Researcher Cole Penzel of the American Hoover Institute explores the truth of speculation about the existence of a relationship between al-Qaeda leaders and the regime in Iran, as former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated in a speech in January that al-Qaeda is using Iran as a new base for its operations.

In his article published in Foreign Affairs magazine, Penzel analyzes the validity of this accusation, recounts the beginnings of the relationship between al-Qaeda and Tehran before the September 11 attacks, and poses possible answers to the exciting question related to the extent of cooperation between al-Qaeda and Iran, and the reasons that push the two sides to continue relations despite The ideological dispute raging between them.

The Secretary of State in the former US administration, Mike Pompeo, delivered a speech on January 12, at an event hosted by the National Press Club in Washington, DC, in which he accused Iran of becoming the "new home of al-Qaeda," and Pompeo claimed that after 30 years of cooperation Iran and Al Qaeda, they took their relationship to a new level in recent years.

It is assumed - according to Pompeo - that Iran decided in 2015 to “allow al-Qaeda to establish operations headquarters” on its soil, and the terrorist group is now “operating under the protection of the Iranian regime.”

Pompeo is hardly the only American politician (or analyst or expert) to accuse Iran of providing support to Al Qaeda, but his accusation was of a different kind altogether.

Many listeners rejected Pompeo's statements, saying they were propaganda aimed at blocking the hopes of the Biden administration, which was then days away from taking over the country, in rapprochement with Tehran.

But although Pompeo's claim is exaggerated, it is based on some truth: In 2015, something really happened between al-Qaeda and Iran, as Tehran was at the time holding a number of al-Qaeda leaders inside its territory, and in the process of exchanging detainees with the terrorist group, Tehran guaranteed freedom. The movement was for these leaders, which allowed them to oversee the international operations of the organization more easily than ever before.

By scrutinizing such arrangements, we find that it is difficult to accept the existence of a true alliance between Iran and Al Qaeda, and more clearly, we can say that the Iranian regime and the terrorist organization coordinate some issues between them, but it is not in the way that some would like to believe about their being full partners. In operations.

The existence of a pattern of coordination between Iran and al-Qaeda is an established fact.

According to the report of the "9/11 Commission" (a committee formed in November 2002 to give a detailed report on the attacks of September 11, 2001), in the 1990s, "prominent members and trainers of al-Qaeda traveled to Iran to receive bomb training, while others received instruction and training." From Hezbollah in Lebanon, "In the years before the September 11 attacks," a number of the al-Qaeda hijackers traveled through Iranian territory.

The report also revealed that "the Sunni-Shiite divisions did not constitute a compelling obstacle to cooperation in terrorist operations" between Al-Qaeda and Iran.

Although the leadership of Al Qaeda belongs to the Sunni jihadist movement strongly opposed to the Shiites, it has always sought to dwarf sectarian tensions to achieve its core strategic goal, which is the expulsion of US military forces from the Middle East, which is the same goal that Iran of course adopts. Some level of cooperation between them.

Nevertheless, as counterterrorism researcher Assaf Moghadam mentioned, Al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran has never amounted to anything more than "tactical cooperation," as Iran allowed Al Qaeda to use its territory as a "facilitation station", as formulated by Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in A 2007 speech by him saying that for his organization, Iran "is the main artery for funding, soldiers and communications," but Iran has also placed restrictions on al-Qaeda leaders who live there, and the relationship between the two parties has been marked by periods of intense pressure and tension.

After the September 11 attacks, a massive number of al-Qaeda operatives sought refuge in Iran, and they did so, but they were required to have varying levels of detention and house arrest.

Some of these agents deemed the conditions of detention unacceptable, including restrictions on communication with the outside world.

Political scientist Nelly Lahoud studied thousands of internal al Qaeda documents recovered from the compound in which bin Laden was killed in 2011 in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, and noted that the men residing in Iran were "far from being operational," in fact they were "Fallen in despair", to the point that they organized protests against their Iranian detainees, and they called on their comrades abroad to intervene on their behalf.

