The US Treasury Department announced today that it has designated Adel Radi Saqr al Wahabi al Harbi, who is “a key member of an al Qaeda network operating in Iran and led by Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator Muhsin al Fadhli.” This same network was previously headed by another al Qaeda operative, Yasin al Suri, but al Fadhli took over as chief of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network in late 2011.
Al Harbi serves as al Fadhli’s deputy. In that capacity, according to Treasury, al Harbi “facilitates the travel of extremists to Afghanistan or Iraq via Iran on behalf of al Qaeda, and is believed to have sought funds to support al Qaeda attacks.”
Al Harbi joined al Qaeda’s network in Iran in 2011, but was previously added to Saudi Arabia’s Most Wanted List. The Saudi Ministry of Interior charged al Harbi with “traveling to Afghanistan to join al Qaeda and providing technical support on the Internet to the terrorist group.”
Muhsin al Fadhli, who is said to be al Qaeda’s new leader inside Iran.
Yasin al Suri and five other al Qaeda members tied to the Iran-based network were designated by the US Treasury Department in July 2011. In December 2011, the US government offered a $10 million reward for information leading to al Suri’s capture. It is one of the highest bounties offered for any terrorist.
In February 2012, the Treasury Dept. designated Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for its support of al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Then, in July 2012, the US State Department highlighted the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda in its annual Country Reports on Terrorism publication.
“Today’s action, which builds on our action from July 2011, further exposes al Qaeda’s critically important Iran-based funding and facilitation network,” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen explained in a press release.
“We will continue targeting this crucial source of al Qaeda’s funding and support,” Cohen added, “as well as highlight Iran’s ongoing complicity in this network’s operation.”
The new boss of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network
Although the Treasury Department does not say it, the US government’s efforts to expose the Iran-al Qaeda relationship have likely impacted the way the network operates. Today’s designation tracks with earlier press reporting on the reshuffling of al Qaeda’s Iran-based leadership.
In February 2012, Sky News reported that al Fadhli assumed the top post in al Qaeda’s Iran franchise after al Suri, who had headed the network for years, was placed under “protective custody” by the Iranians following his exposure by US authorities. Sky News also accurately named al Harbi as al Fadhli’s deputy. Other details in the account remain unsubstantiated. [For more, see LWJ report, New leader of al Qaeda network in Iran named.]
Al Fadhli is a longtime al Qaeda operative who was previously designated by the US government in 2005. At the time, al Fadhli was “considered an al Qaeda leader in the Gulf” who “provided support to Iraq-based fighters for attacks against” the US-led Coalition. Al Fadhli was also a “major facilitator” for deceased AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
And prior to his involvement in the Iraqi insurgency, al Fadhli “was involved in several terrorist attacks that took place in October 2002 including the attacks on the French ship MV Limburg and against US Marines on Faylaka Island in Kuwait.”
Al Fadhli “began working with al Qaeda’s Iran-based facilitation network in 2009 and was later arrested by the Iranians,” according to Treasury. Al Fadhli “was subsequently released by the Iranians in 2011 and went on to assume the leadership of the facilitation network from Yasin al Suri later that year.”
Today, al Fadhli’s network provides “funding for al Qaeda activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, and moves “fighters and money through Turkey to support al Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria.”
Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are openly fighting the Syrian regime, and al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri has called on jihadists to topple Bashar al Assad. Meanwhile, the Iranians support Assad’s regime and are helping it fight the rebels. It is not immediately clear why Iran would support “elements” that are likely opposed to Assad, but such duplicity is not uncommon.
Al Fadhli is also “leveraging his extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria via Turkey,” according to Treasury.
New details on Iran-al Qaeda relationship
The Treasury Department’s announcement contains new details concerning the “agreement” between Iran and al Qaeda. “Under the terms of the agreement between al Qaeda and Iran,” Treasury reports, “al Qaeda must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities.”
“In return,” Treasury continues, “the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al Qaeda network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.”
If al Qaeda members “violate these terms” they “run the risk of being detained by Iranian authorities.”
The previous head of the network, Yasin al Suri, “agreed to the terms of this agreement with Iran with the knowledge of now-deceased al Qaeda leader ‘Atiyah ‘Abd al Rahman.”
Rahman, who was killed in a drone strike in August 2011, was designated by the Treasury Dept. the month before. According to that designation, Rahman was “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.”
New rewards offered
In addition to Treasury’s new designation, the State Department has added al Fadhli and al Harbi to its Rewards for Justice Program. The US government is offering “a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to the location of al Fadhli and $5 million for information leading to the location of al Harbi.”
These rewards are in addition to the $10 million sum offered for information on al Suri’s whereabouts.
Despite the US government’s efforts, however, Treasury says that “Iran continues to allow al Qaeda to operate a core pipeline that moves al Qaeda money and fighters through Iran to support al Qaeda activities in South Asia.” And “this network also sends funding and fighters to Syria.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.