Shiite Iran and Sunni Al Qaeda have long had a hostile relationship. While state involvement appears unlikely, Tehran has less control over the country's far east.
When Canadian officials made that charge yesterday, it surprised Iran specialists because the Shiite Islamic Republic and hard-line Sunni Al Qaeda have been largely hostile to each other for the last two decades.
The history of antagonism between the Iranian government and Al Qaeda makes any state involvement unlikely. However, operatives may be exploiting loose government control in remote border areas.
Iran today denied that it had any connection to the “major terrorist attack” that Canadian officials say they thwarted. According to officials, “Al Qaeda elements in Iran” gave “direction and guidance” to Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal, and Raed Jaser of Toronto, to mount an attack on a Toronto-New York train line. The suspects had been under surveillance for a year before their arrests.
“No shred of evidence regarding those who’ve been arrested and stand accused has been provided,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said today, according to Iranian media.
“We oppose any kind of violent act that endangers lives,” said Mr. Mehmanparast. “In recent years, Canada’s radical government has put in practice a project to harass Iran, and it is clear that it has pursued these hostile actions.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it had no evidence of Iranian state sponsorship in the plot, but also did not specify how Al Qaeda elements in Iran may have been able to shape events from two continents away, and without Iranian knowledge.
Reuters reported that a US government source suggested that “Iran was home to a little-known network of Al Qaeda fixers and 'facilitators' based in the Iranian city of Zahedan,” located near Iran’s remote eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, an area known for its lawlessness.
Those fixers “serve as go-betweens, travel agents and financial intermediaries for Al Qaeda operatives and cells operating in Pakistan and moving throughout the area,” and "do not operate under the protection of the Iranian government, which periodically launches crackdowns on Al Qaeda elements," Reuters reports.
Iran detained hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters who fled from Afghanistan to Iran in late 2001, after US airstrikes and the Northern Alliance militia – which shared close ties with both Iran and later the US – forced the collapse of the Taliban regime, which hosted Al Qaeda.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had been helpful to the US military and the CIA in that fight, quietly providing extensive intelligence and political assistance to improve targeting of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Iran repatriated many of the Arab Al Qaeda fighters who fled Afghanistan to their home countries, but kept several dozen of the highest ranking, including children and relatives of Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda’s former No. 3, the head of security and intelligence, Saif al-Adel. Iran has always claimed that they were under house arrest or otherwise prevented from keeping operational contact with Al Qaeda foot soldiers.
A report by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point on some of the documents found in Mr. bin Laden's Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound in May 2011 appears to confirm Iran’s frequently hostile relationship with Al Qaeda.
The documents “make it clear that Al Qaeda's ties to Iran were the unpleasant byproduct of necessity, fueled by mutual distrust and antagonism,” states the report.
“Relations between Al Qaeda and Iran appear to have been highly antagonistic, and the documents provide evidence for the first time of al Qaeda’s covert campaign against Iran,” the CTC reports. “Al Qaeda did not appear to have looked to Iran from the perspective that ‘the enemy of my (American) enemy is my friend,’ but the group might have hoped that ‘the enemy of my (American) enemy would leave me alone.' ”
In the letters, top Al Qaeda leaders complain that the Iranian “criminals did not send us any letter, nor did they send us a message through any of the brothers [they released]!” The CTC report notes that “Bin Laden was equally distrustful of the Iranian regime,” and that the release of his family was “fraught with hurdles.”
An analysis of the CTC report by Barbara Slavin of Al Monitor noted that the Abbottabad documents “underline the view that the George W. Bush administration missed what could have been a major opportunity to work with Iran against the Sunni militant group responsible for the 9-11 attacks.”
Similarly, notes Ms. Slavin, the report suggests the Obama administration “may have overstated the case when the US Treasury Department designated Iran [in July 2011] for having a ‘secret deal with al-Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory.’”
Iran tried to use those Al Qaeda operatives as bargaining chips, offering to trade them with the US in 2003 for leaders of the Iranian armed opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), whose base at Camp Ashraf in Iraq came under American control after the US military toppled Saddam Hussein.
The US refused the offer, with some Pentagon and Bush administration officials arguing that the MEK – which was listed as a “terrorist organization” by the US State Department from 1997 until last September – might prove a useful tool in any future US fight against Iran.
Instead, Iran has used them as bargaining chips with Al Qaeda itself. The CTC report notes correspondence boasting that Al Qaeda in 2008 kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Peshawar, Pakistan, and “the threats we made” to “scare” the Iranians into releasing bin Laden's relatives and key operatives.
The fresh Canadian claims about the Al Qaeda-Iran connection come 1-1/2 months after bin Laden's son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was detained in the Turkish capital of Ankara, in a joint Turkey-CIA operation. Mr. Ghaith had been held for years in Iran, and his arrest (eventually by Jordan) – not long after a US federal court happened to issue an arrest warrant – indicated to some that he may have been surreptitiously released by Iran.
He is now in American custody. But the chain of events has raised speculation of a “goodwill gesture” by Iran as nuclear negotiations with world powers continue, notes Inter Press Service, or as part of a more complex Turkey-mediated prisoner swap deal with Syrian rebels.