In recent weeks, two news reports have circulated about Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda. On Tuesday, March 18, Sen. John McCain repeatedly stated that Iran was aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq. Later, however, he retracted this statement.
Senator McCain was right the first time. In fact, al-Qaeda and Iran have a rather long history of cooperation.
A few days before Senator McCain’s unfortunate retraction, a senior military adviser to the Barack Obama campaign, retired Air Force general Merrill McPeak, was quoted in the March 15 edition of the Washington Times as saying, “Iran is a big enemy of al-Qaeda.”
General McPeak’s statement is astonishing for its ignorance, especially coming from a flag-rank retired military officer.
The shadowy relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda was first revealed in the report issued by the bipartisan, independent 9/11 Commission back in 2004.
In compiling that exhaustive report, the 9/11 Commission interviewed over 1,000 people from at least 10 countries. Among the conclusions that they reached regarding Iran and al-Qaeda:
In late 1991 or early 1992, in meetings held in Sudan, Iran agreed to train al-Qaeda operatives. Not long afterwards, al-Qaeda terrorists traveled to Iran and received training in explosives. Subsequent to this, al-Qaeda terrorists also traveled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where they received training from Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Once Osama Bin Laden moved from Sudan to Afghanistan and established terrorist training camps there, Iran facilitated the transit of jihadists to al-Qaeda training camps via Iran. Among other things, Iran did not stamp their passports when they passed through Iran on their way to Afghanistan. This made it impossible for countries to know when someone had attended a training camp in Afghanistan because there was no record. This policy particularly benefited Saudi members of al-Qaeda, and the Commission reported that 8 to 10 of the Saudi 9-11 hijackers had transited through Iran.
The Commission said that intelligence reports indicated continued contacts between al-Qaeda and Iranian officials after Bin Laden had moved back to Afghanistan and it recommended that the U.S. government further investigate the ties between al-Qaeda and Iran.
Other reports have reinforced the 9/11 Commission’s findings of al-Qaeda/Iran cooperation in Iraq:
In November 2006, England’s Telegraph newspaper reported Western intelligence agencies as saying that Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives in Tehran and also that Iran had “always maintained close relations with al-Qaeda” despite differences between their Shiite and Sunni philosophies.
In January 2007, Eli Lake reported in the New York Sun that U.S. forces had captured documents detailing Iranian activities in Iraq, including the fact that Iran’s infamous Revolutionary Guards Quds Force was working with al-Qaeda there.
In May 2007, as reported by Bill Roggio at The Weekly Standard’s website, coalition forces captured a courier carrying messages from al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders to senior al-Qaeda leaders who have long been in safe haven in Iran, including Osama Bin Laden’s son, Said Bin Laden.
Also in May 2007, England’s Guardian newspaper reported that Iran was secretly forging ties with al-Qaeda elements in Iraq in an attempt to launch a summer offensive that would prompt Congress to vote for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
In July 2007, the Financial Times reported that “western officials” said that Iranian territory was being used as a base by al-Qaeda for terrorist operations in Iraq.
In October 2007, the Dallas Morning News reported on warnings from Kurds in northern Iraq of Iranian support for an al-Qaeda affiliate, Ansar al-Islam, in their region of Iraq.
In February 2008, Muhamad Abdullah al-Shahwani, the chief of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, and Tamir Al-Tamimi, an advisor to the Iraqi Awakening Councils (a key component in the success of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy), told the Iraqi news service, Azzaman, that Iran was targeting the Awakening Councils with al-Qaeda.
Most of the skepticism over Iranian involvement with al-Qaeda has centered around the fact that Iran is ruled by a Shia Islamic theocracy, whereas al-Qaeda is a Sunni Wahhabi Islamic group. Many are under the mistaken belief that Shiites and Sunnis are irreconcilable arch enemies and will never work with each other. This quaint notion flies in the face of reality.
There are at least three other major examples of Iranian cooperation with militant Sunni organizations besides al-Qaeda:
Hamas is a Sunni Palestinian jihadist terrorist organization. Both Hamas and Iran have acknowledged publicly that, at the very least, Iran funds Hamas. The most recent reports out of Israel indicate that Hamas has personnel training in Iran.
In January 2007, Iran and Sudan, a mostly Sunni nation, exchanged military delegations and subsequently announced a military accord for mutual training, education, and technical cooperation. At the signing ceremony, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, said that Iran’s and Sudan’s mutual enemies were “focused on a strategy of disintegrating the Islamic states by stirring up sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims” and that “the only way to foil the satanic plot is strengthening unity among Muslim nations.”
The Sudanese delegate, Sudanese defense minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, responded that he appreciated Iran’s role in helping foster solidarity among Muslim nations and said that the Islamic Revolution under leadership of the late Imam Khomeini was the greatest event of the century in the Islamic history, because it opened the way for unity between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Finally, in November of 2006, a United Nations report included information that Iran had provided the Sunni Islamic Courts in Somalia — a group that has since been linked to al-Qaeda — with “shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, grenade launchers, machine guns, ammunition, medicine, uniforms and other supplies.” The U.N. report also said that Iran may have sought uranium in Somalia.
This overwhelming evidence clearly shows that it is General McPeak who should issue a retraction and Senator McCain who should have stuck to his guns and stood by his original statement.
Iran and al-Qaeda are in league and have been for some time. The sooner politicians on both sides of the aisle educate themselves about this reality, the more effective our global war on terrorism can be.
–Christopher Holton is a vice president with the Center for Security Policy and directs the Center’s Divest Terror Initiative.