‘FOREIGN MINISTER ZARIF, IS YOUR GOVERNMENT STILL HARBORING AL QAEDA OPERATIVES?’
So why are we working with Iran?
Weekly Standard, by Thomas Joscelyn, August 3, 2015:
On July 21, the Pentagon announced that Muhsin al-Fadhli, an al Qaeda operative who had been wanted for more than a decade, was killed in an airstrike in Syria earlier in the month. Fadhli has been dead at least once before. In September 2014, the United States launched airstrikes against his so-called Khorasan Group (a cadre of al Qaeda veterans plotting attacks against the West), and some officials told the press that Fadhli had perished. That wasn’t true. Still, Defense Department officials are confident they got their man on July 8. The DoD doesn’t usually issue formal press releases for this sort of thing unless there is significant intelligence backing up its claims. The department wasn’t fully forthcoming, however. Its short biography of Fadhli was missing a key word: Iran.
Before relocating to Syria, Fadhli led al Qaeda’s network in Iran. The Treasury Department revealed this fact in a terrorist designation issued October 18, 2012. Fadhli, Treasury reported, “began working with al Qaeda’s Iran-based facilitation network in 2009 and was later arrested by the Iranians.” But he was “released by the Iranians in 2011 and went on to assume the leadership of the facilitation network.”
“In addition to providing funding for al Qaeda activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Treasury said, Fadhli’s network was “working to move fighters and money through Turkey to support al Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria.” Fadhli leveraged “his extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors to send money to Syria via Turkey.”
Iran didn’t simply turn a blind eye to Fadhli’s activities. The Treasury Department explained that a deal requires al Qaeda’s men to report to the regime. “Under the terms of the agreement between al Qaeda and Iran, al Qaeda must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities.” Al Qaeda benefits from this relationship. “In return” for accepting Iran’s terms, Treasury continued, “the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al Qaeda network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.” Iranian authorities enforce these terms, which were negotiated “with the knowledge” of Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, by detaining al Qaeda members who do not comply.
There has been surprisingly little discussion of this during the debate over President Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran, even though al Qaeda’s presence on Iranian soil greatly complicates Obama’s vision of a post-deal world.
It is no secret that the president believes the deal with Iran could open the door to a better relationship between the regime and its “Great Satan,” America. “Iran may change,” Obama told the New York Times’s Tom Friedman in an interview published in April, though he tried to tone down his optimism by “emphasizing that the nuclear deal that we’ve put together is not based on the idea that somehow the regime changes.” Still, Obama said Iran could be “an extremely successful regional power” and a “responsible international player,” as long as “it did not engage in aggressive rhetoric against its neighbors,” “didn’t express anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment,” and “maintained a military that was sufficient to protect itself, but was not engaging in a whole bunch of proxy wars around the region.” Of course, a “responsible” Iran wouldn’t support al Qaeda either.
President Obama and his advisers like to pretend that critics of their Iran deal are warmongers who don’t want a diplomatic resolution or have otherwise been compromised by “lobbying.” But opponents of the deal are rightly concerned about Iran’s clear record of illicit nuclear activities and its decades of anti-Americanism (including killing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan), antisemitism, and revolutionary fervor, which the regime zealously exports throughout the region. (Iran has actually increased its support for proxy wars during Obama’s tenure in office.)
Iran’s agreement with al Qaeda—exposed by Obama’s own administration, not critics of the Iran deal—puts these concerns into stark relief. It is the administration, after all, that declared Muhsin al-Fadhli a threat to Americans who needed to be killed.
Since 2011, Obama’s Treasury and State Departments have repeatedly said that Iran works with al Qaeda. On July 28, 2011, Treasury unmasked “Iran’s secret deal with al-Qaeda,” saying it allows al Qaeda “to funnel funds and operatives through [Iranian] territory” and is “another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism.” Yasin al-Suri, the head of the Iran-based network at the time, and several of his al Qaeda colleagues were designated terrorists. On December 22, 2011, the State Department offered a $10 million reward for information leading to Suri’s capture—one of the richest rewards offered for any terrorist. “Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with al-Suri and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005,” State said.
On February 16, 2012, the Treasury Department designated Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for its support of al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq. According to Treasury, the “MOIS has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.” In addition, it “provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) . . . and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.” (AQI evolved into the Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot that controls significant territory in Iraq and Syria.)
As the Obama administration continued to shed light on al Qaeda’s operations inside Iran, Suri was sidelined. The Iranians placed him under some form of arrest in late 2011. At this point, as Treasury explained in the aforementioned October 18, 2012, designation, Fadhli took over.
Suri wasn’t in Iranian custody for long, however. In January 2014, State and Treasury Department officials interviewed by Al Jazeera warned that Suri was back on the street and “more active than ever.” Curiously, according to these officials, Iran allowed Suri to funnel cash and fighters to the Nusra Front, an official branch of al Qaeda that is engaged in a vicious fight against Iran’s proxies in Syria; it is not clear why. On February 6, 2014, Treasury officially confirmed that Suri had “resumed leadership of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network after being temporarily detained there in late 2011.” Treasury also designated one of Suri’s subordinates inside Iran.
Then, on August 22, 2014, the Treasury Department designated yet another al Qaeda leader who had operated in Iran, a Saudi known as Sanafi al-Nasr. Treasury said that Nasr served as the “chief of al Qaeda’s Iran-based extremist and financial facilitation network” in early 2013. (This was just after Fadhli left for Syria and before Suri resumed his leadership position.) Like Fadhli, Nasr relocated to Syria, where he became a senior member of the Nusra Front. He is also part of the Khorasan Group.
It is likely that Iran had the power to stop terrorists such as Fadhli from leaving Iranian soil. He had been imprisoned in Iran before and could have been again. The regime chose not to, for whatever reason.
Obama’s State Department has repeatedly pointed to this collusion in its annual Country Reports on Terrorism. Previous editions, such as the one published last year, referred to al Qaeda’s network inside Iran as a “core facilitation pipeline” that enables al Qaeda “to move funds and fighters to South Asia and also to Syria.” However, State’s most recent report, published earlier this year, says that Iran “previously allowed” al Qaeda to maintain this network. The implication is that Iran’s deal with al Qaeda is a thing of the past, although the department did not explicitly state this.
Has Iran changed its policy with respect to al Qaeda? There is no clear indication it has, despite the fact the two are at loggerheads in countries such as Syria and Yemen. Iran’s ally, the Assad regime, certainly wants al Qaeda terrorists like Fadhli taken out. And CNN reported last year that Syrian forces had captured Fadhli’s bodyguard, who supposedly offered up intelligence on his boss’s anti-Western plotting. But U.S. intelligence officials contacted by The Weekly Standard in recent months say they think the Iranians continue to allow al Qaeda jihadists to operate inside their country. If the Obama administration has evidence the situation has changed, they should present it.
In the meantime, congressmen and senators worried that the influx of cash Iran will receive under the nuclear deal will make it easier for the regime to sponsor terrorism should be asking some pointed questions. Do Iran and al Qaeda still have a deal in place? Is Yasin al-Suri still facilitating al Qaeda’s operations from inside Iran, as the administration itself warned just last year? Why should we trust the Iranian regime to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal if it is working with al Qaeda terrorists who threaten us?
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.