Abstract: The relationship between Iran and al-Qa`ida goes back at least a quarter of a century, but it remains one of the most understudied and poorly understood chapters in the history and evolution of the jihadi organization founded by Usama bin Ladin. Recently declassified letters seized in 2011 from bin Ladin’s Abbottabad hideout and U.S. government and court documents, however, have shed some additional light on their partnership. The existing information suggests that the relationship is best understood as a “tactical cooperation”—one that, despite the intervention of Iran and its proxies in opposition to al-Qa`ida in the Syrian civil war, is likely to continue for as long as the parties perceive the benefits of cooperation to exceed the costs.

On February 26, 2017, a U.S. drone strike in Syria killed al-Qa`ida deputy leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al-Rahman).a A 59-year-old Egyptian with longstanding membership in al-Qa`ida’s shura council, al-Masri was targeted in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, where he managed al-Qa`ida’s relations with its Syrian affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). Before moving to Syria, al-Masri, who was a close associate of al-Qa`ida leaders Usama bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri, spent most of the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, in Iran. Iranian authorities released al-Masri in mid-2015 as part of a prisoner swap. Four other al-Qa`ida members were released along with him, including Saif al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, two senior al-Qa`ida operatives who are believed to have traveled to Syria as well, raising concerns among U.S. counterterrorism officials of a reinvigorated al-Qa`ida in close proximity to Western nations.b

The killing of al-Masri and the movement of senior al-Qa`ida members from Iran to Syria is the latest episode in one of the least examined and most poorly understood chapters of al-Qa`ida’s history, namely its relationship with Iran. Recently declassified documents seized in 2011 from bin Ladin’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, along with a review of additional material—much of it released by the U.S. Department of the Treasury—offer an opportunity to revisit an elusive partnership that links one of the most consequential Sunni terrorist organizations of the modern era with the Shi`a majority state described by the U.S. State Department as the “foremost state sponsor of terrorism.”1 This relationship, the author argues, is best understood as a tactical cooperation—one that goes back a quarter of a century and continues into the present.c The article examines the nature of tactical cooperative relationships by contrasting this type of collaboration from other partnerships between militant actors. It then examines the al-Qa`ida-Iran relationship based on this framework.

Tactical Cooperation
Cooperative relationships between militant actors that adopt terrorist tactics—be they states, formal organizations, informal networks, or individuals—can vary significantly in terms of their quality. A review of the empirical and theoretical literature of terrorist cooperation suggests four general types of cooperation.2 In descending order of strengths, these are mergers, strategic alliances, tactical cooperation, and transactional collaborations.3 These four types of cooperation differ in terms of five main factors central to cooperative relationships: the expected duration of cooperation; the degree of interdependence between the two entities; the variety of cooperative activities that groups engage in; their ideological affinity; and the level of mutual trust.4

Mergers, for example, will score highly on all five factors. Two merging terrorist groups—take, for example, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qa`ida, which merged in June 2001—will expect an indefinite duration of cooperation; full interdependence; cooperation on the entire spectrum of activities (operational, logistical, and ideological); full ideological affinity; and complete levels of trust. Transactional relationships are situated on the opposite end of the spectrum. They can include isolated transactions, such as barter exchanges, between two groups that do not intend to establish a longer-term relationship, that retain their full autonomy, and that may have divergent ideological orientations.

In between these two poles are strategic alliances and tactical relationships. Strategic alliances, like mergers, are “high-end” relationships that score relatively high on the five factors, but the partners maintain a degree of their autonomy.5 Strategic allies expect their partnership to last for an extended period of time and, like mergers, expect to cooperate on multiple activities (spanning ideological and logistical) and frequently on operations.6 These partnerships are dependent on a high degree of ideological affinity, although groups may retain differences of emphasis and interpretation in terms of their ideological or strategic agendas. They are also marked by a relatively high degree of trust between the partners. The relationships between al-Qa`ida and most of its formal affiliates, such as al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, exemplifies a strategic alliance. Breakups of strategic partnerships—such as the split between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—are oftentimes the outcome of a gradual erosion of trust.

