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The Iran-al Qaeda Connection
My CTB colleague Andrew Cochran has written about the Treasury Department's designations of various al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden's son, Sa'ad. The designation order ties several of those identified, including Sa'ad, to Iran.

The designation, taken literally, has little meaning. None of those named have any assets in the United States than can be frozen, and likely do not do business under their own names abroad, nor are they likely to have bank accounts.

But as a symbolic measure it is important because it highlights he history of the Iran-al Qaeda relationship, and how wrong the conventional wisdom in the intelligence community was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. There still exists a strong resistance to seeing how thing work, rather than how we like to imagine they might work.

The thinking (which I ran up against repeatedly in the hostility to my al Qaeda-diamonds reporting) was that Shi'ia and Sunni groups cannot and do not collaborate. Therefore, Hezbollah supporters in Liberia smuggling diamonds would never help al Qaeda operatives move their stones. And Iran would not help al Qaeda on a broader level.

Yet Iran, as the Treasury statement notes, provided vital logistical support for senior al Qaeda leaders and the families of the very senior leadership (Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri) to escape from Afghanistan. They kept some senior leaders under "house arrest" but allowed them to remain operational.

It took the European intelligence services a considerable amount of time and effort to convince most of their U.S. counterparts that this was the case.

But it is a mistake to think Iran and al Qaeda are allies. And, in some cases, such as when Zarqawi was slaughtering Shi'ias in Iraq rather than primarily targeting the foreign infidel troops, the conventional wisdom proved correct.

What is often underestimated is the flexibility of these groups in the temporary alliances they form, and hence the importance of understanding the strategic interest each group has in not killing the other at a specific time.

It seems clear that the overriding goal of al Qaeda's central leadership has not been the elimination of the Shi'ia theocracy in Iran, but rather the United States, then the Sunni regimes in the Middle East.

Iran's primary objective is destabilizing the United States and obtaining nuclear capabilities, not the destruction of Sunni group that shares the same goals and hates the Saudi and other Gulf regimes as much as the Shi'ia do. So there is common ground.

I don't know what Iran's calculations were in giving safe haven to al Qaeda leaders and families. Most of the families simply transited through to other safe havens, although a few, like Sa'ad were kept or allowed to stay for a considerably longer period of time. Perhaps they were bargaining chips in negotiations that never happened. The designation makes it clear that several al Qaeda operatives were arrested or detained after they had been in Iran for some time. What brought the change in status?

And why did al Qaeda think they could trust the Iranians with the lives of some of their most important people? It was, after all, a significant risk to turn over senior people and family members to a regime that has no love for Sunnis or wahhabism.

Here, I think, the answer lies in the ties that al Qaeda operatives and both Hezbollah and Iran's IRGC formed when bin Laden was living in Sudan.

Publicly available court documents from the trial of Wadih el Hage, bin Laden’s personal secretary, currently serving a life sentence in the United States, discuss this relationship in some detail. Sa'ad bin Laden was with his father in Sudan, as were others al Qaeda operatives who later ended up in Iran.

This is one of the great dangers of safe havens for terrorist operatives, such as we are witnessing in Somali, Yemen, parts of Sudan etc. They provide not only the terrain and time to share lessons learned and new methods and technologies, they allow personal relationships to develop that can and often do override theological or political dogma.

Clearly Iran received something in return from al Qaeda for the favor of granting safe harbor to vulnerable family members on the lam. It is highly unlikely the ayatollahs were acting out of humanitarian concern or simple solidarity. The question is, what?

And it is not entirely clear Iran proved, in the long term, to be a reliable partner. Several of those named, including Sa'ad, appear to have been detained by Iranian forces, then eventually freed.

What is clear that groups that seem like (and often are) mortal enemies can ally in the face of a shared objective. It is a lesson worth remembering.

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