Canada alleges Al Qaeda plot from Iran, but Tehran's involvement unlikely (+video)
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,Â 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 âmajor terrorist attackâ that Canadian officials say they thwarted.Â According to officials,Â âAl Qaeda elements in Iranâ gave âdirection and guidanceâ 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.Â
âNo shred of evidence regarding those whoâve been arrested and stand accused has been provided,â Iranâs Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said today, according to Iranian media.
âWe oppose any kind of violent act that endangers lives,â said Mr. Mehmanparast. âIn recent years, Canadaâs radical government has put in practice a project to harass Iran, and it is clear that it has pursued these hostile actions.â
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.Â
Reuters reported that a US government source suggested that âIran was home to a little-known network of Al Qaeda fixers and 'facilitators' based in the Iranian city of Zahedan,â located near Iranâs remote eastern border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, an area known for itsÂ lawlessness.Â
Those fixers âserve as go-betweens, travel agents and financial intermediaries for Al Qaeda operatives and cells operating in Pakistan and moving throughout the area,â andÂ "do not operate under the protection of the Iranian government, which periodically launches crackdowns on Al Qaeda elements,"Â Reuters reports.Â
Ties 'fueled by mutual distrust'
Iran detained hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters who fled from Afghanistan to Iran in late 2001, after US airstrikes and the Northern Alliance militia â which shared close ties with both Iran and later the US â forced the collapse of the Taliban regime, which hosted Al Qaeda.
Iranâs 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 Qaedaâs former No. 3, the head of security and intelligence,Â 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 PointÂ on some of the documents found in Mr. bin Laden's Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound in May 2011 appears to confirm Iranâs frequently hostile relationship with Al Qaeda.
The documents âmake it clear that Al Qaeda's ties to Iran were the unpleasant byproduct of necessity, fueled by mutual distrust and antagonism,â states the report.
âRelations between Al Qaeda and Iran appear to have been highly antagonistic, and the documents provide evidence for the first time of al Qaedaâs covert campaign against Iran,â the CTC reports. âAl Qaeda did not appear to have looked to Iran from the perspective that âthe enemy of my (American) enemy is my friend,â but the group might have hoped that âthe enemy of my (American) enemy would leave me alone.' â
In the letters, top Al Qaeda leaders complain that the Iranian âcriminals did not send us any letter, nor did they send us a message through any of the brothers [they released]!â The CTC report notes that âBin Laden was equally distrustful of the Iranian regime,â and that the release of his family was âfraught with hurdles.â
An analysis of the CTC report by Barbara Slavin of Al MonitorÂ noted that the Abbottabad documents âunderline 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.â
Similarly, notes Ms. Slavin, the report suggests the Obama administration âmay have overstated the case when the US Treasury Department designated Iran [in July 2011] for having a âsecret deal with al-Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory.ââ
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 âÂ which was listed as a âterrorist organizationâ by the US State Department from 1997 until lastÂ SeptemberÂ âÂ 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 âtheÂ threatsÂ we madeâ to âscareâ 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 GhaithÂ was detained in the Turkish capital ofÂ Ankara, in a joint Turkey-CIA operation.Â Mr. Ghaith had been held for years in Iran, and his arrest (eventually by Jordan) â not long after a US federal court happened to issue an arrest warrant â indicated to some that he may have been surreptitiously released by Iran.
He is now in American custody.Â But theÂ chain of eventsÂ has raised speculation of a âgoodwill gestureâ by IranÂ as nuclear negotiations with world powers continue, notes Inter Press Service,Â or as part of a more complex Turkey-mediated prisoner swap deal with Syrian rebels.Â