Tactical cooperative relationships are “low-end relationships” that fall short of strategic alliances, but are also more intensive than transactional collaborations. Whereas strategic alliances (and mergers) are built to last, no such expectation is inherent in a tactical cooperation. Neither is a tactical cooperation necessarily based on ideological affinity. Actors engaged in a tactical alliance do not necessarily pursue the same strategic objectives, and they tend to maintain their organizational independence. Tactical alliances are not conditional upon mutual trust; on the contrary, these partnerships can bring together uneasy, even distrustful partners. A necessary condition for a tactical cooperation, however, is the perception of common interests—oftentimes the identification of a common enemy. Since such interests are subject to change based on shifting circumstances, tactical alliances can be uneven, even unpredictable. Because partners in a tactical cooperation entertain a variety of interests—some of which converge, while others may diverge—such relationships frequently manifest not only signs of cooperation, but also signs of conflict.

While there are significant informational gaps on the puzzling relationship between al-Qa`ida and Iran, the available evidence on the ties between these actors supports the conclusion that they should be viewed as an example of tactical cooperation.

Pre-9/11 Cooperation 
Ties between al-Qa`ida and Iran predate the 9/11 attacks by roughly a decade. Several accounts date initial relevant contacts to April 1991, when al-Zawahiri, then the emir of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), secretly visited Iran. Al-Zawahiri had been a supporter of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and had hoped that Egyptians would follow the Iranian example and set up a theocratic regime of their own.7 The Iranians, for their part, had celebrated the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat by an EIJ operative, Khalid Islambouli, and even named a street in Tehran in the assassin’s honor.8

On his secret trip to Iran, al-Zawahiri asked his Iranian interlocutors to support his group’s attempted overthrow of the Egyptian regime. According to former al-Qa`ida trainer Ali Mohamed, the Iranians granted al-Zawahiri’s request and began training EIJ members in both Iran and Sudan, while also providing $2 million in financial support.9 Al-Zawahiri also reportedly met Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh during that visit and later sent EIJ members for training with Hezbollah in Lebanon.10

In late 1991 or 1992, the talks between the EIJ and Iran began to include al-Qa`ida. The discussions were the fruits of a growing friendship between al-Zawahiri and bin Ladin and were held in Sudan, which harbored members of the EIJ, al-Qa`ida, Hezbollah, and hundreds of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operatives during the 1990s.d According to the 9/11 Commission Report, these meetings resulted in an informal agreement between al-Qa`ida and Iran—and, by extension, the EIJ and Hezbollah—to cooperate “in providing support—even if only training—for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States.”11 It included training in explosives and suicide operations that would later enable al-Qa`ida to carry out the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.12

After al-Qa`ida’s return from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, Iran helped facilitate al-Qa`ida training and logistics in the Gulf region and helped the group set up its network in Yemen, thereby facilitating the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000.13 Iranian officials also frequently granted transit through Iran to al-Qa`ida members seeking to travel into or out of Afghanistan. Saif al-`Adl, a senior Egyptian al-Qa`ida operative, wrote in his biography of al-Zarqawi that al-Qa`ida suggested setting up guest houses in Tehran and Mashhad to facilitate the movement of fighters to al-Zarqawi’s training camp in Herat, Afghanistan.14 Iranian border inspectors were instructed not to stamp the passports of the jihadis in transit.15

Among the al-Qa`ida members transiting through Iran were also no less than eight of the 9/11 muscle hijackers. While the 9/11 Commission found “no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attacks,” the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior al-Qa`ida figures in the decade from 1991 to 2001 raised important questions that the commission believed warranted further investigation by the U.S. government.16

Video Of Osama Bin Laden  aired by Al Jazeera Television on October, 7th 2001
A screen capture of  Sulayman Abu Ghayth, al-Qa`ida spokesman, and Usama bin Ladin released by Al-Jazeera in 2001. (0851/GAMMA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Post-9/11 Cooperation 
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, members of al-Qa`ida fled Afghanistan. While most of the senior leadership moved to Pakistan, Iran provided “safe passage” to many jihadis, as al-`Adl acknowledged.17 These jihadis were part of a first wave of “Afghan Arab” fighters who, along with their families, entered Iran shortly after the 9/11 attacks. According to a statement provided by former al-Qa`ida spokesman Sulayman abu Ghayth to the FBI, they included hundreds of people, consisting of both formal al-Qa`ida members and other jihadis not formally associated with the group such as Abu Musab al-Suri and al-Zarqawi, as well as their families.18 A few months later, Iranian officials indicated their willingness to provide “shelter” to some two dozen al-Qa`ida members, while expelling the other jihadis. According to Abu Ghayth, the reason for the expulsion was a growing resentment on the part of the Iranian population who were “not happy” with the growing number of Arab families “spread[ing] among the Iranian population.”19 Whatever the reason, al-Qa`ida members in Iran saw the expulsion as a betrayal.20 This was relayed in a comprehensive report provided to bin Ladin in an October 2010 letter by a onetime al-Qa`ida member who had been detained in Iran and was allowed to leave the country around 2010. The letter was authored by Abu Abd al-Rahman Anas al-Subay’i, most likely an alias for famed operative Abu Anas al-Libi (Nazih Abdul-Hamed Nabih al-Ruqaii)—a onetime Libyan member of al-Qa`ida and a longtime member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Al-Libi was indicted for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and died in a New York hospital in January 2015.e

