The Islamic Republic of Iran released five senior al-Qaeda terrorists in March, ostensibly as part of a prisoner exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But the murky circumstances in which al-Qaeda’s leaders were “held” in Iran and other inconsistencies cast some doubt on this version of events, and draw attention to some old questions about Iran’s support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates and offshoots.
According to a September 14 report by Sky News, the five al-Qaeda leaders were freed—and will soon be allowed to leave Iran—in exchange for Nour Ahmad Nikbakht, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped by AQAP in July 2013 who landed in Tehran on March 5. Even on this version of events it means that the Iranian State media reports at the time, that Nikbakht was freed as the result of “intelligence operation,” were false.
Who Has Been Released?
The most important al-Qaeda leader freed by Iran is Sayf al-Adel. Regarded as al-Qaeda’s number three, al-Adel is one of al-Qaeda’s most capable military leaders. Beginning his career in the Egyptian military, before moving into Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), then led by Ayman az-Zawahiri, al-Adel was one of the masterminds behind the conspiracy that assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. By 1988, al-Adel was in Afghanistan and remained after the Soviets left.
Iran has long had friendly relations with Egypt’s Sunni Islamists and the alliance with EIJ was further strengthened via Hassan al-Turabi in the early 1990s, after which Zawahiri was the poster-boy for Iran’s policy of ecumenical support for anti-American Islamic radicalism. Al-Adel was among those trained by Iran through the Hizballah in Lebanon in the early 1990s, going on to serve on al-Qaeda’s Shura Council and as al-Qaeda’s security chief. Al-Adel is believed to have been involved in the 1998 Embassy bombings and the butchery of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, though, interestingly, al-Adel seems to have opposed to the 9/11 massacre.
Al-Adel was key in convincing Osama bin Laden to maintain relations with Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, despite Zarqawi and Bin Laden having a stormy initial meeting and retaining deep difference over the “far enemy” question. Zarqawi had extensive contacts in the Levant, al-Adel argued, and this “rolodex pragmatism” would carry the day—and quickly: al-Qaeda put Zarqawi’s contacts to use for the Jordanian end of the Millennium Plot in December 1999.
EIJ had operated quite freely in Iran in the 1990s and after the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 al-Qaeda members and associates, al-Adel and Zarqawi among them, took shelter in Tehran and Mashhad, where Zarqawi was even reportedly trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC).
Zarqawi moved from Iran to an area of Iraq controlled by Ansar al-Islam, which was led by Zarqawi loyalists and received assistance from both al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in April 2002. The next month, Zarqawi moved to Baghdad with two-dozen senior al-Qaeda associates, including his successor Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Hammam as-Suri, the head of the military for Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), at least until he was supposedly killed in March. Zarqawi was allowed free movement in and out of Baghdad, and he conducted a tour of the Levant to set up the “ratlines” that brought foreign holy warriors into Iraq during the American regency. By November 2002, Zarqawi had taken direct charge of Ansar in northern Iraq.
Zarqawi and three-hundred jihadists were allowed to move back into Iran during the Iraq invasion, before being permitted to cross the border again later in 2003 to make war against constitutional government in Iraq. Once back in Iraq, Ansar would reassert its autonomy from Zarqawi, albeit remaining in coordination with him, and Zarqawi and his associates from the Herat camp in Afghanistan rebranded their group from Jund a-Sham to at-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which later became al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and eventually the Islamic State (ISIS). An al-Qaeda network maintained on Iranian soil, of which al-Adel was a senior member, was an important logistics and supply base for AQI.
From Iran, in collusion with Zarqawi, al-Adel organized the bombing of Riyadh in May 2003, after which the Iranian theocracy ostensibly placed al-Adel under some form of arrest, the terms of which were never made clear. Al-Adel was reported to have been released in a previous prisoner swap in 2010. After Bin Laden was struck down, it is said that al-Adel was the interim leader of al-Qaeda—which couldn’t have happened if al-Adel was truly detained. Several reports in the summer of 2011 said Tehran had allowed al-Adel to travel between Iran and Pakistan.
The other four al-Qaeda leaders set free by Iran are:
- Abu Khayr al-Masri: An Egyptian member of al-Qaeda’s Shura Council, Abu Khayr was as a member of the Black Guard, the elite bodyguard unit, connected directly to Bin Laden and Zawahiri. Abu Khayr was al-Qaeda’s chief of foreign relations and the principal conduit to the Taliban. Abu Khayr is one of the most-wanted men in his native Saudi Arabia. Reported to have travelled from Iran to Pakistan in 2010 with Saad bin Laden, Osama’s son, it is not clear how or why Abu Khayr ended up back in Iran and what exactly were the arrangements of his captivity.
- Abu Muhammad al-Masri: One of the most important operational planners in al-Qaeda, Abu Muhammad is another Egyptian member of the Shura Council, and a close associate of al-Adel’s. Abu Muhammad is under U.S. indictment for the African Embassy bombings.
