Al Qaeda's Safe Haven in Iran

July 29, 2011

Iran's border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Treasury Department yesterday identified six al Qaeda members as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.[1] These six terrorist operatives form a network that funnels money and personnel from the Gulf to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan via Iran. The head of the network, Syrian-born Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, operates from inside Iran with the full knowledge of the Iranian regime.

Al Qaeda’s presence in Iran and its operatives’ links to the Iranian government and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were known to exist prior to this designation. In the 1990s, al Qaeda associates negotiated an agreement between Osama bin Laden and the Iranian government that allowed the transit of al Qaeda operatives through Iran into Afghanistan.[2] According to Treasury, Khalil, who represents al Qaeda in Iran, has run the current network since 2005 “under an agreement between al-Qaida and the Iranian government.” [3] The network is “the core pipeline” for moving money and personnel from the Middle East into South Asia. [4]

The announcement is significant for at least two reasons. First, the operability of the network confirms that the Iranian regime is directly facilitating al Qaeda activity in the region, including coordinating with al Qaeda’s representative in Iran to arrange the release of al Qaeda members from “detention.” This arrangement, in place since 2005, further demonstrates the Iranian regime’s willingness to discount the Sunni-Shi’a sectarian divide if it can help inflict harm on American security and interests. Previously, the Treasury identified two senior IRGC Quds Force officers overseeing the provision of financial and material support to Taliban insurgents on behalf of the Iranian regime.[5] 

Second, the network’s ties to multiple enemy groups illustrate the syndicate-like nature of al Qaeda’s presence in Iran. Al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan, al Qaeda in Iraq, and the Taliban are all connected to the Khalil network according to Treasury. Recent American and coalition operations in Afghanistan corroborate the existence of other al Qaeda-affiliated networks inside Iran. In February, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan troops detained an Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) facilitator in northern Afghanistan; the IJU facilitator coordinated the flow of foreign fighters from Iran into Afghanistan.[6] Last November, coalition forces targeted a Taliban facilitator who “provides a conduit for foreign fighters from an array of terrorist networks,” including al Qaeda.[7] The facilitator, transiting between Iran and Afghanistan, moved foreign fighters from Iran into southern Afghanistan. A previous raid cited the presence of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) facilitators inside Iran.[8]

The coexistence of these various networks in Iran may be creating safe haven for terrorists not unlike the militant sanctuary in Pakistan.

 

Timeline: Al Qaeda’s Presence in Iran

2005-Present: An Iran-based al Qaeda network led by Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil funnels Gulf money and personnel for al Qaeda from Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. The network, operates “under an agreement” between al Qaeda and the Iranian regime, has personnel in Kuwait and Qatar, and is connected to Pakistan through al Qaeda’s top commander in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Atiyah Abd al Rahman. Rahman “was previously appointed…as al-Qaida’s emissary in Iran” by Osama bin Laden.[9]

August 5, 2010: The State Department’s annual worldwide terrorism assessment noted that Iran “remained unwilling to bring to justice” and “refused to publicly identify” senior al Qaeda members in its custody.[10]

May 13, 2010: A report based on “dozens of interviews with current and former [American] intelligence and counterterrorism officials” concluded that “there was no obvious pattern” in al Qaeda operatives’ movements in Iran. “Sometimes the men could travel or communicate with other operatives. Other times, they were under tight constraints and the U.S. considered them to be out of commission,” the report noted.[11]

March 16, 2010: Al Qaeda is using Iran “as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates. And although Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al-Qaeda facilitators and operational planners, Tehran’s policy in this regard if often unpredictable.”[12]

January 2003: Senior Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) member Muhammad Rab’a al Sayid al Bahtiyti “arranged housing on behalf of al Qaida” in Iran. Bahtiyti, Ayman al Zawahiri’s aide and son-in-law, oversaw the transfer of Zawahiri’s daughters from Afghanistan into Iran after 9/11.[13]

2002: Senior al Qaeda associate Mustafa Hamid “facilitated contacts” between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and an unnamed senior al Qaeda military commander.[14]

Late 2001: Senior al Qaeda associate Mustafa Hamid negotiated the relocation of al Qaeda members’ families from Afghanistan to Iran on behalf of al Qaeda. Two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members escorted Hamid and senior al Qaeda member Abu Hafs the Mauritanian to Tehran for meetings with Iranian officials. The IRGC was Hamid’s “point of contact for communication between al Qaida and Iran.”[15]  

Late 2001: Senior al Qaeda associate Ali Saleh Husain helped transfer an al Qaeda military commander and al Qaeda-linked fighters from Afghanistan to Iran. Husain “was responsible for smuggling al Qaida members and associates via networks in Zahedan, Iran.”[16]

Late 2001: Sa’ad bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son, facilitated the transfer of his family members from Afghanistan to Iran. He “made key decisions for al Qaida” and helped manage the terrorist network from Iran.[17] He left Iran as of 2009 and was “probably in Pakistan,” according to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.[18] Subsequent reports of his killing in a 2009 drone strike, as yet unconfirmed, indicated he was in Pakistan.[19]