In January 2002, one month after U.S. President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address in which he referred to Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” Iran provided access to a “second wave” of al-Qa`ida-linked jihadis and their families. Abu Ghayth, who entered Iran as part of the second wave, and al-Subayi/al-Libi both confirmed that members of the second group were initially allowed to roam relatively freely. According to al-Libi, al-Qa`ida members and associated jihadis found shelter in Zahedan, Shiraz, Mashhad, Tehran, Karaj, and other cities.21 This relative freedom of movement allowed the group to establish a “management council” in 2002 that was charged with providing strategic support to the main leadership in Pakistan. The council would eventually include Saif al-`Adl, Abu Ghayth, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, bin Ladin’s son Saad, and longtime al-Qa`ida-Iran middleman Abu al-Walid al-Masri (Mustafa Hamid), among others.22

Their relative freedom during 2002 and early 2003 allowed the Iran-based operatives to plan and direct acts of terrorism. In May 2003, for example, The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials intercepted communications strongly suggesting that Saif al-`Adl and Saad bin Ladin, among others, communicated with the cell that planned and executed the May 2003 attacks on a Western housing complex in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, using three truck bombs.23 In October 2003, The Washington Post reported that many experts believed that Saad bin Ladin coordinated the May 16, 2003, suicide attacks against multiple targets in Casablanca.24

Starting in early 2003, the lax treatment of the al-Qa`ida contingent in Iran began to change. Iranian authorities, according to al-Libi, started monitoring the al-Qa`ida members closely, eventually detaining them over the course of 2003 under conditions that were initially harsh, but improved over time.25 f

In his letter to bin Ladin, al-Libi provided a broad report about the conditions of the “brothers” in Iran. He reported to bin Ladin that the Arab “brothers”—by which he means both formal members of al-Qa`ida as well as affiliated jihadis such as members of the LIFG—were divided into four groups. The first group included mostly senior al-Qa`ida members who had been detained in Shiraz, including Abu Ghayth, al-`Adl, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and Muhammad Islambouli, the brother of the assassin of Anwar Sadat.g The second group included members of the LIFG who appear to have been detained in Tehran. The third group included Abu Hafs al-Mauritani and others who were living in the Karaj area. The fourth group was apparently composed of those jihadis who were detained in Mashhad. Apart from these four groups, there were also “single men” as well as jihadis who were married (some with families) who were not detained along with one of the four groups. Of these, Abu al-Walid al-Masri is probably the most prominent person.26

Abu Ghayth told the FBI that he was arrested in Shiraz on April 23, 2003, together with al-`Adl, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and Abu Khayr al-Masri, and placed under “forced incarceration” in an “Iranian intelligence building in Tehran” for about 20 months. The detainees were then moved to a second location in or near Tehran, described as a 100-square-meter “military camp” that was “akin to a rest area for soldiers.”27 Al-Libi, in his report to bin Ladin, referred to this location as Sisast (Farsi for “300”) and suggests that it was a training ground for militant groups associated with the Iranian regime.28 At that location, the Iranians allowed the wives al-`Adl, Abu Muhammad, and Abu Khayr to join their husbands. After six months at the second location, the detainees were moved to a third location that Abu Ghayth described as an “apartment-like housing without any windows in which they stayed for approximately four years.”29 The third location was, according to Abu Ghayth, in a different section of the same military compound. During that period, they were joined by bin Ladin’s family, including his sons Saad, Hamed, Uthman, and Hamza, as well as the al-Qa`ida emir’s daughter Fatima, whom Abu Ghayth married in 2008.30 Conditions at the third location were unsanitary. Abu Ghayth reports that some of the women developed “mental conditions” as a result and staged a protest. In response to the protest, the detainees were “beaten and tortured.”31

