Iran and Al-Qaeda Again... What is Our Responsibility?
Iran and Al-Qaeda Again... What is Our Responsibility?
The immense changes we have seen since 9/11 have not changed what this ominous day for the future of international relations and our region’s ties to the rest of the world stands for. The ramifications of this crime perpetrated by Al-Qaeda remain at the heart of the series of events that have unfolded since that day, with the US invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban regime before continuing along its way toward Baghdad and taking down Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In both wars, Iran’s rule was crucial. The Velayat-e Faqih regime was preparing an onslaught against the Arab and Gulf countries neighboring it. In pursuing this end, it benefited from the frenzy that a wounded United States had been in and the confused cultural foundation underpinning the war, which allowed Iran to maintain its innocence in the face of accusations of terrorism and pin them on Sunni majority countries.
Shiite elites in Washington dominated the conversation about the war. Kanan Makiya, Fouad Ajami, and the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi were among the most prominent of these elites, as were Iranian nationalist elites who, despite their hostility to the regime in Tehran, did not aspire to wage a war that would destroy Iran. They all converged on the view that the US would be better off allying with the Shiites of the Middle East than its Sunnis; the oil of the Middle East is mostly on “Shiite geography,” which makes partition on sectarian grounds beneficial to US strategic goals and interests.
Iran’s cooperation with Washington on both the Afghan and Iraq wars during Mohammad Khatami’s term, politically and on the ground, was the most prominent consequence of the political and strategic ravings that had consumed the Americans at the time. Despite its inclusion in the “Axis of Evil,” as George W Bush called it in 2002, Washington continued to hold talks with Tehran and seek a broader settlement with it that goes beyond tactical agreements regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which brought down two common enemies of Iran and the US, the Taliban and Saddam. However, the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put a stick in the wheels of this effort, which the IRGC and Khamenei believed could threaten the sustainability of the revolutionary regime if taken too far.
It was from Biden’s pocket that dividing Iraq into three states was taken- an idea supported by Saudi Arabia’s enemies in the US and the Arab world. They launched media and political campaigns to “demonize” the Kingdom and hold it directly responsible for the crime that took place on 9/11 and then for the explosive rise of “jihadists” and their militias in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Jordan’s security was threatened, and propaganda campaigns against Egypt emerged, sowing the seeds of the regime’s eventual toppling.
In the first place- and as we would later find this out for a fact on the basis of documents and recordings found in Bin Laden’s safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan- Al-Qaeda did not recruit 15 Saudis among the 19 perpetrators haphazardly. Bin Laden wanted to “employ” a wounded United States to overthrow the Saudi regime in response to the attack that his demonic mind had planned and executed.
In this chaotic jungle of ideas, policies, and horror, Iran played its cards wisely after having put all of its rivals on the back foot. This chaos remains because of all the literature, which does not take seriously the role played by Iran in the lead-up to 9/11, whether direct or indirect, and in investing in the strategic opportunities that would follow as it crossed ideological and doctrinal dividing lines with astonishing dexterity.
On this year’s anniversary, the Twitter account ‘Anonymous’ posted a picture from 2015 of major Al-Qaeda figures in Iran: Saif al-Adel, who will likely succeed Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Muhammad al-Masri (who became a relative of Bin Laden after his son Hamza bin Laden married Masri’s daughter) who was the second in command before killed in Tehran in the summer of 2020, and Zawahiri’s deputy, Abu al-Khair al-Masri, who was killed in Syria in 2017.
Though it is the most recent, this image is not the only documentation proving the complicated ties between Tehran and Al-Qaeda.
Even the 9/11 Commission report concluded that some of those who perpetrated that attack had received training in Lebanon at the hands of Hezbollah and IRGC operatives when they began developing a relationship with Al-Qaeda in the early nineties. These ties were then fortified in the middle of that decade as the jihad organizations in Sudan allied together under the Sudanese Islamic preacher Hassan al-Turabi.
Moreover, in 2016, the New York Federal Court, headed by Judge George Daniels fined Iran billions of dollars, which the court ruled would go towards compensating the American families killed on 9/11 and the insurance companies that had incurred financial losses as a result of the attacks, for its role in facilitating these terrorist attacks.
Court documents from the proceedings indicate that Iran facilitated al-Qaeda operatives’ entry to Afghanistan, where they would go on to undergo training, and that Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh visited the perpetrators in October 2000, coordinating their trip to Iran and securing them new passports before the attack. These documents also demonstrate that the Iranian government ordered border guards not to stamp the perpetrators’ passports in order to avoid curtailing their mobility. Iran continued to provide material support to Al-Qaeda (according to the documents) after the September attacks, providing the organization’s top brass a safe haven.
These documents are consistent with the directives Osama bin Laden had issued to Al-Qaeda that were found in Abbottabad. The copies of these directives show that he had been opposed to the open hostility against Iran expressed by some within the movement and that he “opposes threatening Iran” because “Iran is our primary corridor” for accessing money, people and communication, as well as for negotiations regarding prisoners.
What we know about the stringent chain of command in the IRGC, whose final decisions are made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, should leave no doubt in our mind that cooperating with Al-Qaeda was Iranian state policy. Only rarely is this explicitly stated as the US position. One of those few occasions came weeks before the end of President Donald Trump’s term, when former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “unlike in Afghanistan, when Al-Qaeda was hiding in the mountains, Al-Qaeda today is operating under the hard shell of the Iranian regime’s protection.” On the other hand, the Chair of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean, told ‘The Guardian’ that the report found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded (Al-Qaeda).”
No strategic issue in the Middle East has been overlooked quite like the relationship between Al-Qaeda and Iran, the tactical alliances forged by Sunni and Shiite terrorists. Instead, we saw attempts to undermine the resilience of national regimes across the Middle East, under the pretext of democracy and human rights, taken extremely lightly.
Will we see, for example, a massive Arabic series on Netflix or another platform that dramatizes this conflict? Or will we satisfy ourselves with opposing Netflix’s social agenda in light of the culture wars, producing works to counter this agenda- thereby entrenching the ideas about who is “progressive” and “backward” in the Western mind and providing our enemies with fodder to use against us?!