Reconsidering al-Qaeda-Iranian Cooperation
Days before the presidency of Donald Trump ended, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo offered a rather chilling hypothetical:
Imagine the vulnerability we’d have if Iran gave al-Qa’ida access to its satellite networks. This is a terror organization, buried deeply inside a nation-state with advanced capabilities … Imagine that al-Qa’ida starts carrying out attacks at Iran’s behest, even if the control is not perfect. Who is to say that this isn’t the next form of blackmail to pressure countries back into a nuclear deal?
A robust, fully cooperative relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran is a frightening prospect. Al-Qaeda remains determined to kill Americans and, despite continued counterterrorism pressure, still boasts a network of affiliates ready to do its bidding. Training, direction, and/or advanced technologies from Tehran could allow a group like al-Qaeda to strike the United States, its partners, and allies with greater reach and lethality.
Yet, a close reading of Iran and al-Qaeda’s post-9/11 history based on documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound suggests that the prospect of deep collaboration between al-Qaeda and Iran is remote. Al-Qaeda’s concerns with Iranian duplicity and ideological embarrassment have often led it to distance itself from Tehran, just as Iran has at times endured harsh words and targeted attacks from the group. In the short term, the reported assassination of Iran-based al-Qaeda operative Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, also known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and his daughter Maryam in Tehran may temporarily render the relationship even more distant. Though Iran’s accommodation of al-Qaeda is provocative to the West and non-trivial for the group, it pales in comparison to the extensive support Tehran has offered its proxy groups in the region.
The United States should not allow it to distract from or thwart diplomatic efforts to address far more alarming and consequential dimensions of Iranian behavior.
Frenemies From the Beginning
Al-Qaeda’s uneasy relationship with Iran spans nearly three decades. Al-Qaeda and Iranian operatives met in the early 1990s in Hassan al-Turabi’s Sudan, which hosted congregations of Islamist militants. During these meetings, the Sudanese ruling party, Iran, and al-Qaeda considered forming a “tripartite front against their common enemies” and eventually decided to “collaborate, politically and militarily … to confront Israel and the United States … [and] undermine Arab regimes which supported Israel and the United States.” Senior al-Qaeda members and trainers later received training in Iran and Lebanon. By 1996, Iran was offering transit assistance to al-Qaeda operatives, and, in 1998, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided sanctuary for senior al-Qaeda leader Sayf al-Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, both of whom fled to Iran after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
The post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent destruction of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan led Iran and al-Qaeda to open negotiations. At the time, the group was desperate to find a sanctuary for senior operatives and their family members. Eventually, Iran “approved al-Qaeda’s safe haven,” so long as al-Qaeda members adopted a low profile. Some, such as Saad bin Ladin, remained in Iran and managed al-Qaeda’s affairs from there. Others traveled elsewhere, with, according to a document recovered in bin Laden’s compound, the cooperation of Iranian intelligence.
This brief honeymoon period gave way to a wave of arrests. In late 2002 and through 2003, Iran cracked down on the group with an arrest campaign that targeted not just prominent al-Qaeda operatives but their families. Many of these individuals experienced harsh treatment while in Iranian custody and organized riots, suffered mental illnesses, and carried out hunger strikes. Treatment improved slightly over the years, as Iran upgraded the al-Qaeda prisoners’ living conditions; allowed some to visit amusement parks, gardens, and swimming pools; and provided some opportunities for limited Internet use.
Even as it held al-Qaeda operatives and families in prison, in 2005, Iran began allowing al-Qaeda facilitator Yasin al-Suri to operate from its territory. Al-Qaeda senior leaders were aware of al-Suri’s activities, as a document from Abbottabad profiling several middle-level al-Qaeda operatives describes al-Suri’s role in greater detail. His “current work,” the document notes, revolves around “connecting Abdullah Khan’s routes with Iran and bringing in brothers from abroad.” Al-Suri seems to have curried favor with Iranian authorities, as a late 2009 letter by senior al-Qaeda leader Shaykh Saeed described him as having served as the group’s “envoy” in Iran. In another from early 2010, Shaykh Saeed notes that al-Suri is a “very acceptable figure for the Iranians.” Several missives from bin Laden’s compound describe the importance of al-Qaeda’s logistical hub in Iran.