Despite the difficult conditions, some aspects of their detention apparently improved in location number three. The detainees were now allowed to have a satellite television, having previously been allowed only to read books. Nevertheless, Abu Ghayth reports that they were only rarely allowed communication with the outside world.32

After roughly four years at the third location, Abu Ghayth and the other al-Qa`ida members, along with their families, were moved to a fourth location within the same military compound—a “walled off area” in which each family had their own house with a yard, and all houses “surrounding a central court-yard/playground.”33 Overall, conditions at the fourth location improved, but the detainees demanded internet access as well as better educational facilities for their children.34

The detention of al-Qa`ida members and associates notwithstanding, Iranian officials continued to allow al-Qa`ida to use Iran as a facilitation hub. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 16, 2010, then commander of U.S. Central Command David Petraeus stated that al-Qa`ida “continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaida’s senior leadership to regional affiliates … and although Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al-Qaida facilitators and operational planners, Tehran’s policy in this regard is often unpredictable.”35

In July 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department stated that the Iranian government had entered into an agreement with al-Qa`ida operatives to use Iran as a transit point for funneling money and people from the Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Outlining extensive fundraising operations involving Iran-based operatives who drew from donors in oil-rich Gulf countries such as Kuwait and Qatar, Treasury highlighted the role of Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, aka Yasin al-Suri.h A Syrian-born senior al-Qa`ida member who had operated in Iran since 2005, al-Suri was arrested by Iranian authorities in December 2011, at which time he was al-Qa`ida’s key facilitator in Iran.

Al-Suri was temporarily replaced in this position by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a close confidant of bin Ladin. Under Fadhli, al-Qa`ida elements in Iran began supporting the movement of fighters and money through Turkey to “support al-Qa’ida-affiliated elements in Syria.”36 Fadhli would later leave Iran to become a leader of al-Qa`ida’s so-called “Khorasan Group” in Syria, where he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria in July 2015.37

According to the Rewards for Justice Program, al-Suri resumed his role as al-Qa`ida’s lead facilitator in Iran at some point. The role involved overseeing the transfer of jihadis to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and the West; fundraising and facilitation of fund transfers; and working directly with the Iranian government to facilitate and manage the release of al-Qa`ida operatives from Iranian detention.38

Al-Suri’s facilitation role also involved the use of Iran as a staging ground for attacks against the West. One such plan was the so-called “Europlot,” which was overseen by bin Ladin and envisioned commando-style attacks in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom and which led to a U.S. security advisory being issued for Europe in October 2010.39 The Europlot conspirators included German and British jihadis who traveled to the Waziristan region of Pakistan to receive training. The plotters traveled through Iran and relied on al-Suri and his network for transit support. After the foiled attacks, some of the network’s members found refuge in Iran for a limited time.40

In another example, Canadian authorities disrupted a plot in April 2013 to derail a passenger train heading from New York to Toronto. According to the assistant commissioner of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, the two suspects had received “direction and guidance” from “Al Qaeda elements living in Iran,” although there was no evidence that Iran had sponsored the plot.41

While al-Qa`ida could use Iran to plot attacks abroad, striking Iran was—and remains—strictly taboo. Before his detention in December 2011, al-Suri had brokered a deal with Iran on behalf of al-Qa`ida according to which the latter “must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities. In return, the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al-Qa`ida network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.”42 The benefits of the deal for al-Qa`ida were substantial. In a letter from October 2007 to an unknown jihadi called “Karim” penned most likely by bin Ladin, the al-Qa`ida founder described Iran as “our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication.”43

Bin Ladin’s acknowledgement of the benefits of al-Qa`ida-Iran cooperation is all the more interesting when contrasted with the group’s on-the-record, deep mistrust of the Shi`a Iranians. In an August 2009 As-Sahab interview, for example, then deputy al-Qa`ida leader al-Zawahiri accused Iran of being “willing to sell Muslims in any place to the invading Crusaders and support them against Muslims, if it believes that its imminent interests will be achieved through this collusion.”44 He went on to present the following view of what drives Iranian behavior: “[T]he key to explain Tehran and its followers is that they are looking for a political influence by all means … If the political influence will be reached by them by assisting the Crusader invaders against Muslims, then they will assist the Crusaders against the Muslims without hesitation.”45

