been behind some of the terrorist attacks in recent years inside Saudi Arabia.” This same official explained that Qarawi is in charge of al Qaeda’s operations “in the Persian Gulf and Iran, and of bringing new members into Afghanistan.” Qarawi is also “believed to have more than 100 Saudis working for him in Iran, where they move about freely.”

Although Brennan told Prince Nayif that the US government is “very concerned and looking carefully” at Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, this may not be the case. Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration shuttered a nascent CIA program, codenamed Rigor, that had been designed in part to track the al Qaeda network on Iranian soil.

The State Department’s September 2009 cable is just the latest US government document released by WikiLeaks that connects Iran and al Qaeda. Documents posted online by the media in July contained persistent reports of collusion between Iran, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and their jihadist allies in Afghanistan.

(A version of this article was originally published by The Weekly Standard.)

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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14 Comments

  • Mr. Potato Head says:

    Bill, interesting cable. My brother was killed by terrorists while having lunch at Khobar in 1996. The Saudi government quickly rounded up and killed the terrorists without giving evidence as to who these perpetrators were or where they were from.
    I assume the cable alluding to “that after the operations in Khobar in 1996, the SAG tried to open channels with Iran and tried to improve relations during Khatami’s presidency.”
    If there is a connection, the cable indicates the terrorists were Iranian sponsored by the Khatami regime.

  • DarkMath says:

    Maybe one of these cables will show that Osama Bin Laden is in Iran too. Where else could he be? He’s not in Pakistan, signals intel would have found him by now. He’s definitely not in Afghanistan(Kunar). He’s in Iran!
    Of course our CIA “brain trust” can’t figure this out. They couldn’t find and kill him in Tora Bora either. Why should I be surprised.
    Time to put your Big Boy pants on Leon and put an end to this farce.

  • Bill Hocter says:

    Amazing how useful these guys seem to be to various foreign governments.

  • Villiger says:

    But its ok for their buddies Pakistan to harbour al Qaeda?!
    I don’t get it….
    Or maybe i do. The Saudi king said he loves PakMil.
    (As an aside he also said that Zardari was ‘dirty but not dangerous’; Nawaz Sharif ‘dangerous but not dirty’) Now, in my opinion, the Pak military is DIRTY AND DANGEROUS. So there, your highness, we know now who you love and your values. And what you think of Iran matters, to anyone who believes in democracy, matters the least.
    The recent Iranian scientists bumping off shows that that AQ is vulnerable there too. That is still probably easier to get them there than in Pak where they are under military protection, in a rather more hostile and uncivilised environment.
    Now if his Saudi highness has leverage over his PakMil bretheren lets see what they can deliver…

  • Burk Braun says:

    That is pretty rich. Who is the foremost exporter of islamist ideology around the world? It isn’t Iran.

  • Paul says:

    For once i agree with the Saudi King we need to cut off the head of the snake Iran and bring peace to the Middle East!

  • Charu says:

    Yeah, cut off the head of both the snakes; Saudi Arabia and Iran, the foremost exporters of terrorist ideology today. It is a toss-up as to which is more threatening to the world – Wahabi fundamentalism around the world or Shia radicalism, which at the moment appears to be restricted to the Middle East and parts of Latin America.
    I found it rich that the SA King complained about Zardari being rotten. Zardari may be a crook, but he also seems to be one of the more sensible Pakistanis around who wants to work with us and also curtail Pakistani terrorism. It is the Pakistani military, the King’s favorite, who play a double game with us and who support the terrorists fighting us. The whole matter ultimately is tribal; Zardari is Shia and so he is automatically distrusted by the Sunni King. A pox on both their houses!

  • Danram says:

    Iran is the head of the snake. Take out that regime, and it would solve a LOT of problems elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, I can’t see our current Commander-In-Chief working up the nerve to actually do it. But it will have to be done eventually and the longer we wait, the harder and more costly it will be. God help us and the rest of the world if we actually allow them to develop nuclear weaponry.

  • v_putin says:

    Oh, you never know what these fellows may be up to. The seeming nonchalance on the part of the Americans may be just some baiting time for the Saudis to get even more worked up and therefore involved. With mid-east governments inherently unilateral and somewhat peripatetic in their foreign policies, sometimes it’s better to wait a bit before committing. We’ve been bitten before.

  • madashell59 says:

    Well I have always said that it is Iran, Russia, and China behind all of this. But, knowing that the US is capturing or killing Qods in Iraq, Afganistan, and Pakistan I guess you can say that we are at war with Iran. However, since the US Congress has not formally indicated that we are at war it allows the US to continue to hunt down terrorist thugs. This allows for a great way to actually capture Iranian Qod forces and get some intel without declaring war. What better way to know your enemy. i wonder if any intel was recieved by captured Qods in Iraq regarding the Nuclear plant in Syria that the Chinese/N. Korea gave them and Isreal destroyed

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    Let s/one else drop the 1st bomb. No matter, we will still get the blowback from any attack. We should be very sure if we do strike.

  • Paul says:

    Info like this make me wonder how legit wikileaks is.
    Saudi Arabia has gotten an absolute free pass in our press concerning it’s money ties to Al-Queda & the fact that royals were allowed to leave the US on 911 & US Citizens were grounded.

  • gandalf says:

    Ibrahim bin Laden is Osama’s brother not his son.

  • Render says:

    Osama bin Laden has no brothers, only step-brothers. None of those step-brothers are named Ibrahim.
    Osama bin Laden is reported to have between 12 and 25 children by different wives. One of them is named Ibrahim.
    ERGO,
    R

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