Iranian passive support has not come without restrictions on al-Qaeda operatives’ behavior. In the wake of its arrest campaign in 2002-2003, Iran apparently relayed to al-Qaeda that it was the group’s own fault for violating Tehran’s conditions, according to a document from bin Laden’s compound. Writing in May 2010, a senior al-Qaeda operative described how the Iranians had passed the group a message declaring:
We do not mind that brothers (Arab and non-Arab) come and work in coordinating, collecting money, and other tasks through Iran. But, they should not come through official routes. Rather, they should come via smuggling, and they should not bring in brothers from abroad through official routes, especially airports, but instead through smuggling routes (from Turkey or other countries). [Also,] do not associate with any Iranian (meaning, do not employ Iranians in your work and do not interact with Iranians in your work).
A 2012 U.S. Treasury designation subsequently revealed restrictions on al-Qaeda’s behavior. In return for “freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families” on Iranian territory, the Islamic Republic demanded that al-Qaeda “refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities.” Pompeo similarly emphasized that Iran allowed al-Qaeda to establish an “operational headquarters” so long as “al-Qa’ida operatives abide by the regime’s rules.”
Unsurprisingly, the relationship has hardly been harmonious. Al-Qaeda and Iran make for rather awkward allies. Al-Qaeda subscribes to a brand of Sunni jihadism that considers Shiite Muslims apostates. Although al-Qaeda has long viewed the threat of Shiism to be less pressing than that of the United States, it thus hardly views the Shiiite sect favorably. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran, itself a Shiite theocracy, may share deep enmity towards the United States and the Islamic State, but common enemies do not make a friendship.
To avoid alienating his supporters in Saudi Arabia, in the 1990s, bin Laden is reported to have rebuffed Iran’s advances. At times, al-Qaeda’s passive rhetoric vis-a-vis Iran has exposed it to criticism from supporters and competitors alike, leading it to ramp up the intensity of its threats toward Iran. Iran seems to have not always appreciated al-Qaeda’s attempts at intimidation. In one missive, an al-Qaeda operative described the Islamic Republic’s request that al-Qaeda leaders “calm down the campaign against them, as our enemy is the same.”
Iran and al-Qaeda have also found themselves in one another’s crosshairs. The virulent anti-Shiite attacks perpetrated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization notwithstanding, al-Qaeda has kidnapped two Iranian diplomats to secure the release of its prisoners. In 2014, al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate claimed a car bomb attack on the Iranian ambassador’s residence.
Beyond the wave of detentions in the early 2000s, Iran has also occasionally arrested other al-Qaeda operatives residing on its soil. The Iranian government imprisoned senior al-Qaeda facilitator Yasin al-Suri at least twice: once around June 2008 and another time in December 2011. In 2009, Iran also arrested an al-Qaeda “official” in Iran, leading the group’s “work” to stop.
Likely due to the unpredictability of Iranian authorities, anxieties over being double-crossed by Iran pervade al-Qaeda’s internal correspondence. Several Abbottabad documents speculate that Iran might trade al-Qaeda prisoners or was otherwise in cahoots with the West. Al-Qaeda’s suspicions are particularly apparent in an exchange between senior al-Qaeda leader Attiya Abd al-Rahman and bin Laden in the fall of 2010. After Attiya reported the death of over ten al-Qaeda operatives in a single month, two of whom had recently been released from Iranian custody, bin Laden asked his subordinate, “Did you notice that the brothers coming from Iran were targeted due to the Iranians colluding with America to hide chips on them?”
Nevertheless, It Will Likely Persist
It would be tempting to view al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran as one that is prone to fracture. Al-Qaeda and Iran now find themselves on opposing sides of civil wars in Syria and Yemen. And the death of Abu Muhammad al-Masri on Iranian soil might compound these conflicting objectives and provide the catalyst for a more permanent breakup. The relationship’s history suggests, however, that more continuity than change will be in the cards.
Al-Qaeda and Iran have long been at odds in the Middle East. In fact, Iran likely opened up communications with al-Qaeda in 2004 due to al-Zarqawi’s targeting of Shiite holy sites in Iraq. And the relationship has, up to this point, survived despite Iran and al-Qaeda’s misaligned interests elsewhere. A series of U.S. State Department reports from 2017-2019 describe al-Qaeda’s functioning Iran-based facilitation network even as the group’s regional objectives diverged from those of Iran, just as a 2018 United Nations report highlights how both Sayf al-Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri performed their leadership duties from Iran.