Despite the deep and open mistrust between Iran and al-Qa`ida, they continue to collaborate into the present. As recently as July 20, 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three senior al-Qa`ida members located in Iran: Faisal Jassim Mohammed al-Amri al-Khalidi, Yisra Muhammad Ibrahim Bayumi, and Abu Bakr Muhammad Muhammad Ghumayn. The three carried out a range of activities for or on behalf of al-Qa`ida, including weapons acquisition, liaising with other militant groups, assisting al-Qa`ida members in Iran, fundraising, and facilitating funds transfers.46

A look at the available evidence strongly suggests that the relationship between these two strange bedfellows most closely resembles a tactical cooperation. First, Iran and al-Qa`ida’s relationship, rather than consistently strong, was marked by ebbs and flows. This is typical of such “low-end” relationships because they are based not on common strategic objectives, but upon identifying common tactical and operational goals that are subject to change. Such shifts naturally cause friction among the partners. The changes in Iran’s policy appeared so erratic that even al-Qa`ida members failed to understand its rationale. Iran’s detention of al-Qa`ida members, Saif al-`Adl once admitted, “confused us and foiled 75 percent of our plan.”47

Second, the two parties retained their full autonomy throughout their periods of cooperation. Even though al-Qa`ida members in Iran were detained, and hence not strictly independent, there is no evidence to suggest that either party transferred resources to the other or shared command and control functions with the other. On the contrary, their deep mutual distrust consistently thwarted any such strategic-level cooperation.

Third, the cooperative activities between Iran and al-Qa`ida have been limited mainly to the logistical domain and have possibly extended to the operational domain, but they have not included ideological collaboration. Fourth, Iran and al-Qa`ida maintained separate and incompatible ideologies in the process—Shiism and Sunni jihadism, respectively.

Finally, their relationship was marked by deep mutual distrust, as the above referenced interview with al-Zawahiri as well as declassified letters seized from bin Ladin’s compound in Abbottabad indicate. In one letter to his confidant, the al-Qa`ida leader suggests that returning detainees from Iran “should be warned on the importance of getting rid of everything they received from Iran … since the Iranians are not to be trusted then it is possible to plant chips in some of the coming people’s belongings.”48 In a later letter to two of his sons, bin Ladin similarly cautions about injections by Iranian doctors that may contain “a tiny chip … as long as a seed of grain but very thin and smooth.”49

Despite their enmity, al-Qa`ida and Iran’s mutual ideological antagonism has been trumped by pragmatism and the belief that limited cooperation is more beneficial in the long run than conflict. Iran likely calculates that cooperation affords the Shi`a state with “options for possible or even unforeseen contingencies,”50 as Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman put it. It provides Iran with a credible way to deter or retaliate against unwanted actions from the United States.

Detaining al-Qa`ida members also provides Iran with an insurance policy against al-Qa`ida attacks directed at it. Evidence to support this claim is contained in the letter to al-Zarqawi intercepted by the United States and published in 2005. In it, al-Zawahiri chastises the emir of al-Qa`ida in Iraq: “Why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance? And what loss will befall us if we did not attack the Shia? … And even if we attack the Shia out of necessity, then why do you announce this matter and make it public, which compels the Iranians to take counter measures? And do the brothers forget that both we and the Iranians need to refrain from harming each other at this time in which the Americans are targeting us?”51

Though they continued to target Shi`a in Iraq, AQI and its successor organizations clearly heeded al-Zawahiri’s injunction when it came to Shi`a in Iran. In May 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, then the chief spokesman for AQI’s successor organization the Islamic State, admitted that his group “has kept abiding by the advices and directives of the sheikhs and figures of jihad. This is why [the Islamic State] has not attacked the Rawafid [a derogatory term for Shiites] in Iran since its establishment. It has left the Rawafid safe in Iran … Let history record that Iran owes al Qaeda invaluably.”52

Letters found in bin Ladin’s compound and statements by al-Qa`ida members who defected to the Islamic State similarly indicate that al-Qa`ida is adamant about honoring its commitment to refrain from attacking Iran directly. In the letter “to Karim” declassified by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, for example, bin Ladin told the recipient that “there is no need to fight with Iran, unless you are forced to,” and if forced to fight, bin Ladin continues, Karim should “not announce [his] intentions and threats” but instead “deliver [the] strikes in silence.”53