Late 2001: Saif al Adel, a senior al Qaeda operational leader indicted for his involvement in the 2008 American embassy bombings in Africa, oversaw the transfer of al Qaeda leadership from Afghanistan into Iran following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Adel reportedly used financing from Gulf donors to rent housing in Iran for al Qaeda members and families. After 1999, Adel “established connections with sympathetic parties in Iran and set up way stations in Tehran and Mashad for mujahidin bound for Afghanistan.”[20]

October 2000-February 2001: 8-10 of the 14 “Saudi ‘muscle’ operatives [who carried out the 9/11 attacks] traveled into or out of Iran.”[21]

Late 1990s: Senior al Qaeda associate Mustafa Hamid served as a liaison between Osama bin Laden and the government of Iran.[22] Hamid reportedly traveled between Kandahar, Afghanistan and Tehran, Iran “as an intermediary for the Taliban” when tensions between the Iranian government and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan heightened.[23]

After May 1996: Iranian security officials and senior al Qaeda figures maintained contact. Iranian officials reportedly offered to facilitate the movement of al Qaeda to Afghanistan through Iran.[24]

Mid-1990s: Senior al Qaeda associate Mustafa Hamid negotiated an agreement with the Iranian government on behalf of Osama bin Laden. The agreement reportedly facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives from Iran into Afghanistan.[25]

Late 1991 or 1992: Al Qaeda and Iranian operatives negotiated an informal agreement to provide support, “even if only training,” for attacks against the U.S. and Israel. Senior al Qaeda operatives subsequently went to Iran for explosives training. Senior al Qaeda operatives traveled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold, in 1993 for similar training.[26]   

  



[1] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al-Qa’ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran As Critical Transit Point,” July 28, 2011, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1261.aspx.
[2] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Operatives in Iran,” January 16, 2009, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1360.aspx.
[3] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al-Qa’ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran As Critical Transit Point,” July 28, 2011, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1261.aspx.
[4] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al-Qa’ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran As Critical Transit Point,” July 28, 2011, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1261.aspx.
[5] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Fact Sheet: U.S. Treasury Department Targets Iran’s Support for Terrorism,” August 3, 2010, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg810.aspx.
[6] ISAF, “ISAF Joint Command Morning Operational Update, February 10, 2011, http://www.isaf.nato.int/article/isaf-releases/isaf-joint-command-morning-operational-update.html.
[7] ISAF, “Forces Continue Degrading Haqqani Network, Facilitator Captured,” November 25, 2011, http://www.isaf.nato.int/article/isaf-releases/forces-continue-degrading-haqqani-network-facilitator-captured.html.  
[8] ISAF, “IMU Facilitator Captured in Kunduz,” September 15, 2010, http://www.isaf.nato.int/article/isaf-releases/imu-facilitator-captured-in-kunduz.html.
[9] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al-Qa’ida Funding and Support Network Using Iran As Critical Transit Point,” July 28, 2011, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1261.aspx.
[10] U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Terrorism,” August 5, 2010, http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2009/140889.htm.
[11] Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, “CIA Tracks Al-Qaida Moving from Iran,” Associated Press, May 13, 2010, http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2010/05/13/ap_exclusive_iran_eases_grip_on_al_qaida/.
[12] General David H. Petraeus, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 16, 2010, http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2010/03%20March/Petraeus%2003-16-10.pdf.
[13] Iranian authorities reportedly arrested Bahtiyti in 2003. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Operatives in Iran,” January 16, 2009, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1360.aspx.
[14] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Operatives in Iran,” January 16, 2009, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1360.aspx.
[15] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Operatives in Iran,” January 16, 2009, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1360.aspx.
[16] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Operatives in Iran,” January 16, 2009, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1360.aspx.
[17] Iranian authorities arrested him in 2003, but the Treasury Department noted in 2009 that, as of September 2008, “it was possible” that he was no longer in Iranian custody. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Operatives in Iran,” January 16, 2009, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1360.aspx.
[18] Siobhan Gorman, “Spy Chief Says Bin Laden Son Left Iran, Likely Is In Pakistan,” The Wall Street Journal, January 16 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123214632242491755.html
[19] Joby Warrick, “One of Osama Bin Laden’s Sons Reported Dead After CIA Missile Strike,” The Washington Post, July 24 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/23/AR2009072301966.html
[20] This information is contained in Adel’s memoir about Abu Musa’ab al Zarqawi cited in Clint Watts, Jacob Shapiro, and Vahid Brown, “Al Qa’ida’s (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2, 2007, http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Al-Qaidas-MisAdventures-in-the-Horn-of-Africa.pdf.
[22] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Operatives in Iran,” January 16, 2009, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1360.aspx.
[23] In 1998, Iran deployed troops to its border with Afghanistan following the Taliban’s reporting targeting of Shi’a in northern Afghanistan that left several Iranian diplomats dead. “Taliban threatens retaliation if Iran strikes,” CNN, September 15, 1998, http://articles.cnn.com/1998-09-15/world/9809_15_iran.afghan.tensions.02_1_iran-attacks-iranian-diplomats-wakil-ahmed?_s=PM:WORLD.
[25] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida Operatives in Iran,” January 16, 2009, http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp1360.aspx.