Al-Masri’s death will also likely bring familiar tensions to the forefront, but these have not broken the relationship in the past and probably will not do so in the near term. Just as bin Laden inquired about potential Iranian treachery after operatives released from Iranian custody were killed, so too might al-Qaeda’s leadership be pondering whether Tehran sold out al-Masri to a foreign government. This is to say nothing of the embarrassment al-Qaeda might incur as media reports pile up detailing al-Masri’s presence in Iran. The presence and martyrdom of one of its leaders on Iranian territory could provide ammunition for al-Qaeda’s external critics and again lead al-Qaeda to criticize and threaten Iran.
The loss of a talented leader like al-Masri may also make the costs of hosting al-Qaeda even more unattractive for Tehran. Spending time and resources monitoring al-Qaeda operatives and enforcing its conditions may no longer be worth it for Iran if it feels al-Qaeda has outlived its utility as a partner. Coupled with the death of Abu Muhsin al-Masri in Afghanistan, the preceding string of al-Qaeda operatives killed in Pakistan, as well as the rumored death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Masri’s assassination may give Iran the impression that al-Qaeda is a sinking ship and that its bench of veteran operatives has been eroded, with the notable exception of Sayf al-Adl. Any criticism of Iran from al-Qaeda in response to al-Masri’s death could only add salt to the wound.
Yet, the Islamic Republic may not yet have a view that al-Qaeda is “in crisis.” There are reasons to doubt claims of al-Qaeda’s imminent downfall. Moreover, Iran remained engaged with al-Qaeda even as it endured frequent losses of senior personnel in 2010, and the relationship survived the May 2011 death of bin Laden himself.
In the short term, both al-Qaeda and Iran may prefer that the relationship become more distant. When media reports of al-Masri’s death surfaced, Iran officially denied the presence of al-Qaeda members on its soil. Al-Qaeda may eulogize al-Masri but follow with a denial that he was based in Iran. It might even slip in a few derogatory insults towards the Iranian regime. The detrimental effects will likely stop there.
Addressing Iranian tolerance for al-Qaeda operatives on its soil should start with a proper characterization of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda. Whereas former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s summarization of the relationship’s past as one of “thirty years of cooperation” may understate discordant dimensions of this relationship, the United States cannot simply take for granted that turbulence will cause the relationship to break. The relationship’s history suggests a remarkably resilient, if still thin, form of cooperation, even as al-Qaeda and Iran’s strategic objectives have diverged and distrust and ideological tension have persisted.
In light of the bounded nature of the Islamic Republic’s relationship with al-Qaeda, U.S. policymakers should remain clear-eyed about the immediacy of addressing other aspects of Iranian activities. Iranian tolerance for al-Qaeda operatives on its soil has certainly been helpful for the group. But, it is not nearly as important for the West as Iran’s nuclear program, threats to maritime security, support to regional Shiite militia proxies, and development of ballistic missiles. Any escalation in lethal counterterrorism pressure on remaining Iran-based al-Qaeda cadres could needlessly antagonize Tehran and divert attention from these more pressing threats.
Still, Iran’s indifference toward the group is dangerous for both U.S. interests and those of its partners and allies. The United States should do what it can to make this relationship as uncomfortable as possible. First, the United States should continue to shine a spotlight on Iran’s willingness to host al-Qaeda operatives through continued U.S. Treasury designations and Rewards for Justice offers. The United States could also play into al-Qaeda’s fears of Iranian betrayal. This might include publicly highlighting al-Qaeda’s own internal reports of the crackdown in the early 2000s and the rather harrowing tales of al-Qaeda prisoners who found themselves in Iranian custody. Should Iran-based al-Qaeda operatives be captured or killed elsewhere, the United States might imply that Iran provided the intelligence lead.
The possibility that al-Qaeda could receive direction and lethal technology from Tehran is alarming. Fortunately, though, al-Qaeda and Iran’s checkered history suggests it is also highly unlikely. The United States should avoid overstating the extent of this relationship and instead focus the lion’s share of its time and attention on more vexing dimensions of Iranian behavior.
Dr. Bryce Loidolt is a research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. This essay draws from his recently published article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism examining the evolution of al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran using documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.