Mona Alami

January 13, 2014

Not an easy relationship

NOW investigates the fraught ties between Iran and al-Qaeda members




A Shiite cleric walks in front of the site of the Iranian embassy bombing

Recent controversy between Iran and Saudi Arabia surrounding the death of Majid al-Majid, commander of the Abdullah Azzam brigades, highlights Iran’s rocky relationship with al-Qaeda in a context of sectarian tension across the region.


Majid’s death was attributed by Lebanese army sources, who spoke to NOW on condition of anonymity, to an attempt on his life in Qalamoun. Though his death in custody was ruled by Lebanese authorities to have been the result of natural causes, Iran, which had demanded to be privy to any and all interrogations, has claimed foul play. However, Iran’s interest in the Abdullah Azzam Brigades is nothing new: it also underlines the paradoxical relations the Islamic Republic maintains with al-Qaeda and Palestinian salafi groups.


In the 1980s, Sheikh Ibrahim Ghunaym emerged on the Palestinian scene in Lebanon. The sheikh – who, according to researcher Bernard Rougier’s book, Le Jihad au quotidian (Everyday Jihad), was backed and financed by the Iranian embassy – contributed to the creation of al-Haraka al-Islamiyya al-Moujahida (Islamic Jihad Movement), a radical Salafi group still based in the Ain al-Helweh camp.


Saleh al-Qaraawi, founder of the Abdullah Azzam brigades, is believed to have spent some time in Iran in the mid-2000s. According to a 2009 article that appeared in The New York Times, Qaraawi was in charge of leading al-Qaeda's operations in the Persian Gulf and was tasked with bringing new members into Afghanistan. After leaving Iran and his post in the Gulf, the Saudi national became known for forming the Abdullah Azzam Brigades as an al-Qaeda affiliate in Lebanon and Syria at the behest of AbuMusab al-Zarqawi.


“After the US attacks against the Taliban in late 2001, scores of al-Qaeda members fled over the border into Iran. Iran was also a passageway to Pakistan and Iraq for al-Qaeda operatives. Iran intelligence apparatus being what it is, it is highly doubtful that no one was aware of that transit activity,” former CIA officer and author Robert Baer told NOW.


Several other al-Qaeda members have spent time in Iran in some capacity or another. Such is the case with Abdullah al-Ayed, an al-Qaeda operative who is believed to have been involved in the assassination of a senior Saudi security officer, according to Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat. Another is Mohamed Abul-Khair, a Saudi national who was one of Osama bin Laden’s personal bodyguards and was featured on the Saudi Interior Ministry’s list of its 85 most-wanted terrorists. Egyptian Saif al-Adel, who allegedly helped mastermind the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa, also lived in Iran for several years. And bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, lived in Iran under a loose form of house arrest for approximately a decade while serving as an al-Qaeda spokesman and fundraiser.


“Iran maintained rocky relations with al-Qaeda, but did Iran host al-Qaeda members to put pressure on the US, or to achieve its goals in certain countries? In addition, the only high-level meetings between al-Qaeda and Iran that can be confirmed are the initial Sudan meetings and those conducted in Afghanistan,” said Baer. 


Daniel Byman, a researcher at the Brookings Institute, quoted the 9/11 Commission Report to note that Iran and al-Qaeda worked together during the early 1990s, when senior al-Qaeda leaders were based in Sudan.


Baer similarly noted the significance of the Sudan period, telling NOW that “the only high-level meetings between al-Qaeda and Iran that can be confirmed are the initial Sudan meetings.”


The 9/11 Commission Report documented several instances in which Iran lent its support to al-Qaeda, though according to both Baer and Byman, the relationship was never smooth. “Iran always had an uneasy relationship with al-Qaeda,” Byman told NOW. “They both have shared an enmity to the United States and are hostile to other countries, like Saudi Arabia. Iran likes to maintain its options and seeks relations with groups that are also enemies. But Iran also placed al-Qaeda cadres in Iran under restrictions, often severe,” said Byman.


Byman believes that distrust between Tehran and al-Qaeda members may have prevented the two sides from developing a closer working relationship. “Documents recovered during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan in May 2011 show the relationship was fraught with difficulties,” he explained.


Today, al-Qaeda and Iran’s uneasy relationship has been further worsened by the growing Sunni-Shiite divide. “Iran has backed forces in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere that are highly opposed to al-Qaeda. The tension has almost certainly gotten much worse as sectarianism has swept the Middle East and the Syrian war has escalated,” says Byman.


This, however, does hide the fact that like many other countries such as the US and Saudi Arabia, Iran has tried at various points to capitalize on the converging interests it had with the al-Qaeda network.