- Khaled al-Aruri (a.k.a. Abu al-Qassam): A Jordanian national of Palestinian descent, al-Aruri was with Zarqawi in his formative period: they travelled together to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, were imprisoned together in Jordan in 1994 with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and went back to Taliban Afghanistan together in 1999. Al-Aruri then moved with Zarqawi to Iran to Iraq back to Iran and then into Iraq again. Al-Aruri remained a deputy commander of AQI and one of Zarqawi’s closest companions until Zarqawi was killed in 2006.
- Sari Shibab: A Jordanian al-Qaeda member of whom little is publicly known.
A History of Duplicity
Perhaps Iran really has been strong-armed into releasing these men—when al-Adel was last reported released in 2010, it is said that al-Qaeda had kidnapped an IRGC officer disguised as a diplomat in Pakistan to hasten a release process that was already in motion. But without clarity on whether al-Adel was released in 2010—or if he was, whether, when, how, and why he was rearrested—this raises more questions than it answers. And whatever the case might be, none of the confusion conceals the fact that Iran’s holding senior al-Qaeda leaders under “house arrest” is a sham.
The most recent annual State Department report on State-sponsors of terrorism noted:
Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al-Qa’ida (AQ) members it continued to detain, and refused to publicly identify those senior members in its custody.
Some version of this language has appeared in the State Department reports since 2002. Apologists for the Iranian government have made bizarre claims for Iranian cooperation with NATO in 2001-02, including that Iran handed to the United Nations copies of 300 passports of al-Qaeda members it had deported and/or turned over 200 al-Qaeda fighters to the Afghan government. The evidence for both claims is thin, to put it charitably, and in neither case would make a lot of difference—copies of passports or even actual people are no use when Iran retains the senior Qaedaists and lets them plan external operations from “house arrest”.
As mentioned above, Iran was a crucial hinterland and supply line for ISIS when it was still part of al-Qaeda. Iran never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to interdict ISIS, and the evidence is suggestive of more direct Iranian assistance to ISIS in killing American and British soldiers in Iraq. To this day accusations continue to surface of Iranian assistance to ISIS.
(Important as Iran’s support to AQI/ISIS was in showing Iran’s operating methods, Iran’s main instrument in waging an actual war against Western forces in Iraq was IRGC’s Department 1000/Ramadan Corps and Hizballah’s Unit 3800, which expanded Iran’s Iraqi proxy Shi’a militias and supplied them with training and lethal munitions that allowed them to kill and wound more than 1,000 American soldiers. Iran never paid a price for this, any more than it did for waging a global terrorist war against the West and world Jewry with bombings as far away in Argentina. At the present time, these militias are receiving U.S. close air support under the banner of al-Hashd al-Shabi.)
The State Department report added:
Iran previously allowed AQ facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.
While Iran is supposedly helping the Assad regime “fight terrorism,” including Nusra, the Iran-based al-Qaeda network—which operates with the sanction of the Iranian government—is one of Nusra’s key support systems. Indeed, as the profiles of the so-called “Khorasan Group” show, al-Qaeda’s bureaucracy in Syria, its most important mechanism for ensuring that Nusra remains an instrument of al-Qaeda global jihad and doesn’t go local, is significantly reliant on Iran, both in the initial transit of the Khorasannites to Syria and in their supply of instructions and materiel from al-Qaeda “Central” since.
The Assad regime bet its survival on presenting the uprising as a terrorist revolt, and thus calling on international support—or at least sympathy—in putting it down. The crucial aspect of this was strengthening the Salafi-jihadists within the insurgency and weakening the moderates; Iran—and Russia—have been crucial to this effort at every stage, and Iran’s facilitating the travel of al-Qaeda members to Syria and ensuring al-Qaeda is better supplied than the nationalist rebels is within this strategic paradigm. In this way does Iran instrumentalize al-Qaeda.
According to the Sky News report, Iran has taken additional precautions with the newly-released al-Qaeda members, who are being allowed to leave Iran—almost certainly to Syria—but only after they “agreed not to turn their guns on the regime of Bashar al Assad”.
If al-Adel and the other al-Qaeda members released by Iran do not go to Syria, the other option is Iraq. According to some Salafi-jihadists on social media, al-Qaeda is moving back into Iraq, led by al-Aruri. With ISIS’s break from al-Qaeda and its conquest of central Iraq in June 2014 that essentially subsumed all other insurgent factions, al-Qaeda had been expunged from Mesopotamia, and ISIS has claimed Zarqawi’s mantle—and Bin Laden’s, arguing that Zawahiri had gone astray. Al-Aruri would provide al-Qaeda a powerful capacity to wage political warfare against ISIS in Iraq. As an intimate of Zarqawi’s from before 9/11 until his death and a man of impeccable jihadi credentials, a challenge from al-Aruri to ISIS for the legacy of Zarqawi could not be easily dismissed.