Some of these men complained, in a letter to the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan - Pakistan region in 2010, that they were being held "in the unjust prison of Iranian intelligence," expressing their desire for nothing but escaping, and they asked their "brothers in Khorasan" - referring to a historical area that used to gather Parts of Afghanistan and Iran - taking the necessary measures to secure their release, to the point where they demanded that their comrades kidnap Iranian officials and secretly negotiate their exchange with the Iranian government, a proposal that Al Qaeda had already embarked on.

Iran and Al Qaeda agreed in 2010 to exchange detainees, which saw the release of a number of prominent Al-Qaeda members, including Bin Laden's son Hamza, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2008. Several years later, specifically in 2015, another exchange took place. It included an Iranian diplomat who was kidnapped by the Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen in 2013, and this second operation explains the reason for the freedom that certain members of the organization live inside Iran.

According to the New York Times and a number of other media outlets, the exchange of detainees in 2015 included the release of five prominent al-Qaeda members from Iranian detention, including three Egyptians, Saif al-Adl, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Abu al-Khair al-Masri, and two Jordanians, Abu al-Qassam. And Sari Shihab, in exchange for the kidnapped Iranian diplomat in Yemen.

But this is not the whole story.

In 2017, other details of this deal emerged in the midst of an internal jihadist dispute against the backdrop of a decision taken by the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, represented by the Al-Nusra Front, to defect from the al-Qaeda parent organization and form an independent group.

This group was known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and it now controls a swath of territory in northwestern Syria, and its relationship with the front lines of Al-Qaeda remains tense at best.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri gave a speech in October 2017, denouncing HTS's failure to pledge allegiance to the parent organization and its endeavor to ignite a national crisis in Syria, and a war of writing ensued between Abd al-Rahim Atoun, a senior official in the Liberation Organization Al-Sham, who sought to defend the group’s decision to split, was between two prominent members of Al-Qaeda, Sami Al-Uraydi, and Abu Al-Qassam the Jordanian referred to earlier.

In the midst of this war of words, the two men drew attention to the deal struck in 2015 between al-Qaeda and Iran, which led to the release of al-Qaeda leaders who had overseen the defection of Jabhat al-Nusra from the parent organization.

According to Atoun, the exchange of detainees in 2015 included six al-Qaeda members who were held by Iran, four of whom were released and allowed to leave Iran, then moved to Syria, while the other two were released and were not allowed to leave Iran.

The four who traveled to Syria were Abu al-Khair al-Masri, an Egyptian, and Abu al-Qassam, a Jordanian, and two “companions” whose identity is unknown.

As for the two who remained in Iran, they were the Egyptians: Saif al-Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri.

Abu al-Khair al-Masri was, at the time of his release, the rank of First Deputy Al-Zawahiri.

In the absence of the al-Qaeda leader, who had been isolated from the outside world for two years, according to Atoun, Abu al-Khair formed a leadership council with Saif al-Adel and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who are both in Iran, to look into the important decisions.

When the request for the al-Qaeda branch in Syria was raised to separate from the parent organization, the council split, as Abu al-Khair, who was in Syria, agreed to the move, while the two leaders in Iran rejected it, but in the end, the separation occurred despite the refusal of the latter two.

Abu al-Khair al-Masry

From Attoun's point of view, the positions of the two leaders in Iran were not important, since they were "prisoners of the enemy state, Iran."

