The Treasury Department announced today that three senior al Qaeda members have been added to the US government’s list of designated terrorists. All three of them are “located in Iran.”
The newly-designated al Qaeda operatives are: Faisal Jassim Mohammed Al Amri Al Khalidi, Yisra Muhammad Ibrahim Bayumi, and Abu Bakr Muhammad Muhammad Ghumayn.
The Iranian government has maintained a relationship with al Qaeda since the early 1990s. Although the two sides are sometimes at odds, including inside Syria, Treasury’s announcement indicates that some of al Qaeda’s most important commanders are able to evade the American drone campaign by sheltering inside Iran.
Al Qaeda’s “new generation”
Al Khalidi is described as “part of a new generation of al Qaeda operatives” who rose through the organization’s ranks to become a “senior” official. He was previously the emir of an al Qaeda “brigade” and a “battalion commander.”
In May 2015, Treasury notes, al Khalidi “participated in an annual al Qaeda Council meeting with other al Qaeda commanders to discuss weapons acquisition.” He was al Qaeda’s “Military Commission Chief” at the time — meaning he was one of the most important figures in the group’s international network.
In addition, al Khalidi has been responsible for maintaining contacts between other al Qaeda operatives, including members of al Qaeda’s central shura (or advisory) council, and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban) “leaders.”
Treasury’s description of al Khalidi appears to echo a letter sent from Atiyah Abd al Rahman to Osama bin Laden in November 2010. Rahman, who was one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants at the time and helped to broker al Qaeda’s deal with the Iranian regime, described three jihadists who had been groomed as part of a “new generation” — the same wording used by Treasury. Rahman named one of the three as “Abu Hamza al Khalidi,” which is one of the aliases used by the al Qaeda leader designated today.
“Another brother from the [Arabian] peninsula with a military background, who is good, smart, with a sound mind, well-mannered, and religious, [is] named Abu Hamzah Al Khalidi,” Rahman wrote. Rahman explained that Abu Hamzah al Khalidi is the “cousin of Shaykh Al Khalidi, who is imprisoned with Shaykh Al Fahd and Shaykh Al Khudair in Saudi Arabia.” Furthermore, Rahman described al Khalidi as “an emir of one of our brigades,” which again matches Treasury’s description.
Al Khalidi and the others listed in the letter “have been with us, in the arena, for almost three years,” Rahman informed bin Laden. They “continue to be promoted and we think highly of them, and know they will succeed, Allah willing.” Rahman added there were “a few others from the new generation” as well. Rahman, who was al Qaeda’s main liaison to Iran for years, was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in 2011.
Two others in Iran
Treasury describes Yisra Muhammad Ibrahim Bayumi as a “veteran” al Qaeda member, who has been in the organization “since at least 2006.” He has been “located in Iran since 2014.” In 2015, Bayumi was “involved in freeing al Qaeda members in Iran” and “served as a mediator with Iranian authorities.”
Although Iran provides a permissive environment for some al Qaeda operatives, the regime detains others on occasion. Iran uses the threat of imprisonment to maintain leverage over its guests and has also kept some senior jihadists under house arrest. This has caused friction between al Qaeda and Iran at times. Al Qaeda has reportedly kidnapped Iranians to barter for its detained members on more than one occasion.
Prior to early 2015, according to Treasury, Bayumi “was involved in assisting al Qaeda members located in Iran.” He has also collected funds for the group, “including, as recently as 2015, securing funds from Syria for al Qaeda members and facilitating al Qaeda funds transfers.”
One of the more curious aspects of the ongoing Iran-al Qaeda relationship is that they are on opposite sides of the Syrian war. Yet, the Iranians continue to allow the Sunni jihadists to operate inside their country. According to a top al Qaeda defector, the reasons for this accommodation are simple: The Iranian regime wants to avoid terrorist attacks at home and still maintains some common interests with al Qaeda, despite the fact they are battling each other in Syria and Yemen.
Abu Bakr Muhammad Muhammad Ghumayn is a “senior al Qaeda leader” and “has served in several financial, communications, and logistical roles for the group,” according to Treasury. “As of 2015, Ghumayn assumed control of the financing and organization of al Qaeda members located in Iran.”