An Old Story
If this story helps focus attention on Iran’s long support for Sunni jihadists in Afghanistan against the West and the elected government, which has recently increased as the West draws down, and helps dispel the idea that Iran has a common interest with the West in stability, so much the better. But Iran releasing these al-Qaeda leaders, and the biographies of these leaders, elucidates some even older questions about Iran’s support for al-Qaeda.
For instance, al-Adel’s training by Hizballah was provided for under the agreement struck between al-Qaeda and Iran in 1992, which began their alliance. The accord was personally signed-off on at a meeting in Sudan between Bin Laden and Imad Mughniyeh, an Iranian agent and actual IRGC officer who was Hizballah’s military leader until he was killed in an Israeli-led operation in Damascus in 2008. Before 9/11, Mughniyeh was responsible for killing the most Americans with terrorism.
In 1996, al-Qaeda and Iran moved to an operational alliance with the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, an operation run out of Iran’s Embassy in Damascus through Hizballah al-Hijaz (Saudi Hizballah). Al-Qaeda’s role is “as yet unknown,” according to the 9/11 Commission Report. The Assad regime was, at the very least, an accomplice after the fact, allowing Hizballah al-Hijaz members to flee across its territory and even sheltering some of them.
Iran made a “concerted effort to strengthen relations” with al-Qaeda as al-Qaeda’s lethal capacity became more evident, after the 1998 Embassy bombings and the hit on the U.S.S. Cole, the 9/11 Commission notes.
The most troubling questions of all, however, relate to 9/11 itself. Iran facilitated the travel of at least eight of the 9/11 death pilots and Hizballah had weird connections with some of them that were never explored. It is known that the 9/11 Commission never properly exploited the National Security Agency’s files, but what little of NSA’s documents the 9/11 Commission did read changed the final report substantially. “We believe this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government,” the 9/11 Commission concluded. It might be nice to have this further investigation completed before the U.S. solidifies a regional partnership with Iran based on the idea that Tehran is a foe of (Sunni) terrorism.
UPDATE: Asharq al-Awsat attained and published six documents from a New York courthouse on March 17, 2016: “The verdict … fines Iran billions of dollars in compensation for the families of the victims of the [9/11] attack. … [Judge] George Daniels condemned Iran for facilitating the execution of the terrorist attacks that affected both New York and Washington. Documents … emphasize Iran smoothing out the route for al-Qaeda terrorists moving to campgrounds in Afghanistan for training, which proved necessary for the 9/11 attacks to hit target. Moreover, documents exposed that Hezbollah alleged minister of defense Imad Mughniyeh … had visited the perpetrators in October 2000 and had arranged their flight to Iran with new passports for their assurance before dispatching them for the attack. Iranian administration had also given orders for border checkpoints and observatories to stamp the passports of the terrorist attackers, in a move to facilitate their advance. Al-Qaeda persistently had a supporting lifeline provided by the Iranian government, which also provided the terrorist organization—according to the documents—with both financial backing and safe haven to terrorist top leaders after the September 11 attacks.”
UPDATE 2: The U.S. Treasury designated “three al-Qaeda senior members located in Iran” as global terrorists on 20 July 2016.
First, there is Faysal al-Khalidi, referred to as “part of a new generation of al-Qaida operatives” by Treasury. It seems al-Khalidi has been being groomed by al-Qaeda for a leadership role since at least 2007 under the tutelage of Jamal al-Misrati (Atiyah Abd al-Rahman). Al-Khalidi is “an emir of an al-Qaeda brigade” and by 2011 was responsible for liaising between al-Qaeda’s Shura Council and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a.k.a. the Pakistani Taliban, a designated terrorist organization. By 2014, al-Khalidi was “an al-Qaeda battalion commander and received funding from al-Qaeda,” and in May 2015 attended an annual meeting of al-Qaeda’s leadership as the organization’s “Military Commission Chief”.
Yisra Bayumi is a “veteran” jihadist who has been a member of al-Qaeda since 2006 and been based in Iran since 2014. Bayumi has been used by al-Qaeda to gather funds, to assist al-Qaeda members on the loose in Iran and “served as a mediator with Iranian authorities” to release other al-Qaeda members.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Bayumi taken part in “securing funds from Syria for al-Qaeda members and facilitating al-Qaida funds transfers” (emphasis added). This suggests that—just as Zawahiri once asked Zarqawi for funds—the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda is so successful it is providing kick-backs to the “centre” and/or to other branches.
And finally Abu Bakr Muhammad Ghumayn, “a senior al-Qaeda leader who has served in several financial, communications, and logistical roles for the group.” Ghumayn was “a conduit” to al-Qaeda’s leadership and held an “intelligence and security” role until late 2014, when he moved from Waziristan to Iran, where he “assumed control of the financing and organization of al-Qaeda members located in Iran.”
All of these nodes in al-Qaeda’s network live out of reach of the U.S.’s drones, under the protection of the Iranian government.