Late last week, the State Department announced a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a.k.a. Yasin al-Suri — Yasin the Syrian. Serious students of terrorism and counterterrorism saw this as big news for two reasons.
The first is tactical: Never before has a reward been offered for the capture of a terrorist financier. But the money men are vital links in the terrorist chain, so targeting them makes sense. Also unusual is the amount: Only Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has been trying to fill Osama bin Laden’s shoes at al-Qaeda’s main office, commands a larger bounty ($25 million).
The second reason is strategic: According to U.S. officials, al-Suri is an al-Qaeda operative who, since 2005, has been living in Iran and working in collaboration with the theocratic regime. “Under an agreement between al-Qaeda and the government of Iran, Yasin al-Suri has helped move money and recruits through Iran to al-Qaeda leaders in neighboring countries in the region,” Robert Hartung, the State Department’s assistant director for threat investigations and analysis, told reporters. “He is a dedicated terrorist working in support of al-Qaeda with the support of the government of Iran, which the Department of State has designated a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Those are stunning words. Within the foreign-policy establishment, the prevailing orthodoxy has long maintained that Iran’s Shia rulers despise the Sunnis of al-Qaeda; that the enmity is mutual; and that operational cooperation between them is therefore inconceivable. It also has been a longstanding article of faith that the terrorist groups threatening America are “non-state” actors, groups limited in their capabilities because they do not enjoy the support of national rulers with all the resources those rulers can bring to the table.
Dissenting from that paradigm have been such analysts as Michael Ledeen and Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard. They have argued that Iran and al-Qaeda collaborate despite theological/ideological differences; that many, if not most, of the Islamist groups waging war against the West are linked like strands of a spider’s web; and that Iran is the “terrorist master.”
Ties between Iran and al-Qaeda trace back to the early 1990s, when Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of Sudan’s National Islamic Front, made it his mission to encourage Sunni–Shia reconciliation. Al-Turabi facilitated a series of meetings between bin Laden, who was then living in Khartoum, and envoys from Tehran. It did not take long for Iran and al-Qaeda to reach an informal agreement: Iran would provide training, intelligence, and explosives; al-Qaeda would make good use of these services and products against common enemies.
The 9/11 Commission Report has a section titled: “Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to Al Qaeda.” It notes that what had begun in Sudan continued: “Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior Al-Qaeda figures after Bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan. . . . Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with Al Qaeda after the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole.”
The report also found “strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.” And there is reason to believe that Imad Mugniyah — who, until he was killed in 2008, was both the military chief of Hezbollah and an agent of Iran — helped with preparations for the 9/11 attacks. In May of this year, the New York Times reported that two defectors from Iran’s intelligence service “testified that Iranian officials had ‘foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks’” and that one of them “claimed that Iran was involved in planning the attacks.”
There’s more. A year ago, Hayes and Joscelyn wrote: “Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, not only do we have abundant evidence that Iran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror, supports al-Qaeda. We also have evidence that Iran actively assists terrorists and insurgents targeting our soldiers and diplomats” in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In November, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia concluded that “the government of Iran aided, abetted and conspired with Hezbollah, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda to launch large-scale bombing attacks” against two American embassies in Africa in 1998. That should have come as no surprise: In 1998, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed an indictment of bin Laden. It included the charge that al-Qaeda had “allied itself with Sudan, Iran, and Hezbollah.”
The conclusion to which all this leads is that Iran and al-Qaeda, despite their differences, can and do cooperate to wage what they see as a Great Jihad against America and its allies. They are not enemies. Rather, they are rivals who work together when it suits their common interests.
It would be an historic abdication of responsibility if American and other Western leaders, ignoring these facts, were to allow Iran’s rulers to acquire nuclear weapons that, odds are, sooner or later, they would use — or give to al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups to use.
In an interview last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that if Iranian rulers “proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps [are] necessary to stop it.” Was he bluffing? Or has there been a paradigm shift — a fundamental change in how senior members of the Obama administration understand who America’s enemies are and how they operate? Or is this still an ongoing debate within the administration? I suspect we’ll find out sometime in the New Year.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.