Before relocating to Iran, Ghumayn was based in Waziristan, Pakistan, where he acted as “a conduit to senior al Qaeda leadership.” He has also “served within al Qaeda in an intelligence and security capacity.”
Previous designations and other statements by Treasury and State Departments
Treasury’s announcement today is the latest in a long line of designations. In 2009, Treasury acknowledged that several al Qaeda operatives were living inside Iran. Then, beginning in July 2011, both the Treasury and State Departments repeatedly targeted the Iran-based network.
Below is a brief timeline of designations and other official statements by the US government.
Jan. 2009: Treasury designated four al Qaeda members in Iran, including Osama bin Laden’s son Saad, who was later killed after relocating to Pakistan. “It is important that Iran give a public accounting of how it is meeting its international obligations to constrain al Qaeda,” Stuart Levey, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said at the time.
July 2011: Treasury targeted Iran’s formerly “secret deal” with al Qaeda, designating six jihadists who were involved in al Qaeda’s operations inside the country. One of them is known as Yasin al Suri, “a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator” who operates “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.”
“Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world today,” David S. Cohen, who was then Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a press release. “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,” Cohen emphasized.
Dec. 2011: The State Department announced a $10 million reward for Yasin al Suri, making him one of the most wanted terrorists on the planet. “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 a briefing.
Feb. 2012: The Treasury Department designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for a number of reasons, including the assistance it provided to al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq. 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.”
July 2012: In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2011, the State Department reported that “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior AQ members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody.” Iran “also allowed AQ members to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iranian territory, enabling AQ to carry funds and move facilitators and operatives to South Asia and elsewhere.”
October 2012: Treasury explained that Yasin al Suri had been temporarily sidelined as the chief of al Qaeda’s network in Iran. His replacement was Muhsin al Fadhli, a veteran Kuwaiti operative, who later relocated to Syria as part of al Qaeda’s “Khorasan Group” and was killed in an American airstrike. Treasury named Adel Radi Saqr al Wahabi al Harbi as one of Fadhli’s men inside Iran. Harbi also eventually relocated to Syria, where he served as the military commander of Jund al Aqsa, an al Qaeda front group, until meeting his own demise.
Treasury explained how the deal between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda works. “Under the terms of the agreement between al Qaeda and Iran,” Treasury reported, “al Qaeda must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities.” As long as al Qaeda didn’t violate these terms, “the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al Qaeda network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.”
Treasury’s Cohen explained in a press release that the designation of Harbi “builds on our action from July 2011” and “further exposes al Qaeda’s critically important Iran-based funding and facilitation network.” Cohen added: “We will continue targeting this crucial source of al Qaeda’s funding and support, as well as highlight Iran’s ongoing complicity in this network’s operation.”
May 2013: In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, the State Department said that Iran “allowed AQ facilitators Muhsin al-Fadhli and Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and to Syria.” Fadhli “began working with the Iran-based AQ facilitation network in 2009,” was “later arrested by Iranian authorities,” but then released in 2011 so he could assume “leadership of the Iran-based AQ facilitation network.”
Jan. 2014: Treasury and State Department officials told Al Jazeera that Yasin al Suri was once again in charge of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network.
Feb. 2014: Treasury identified another Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator, Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov, who is an Uzbek and part of the Islamic Jihad Union. Sadikov “provides logistical support and funding to al Qaeda’s Iran-based network,” according to Treasury.
Apr. 2014: In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, the State Department once again noted that the Iranian regime hosted al Qaeda’s “core facilitation pipeline” and “remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda (AQ) members it continued to detain,” while also refusing “to publicly identify those senior members in its custody.”
Aug. 2014: Treasury designated a senior al Qaeda leader known as Sanafi al Nasr, who “served in early 2013 as chief of al Qaeda’s Iran-based extremist and financial facilitation network.” Nasr relocated to Syria in 2013 as part of al Qaeda’s “Khorasan Group” and was killed in an American airstrike in 2015.
Curiously, the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism for 2014 and 2015 said that the Iranian government “previously allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran.” Although Foggy Bottom didn’t explicitly say it, the implication was that the Iran-al Qaeda deal was a thing of the past.
But today’s designation by the Treasury Department indicates that senior al Qaeda leaders have continued to operate inside Iran.