Atiyah Abd al Rahman. Image from the Rewards for Justice website.
The US Treasury Department has designated six al Qaeda members who work for a terrorist headquartered in Iran. The Treasury Department explained that the six operatives are members of an al Qaeda network “headed by Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator, operating under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.”
Today’s designation is the second time in less than three years that al Qaeda’s network inside Iran has been targeted by the Treasury Department.
“Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today. 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,” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen is quoted as saying in a press release. “Today’s action also seeks to disrupt this key network and deny al Qaeda’s senior leadership much-needed support.”
The Treasury Department said Iran is “a critical transit point for funding to support al Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The designation notes that “Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with Khalil and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005.” Khalil’s activities include moving “money and recruits from across the Middle East into Iran, then on to Pakistan,” where they serve senior al Qaeda leaders.
The Treasury Department hints at the double-game Iranian authorities play in detaining al Qaeda members. Khalil “works with the Iranian government to arrange releases of al Qaeda personnel from Iranian prisons.” After they are released, “the Iranian government transfers them to Khalil, who then facilitates their travel to Pakistan.”
One of the al Qaeda leaders working with Khalil, according to the Treasury Department, is Atiyah Abd al Rahman, who was also included in today’s designation. Rahman is 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 adds: “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.”
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Rahman was al Qaeda’s “operations chief” and was working with bin Laden to assemble a terrorist cell capable of hitting America on the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. According to the Journal, the intelligence tying Rahman to the plot was found in communications recovered during the May 2 US raid on bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Also included in the Treasury Department’s designation is another al Qaeda member named Umid Muhammadi, who is described as “an al Qaeda facilitator and key supporter of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).” Muhammadi, who received weapons and “chemicals” training in Afghanistan, has “petitioned Iranian officials on al Qaeda’s behalf to release operatives detained in Iran.” Muhammadi “has been involved in planning multiple attacks in Iraq and has trained extremists in the use of explosives.”
The three remaining al Qaeda members included in the designation all move money and recruits from the Gulf to al Qaeda leaders. Two of them, Salim Hasan Khalifa Rashid al Kuwari and Abdallah Ghanim Mafuz Muslim al Khawar, are reportedly based in Qatar.
Working with al Qaeda “facilitators” in Iran, al Kuwari “has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support to al Qaeda and has provided funding for al Qaeda operations, as well as to secure the release of al Qaeda detainees in Iran and elsewhere.”
Al Khawar “has worked with Kuwari to deliver money, messages and other material support to al Qaeda elements in Iran.”
The final al Qaeda member included in today’s designation is Ali Hasan Ali al Ajmi, who is based in Kuwait and provides “financial and facilitation support to al Qaeda, AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] and the Taliban.” Al Ajmi collects money from donors in Gulf countries and provides “these funds to AQI facilitators as well as to the Taliban.” Al Ajmi “has also supported al Qaeda by facilitating travel for individuals associated with the group so that they could take part in fighting in Afghanistan.”
Jan. 16, 2009 Treasury designation targets al Qaeda’s network in Iran
In January 2009, the Treasury Department designated four other al Qaeda members operating in Iran. “It is important that Iran give a public accounting of how it is meeting its international obligations to constrain al Qaida,” Stuart Levey, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said at the time.
The January 2009 designation included Mustafa Hamid, the father-in-law of top al Qaeda operative Saif al Adel, and Saad bin Laden, one of Osama’s sons.
Hamid was described as “a senior al Qaida associate who served as a primary interlocutor between al Qaeda and the Government of Iran.” During the 1990s, Hamid “reportedly negotiated a secret relationship between Osama Bin Laden and Iran, allowing many al Qaeda members safe transit through Iran to Afghanistan.” Hamid also “passed communications between Osama bin Laden and the Government of Iran.” In late 2001, Hamid negotiated with the Iranians to relocate al Qaeda families to Iranian soil.
Saad bin Laden “facilitated the travel of Osama bin Laden’s family members from Afghanistan to Iran” beginning in late 2001. He also “made key decisions for al Qaeda and was part of a small group of al Qaeda members that was involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran.”
Saad bin Laden relocated to northern Pakistan several years later and was reportedly killed in an airstrike. However, there has never been any confirmation of Saad’s putative death.
The other two al Qaeda members included in the January 2009 designation were Muhammad Rab’a al Sayid Al Bahtiyti and Ali Saleh Husain.
Al Bahtiyti is a longtime member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda and was reportedly involved in al Qaeda’s 1995 bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Ayman al Zawahiri, who is now al Qaeda’s emir, tasked al Bahtiyti with moving members of Zawahiri’s family to Iran after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Husain had long worked with top al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah and was involved in shuttling al Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan to Iran following the fall of the Taliban’s regime.
All four of the al Qaeda members designated in January 2009 were placed in a loose form of “house arrest” by the Iranians in 2003. But as today’s designation indicates, Iran has continued to allow al Qaeda to operate on Iranian soil.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.