Abu Al-Qassam objected in his response to describing the two men's situation in Iran as being captured or detained, and Abu Al-Qassam stated in his speech: “After the prisoner exchange that you are aware of, they (Saif Al-Adl and Abu Muhammad Al-Masry) left the prison, and they are not prisoners in the meaning of the word They are like these, but they are prohibited from traveling until the time that God wills them to leave. They move and lead a normal life, except that they are not allowed to travel. "

These assurances seem to support Pompeo's claim that MPs Ayman al-Zawahiri are living their lives relatively freely in Iran today, but the former Secretary of State goes further, claiming that Tehran is hosting al-Qaeda leaders because it seeks to facilitate the terrorist organization’s operations. Terrorism, partners of hate. "

Nevertheless, Abu Al-Qassam portrays that the relationship with Iran is far from partnership, and according to his statements, the freedom of movement of Al-Qaeda leaders in Iran was a difficult victory, as it was achieved as a result of the exchange of detainees that took place in 2015. In other words, Iran did not grant this freedom. On her own will, but she did so unwillingly, and moreover, Al-Zawahiri's deputies are not in Iran voluntarily, but are prohibited from leaving according to the terms of their release from Iranian detention.

Why might Iran insist on keeping these al-Qaeda leaders in the country?

The likely answer is that Iran wants to ensure that Al Qaeda does not launch attacks against it.

Al-Qaeda forces have fought Iranian-backed groups across the Middle East, including the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthi group in Yemen, and many al-Qaeda members hold a deep grudge against the Iranians.

Meanwhile, the ideologically speaking cousins ​​of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS), have allegedly carried out operations on Iranian territory, including attacks on al-Qaeda leaders in the country who are a kind of security or reserve insurance for the Iranian regime.

However, the presence of these figures in Iran does not necessarily entail the conclusion that Tehran is currently providing material support for al-Qaeda operations, as no evidence has come out to the public to support this claim.

The killing of Abu Muhammad al-Masri in Tehran last August, at the hands of Israeli agents, as announced, does not show that he was actually living freely in Iran, which would not have been possible had it not been for the exchange of detainees in 2015. It is possible that Saif al-Adel is the deputy of al-Zawahiri. The only one remaining with this level of freedom in Iran today, yet other members of Al Qaeda are now believed to be inside Iran.

Saif Al-Adl, Deputy Al-Zawahiri

Iran must be held responsible for its tolerance of al-Qaeda activity on its soil. It is not easy for the man, who is supposed to be the second man in al-Qaeda, to enjoy complete freedom in the Iranian capital, but at the same time, the new US administration must stop confusing the threats it poses. Both Iran and Al Qaeda, and also to stop exaggerating the extent of cooperation between them.

They are two separate challenges that need to be assessed in isolation from one another. While the Iranian challenge is focused on its nuclear program and its regional adventures, the challenge of Al Qaeda focuses on the threats that the organization poses to American soil, and the insurgencies that it fuels in Central and East Africa and elsewhere.

The new administration must also avoid politicized assessments of the threats posed by Al Qaeda.

The previous administration portrayed al-Qaeda as a fading threat when it was trying to reduce the risks of withdrawing from Afghanistan, while it portrayed the organization as a mass force when it wanted to confirm the threat posed by the Iranian regime, and it is certain that both descriptions cannot be accurate at the time. same.

Al Qaeda expects to benefit greatly from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, while it appears that it has gained little from its presence in Iran.

The Taliban movement, with which the United States reached an agreement in February 2020 under which American forces would be withdrawn completely by May 2021, maintained a relationship with al-Qaeda despite promises to cut support. Even al-Qaeda considers the Taliban its supreme authority and imagines that Afghanistan is a land. The caliphate in the future, a proposition that the Taliban did not refute.

On the other hand, the exchange of detainees in 2015 between Iran and al-Qaeda does not seem to have given a boost to the issue of the organization, as instead of providing a new safe haven for al-Qaeda, it appears that the exchange agreement with Iran has harmed the group more than it benefited it.

Of the six Al Qaeda leaders released in the swap operation, at least four were killed.

Three in Syria and one in Iran, and these assassinations are only part of many other operations in recent years that have destroyed the dominant leadership of the organization.

If Al Qaeda is to regain its strength in the coming years, it is likely that this will happen in Afghanistan and not in Iran.


This article is translated from Foreign Affairs and does not necessarily feature Maidan.