Another confirmation that al-Qa`ida has honored its pledge not to attack Iran was alleged more recently by a former al-Qa`ida member, Abu Ubaydah al-Lubnani, who defected to the Islamic State, according to the latter group. Speaking to the Islamic State’s Al Naba magazine, al-Lubnani stated that “Iran’s biggest concern is that no operations happen on its soil.” Hence, it hosts the “majority of al-Qa’ida’s leaders,” thereby “secur[ing] the loyalty of al Qaeda.”54

Al-Qa`ida’s calculations in cooperating with Iran are no less pragmatic than those of its counterpart. Iran was a convenient safe haven when it opened its doors to jihadis in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and it also served as a shield against aggressive U.S. counterterrorism efforts in subsequent years.i As a declared enemy of the United States, Iran was unlikely to meet any U.S. requests to arrest or extradite suspected al-Qa`ida members. Al-Qa`ida members expected to also enjoy protection from drone strikes, as the United States would clearly refrain from acts of targeted killings on the soil of a country that would view such strikes as an act of war. Finally, Iran’s geographic location between Iraq and Afghanistan and next to the Gulf, Pakistan, Turkey, and other countries coupled with an important jihadi presence offers al-Qa`ida additional strategic advantages.

The Abbottabad documents contain several letters indicating bin Ladin’s concern for his family members in Iran, raising the question over the extent to which these concerns were driving al-Qa`ida’s policy to refrain from attacking Iran. In one letter, for example, bin Ladin complained that the Iranians refused to release his daughter Fatima.55 In more recently declassified letters to his sons Uthman and Muhammad, bin Ladin expresses concern about the “personal conditions and circumstances” of his sons, adding that “we are longing to see you.”56 In yet another letter written by bin Ladin’s son Khalid to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Khalid called for the release of the remaining members of his family and plainly expressed his frustration that numerous earlier requests had been ignored by the Iranian government.57

Though bin Ladin obsessed about the safety of his family members, the detention of parts of his family in Iran is neither a necessary nor sufficient explanation of the partnership between al-Qa`ida and Iran, which predated the detention of al-Qa`ida operatives in Iran by many years. Similarly, the non-aggression pact between Iran and al-Qa`ida survived following the death of bin Ladin, so it could have hardly been the reason that the agreement continues to this day. That said, the detention of members of the bin Ladin family likely served as an additional incentive to ensure ‘good behavior’ on the part of al-Qa`ida.

In sum, the Iran-al-Qa`ida connection has alternated between periods of more or less intensive cooperation interrupted by periods of tension, reminiscent of a “longstanding … shotgun marriage or marriage of convenience,” as memorably described by former DNI James Clapper.58 Despite their divergent ideological and strategic objectives, both al-Qa`ida and Iran identified, at various moments in their shared history, tactical or operational interests that could be advanced by mutual cooperation and whose importance overrode any doctrinal reservations to such collaboration.

The implications for policy that follow from this discussion are that al-Qa`ida and Iran are tied in a pragmatic relationship that is unlikely to change unless the partners fundamentally reevaluate the costs and benefits of their partnership. Fundamental ideological divisions that exist between the parties have not led to a reassessment of these costs and benefits, and there is no reason to believe that they will in the future. Iran may change its assessment if it perceives al-Qa`ida as too weak to significantly strike Iran or to be used as a stick against the United States. But with the decline of the Islamic State and al-Qai’da’s “long-game strategy,” this eventuality seems remote. For al-Qa`ida, on the other hand, a fundamental reassessment of its relationship is likely only if another country will substitute for Iran as al-Qa`ida’s “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication.”59 Here, too, no contender is currently in sight that can replace the value that Iran provides to the group. Another condition under which the existing rules of the game could change is a fundamental reassessment on the part of Iran and/or al-Qa`ida about its respective role in the world. Such a reassessment appears unlikely, however, short of a regime change in Iran or a fundamental change in al-Qa`ida’s leadership. Until then, cooperation is simply too valuable for these partners to be abandoned.     CTC

Assaf Moghadam, a non-resident fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center, is an associate professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and Director for Academic Affairs at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT). His book, Nexus of Global Jihad: Understanding Cooperation among Terrorist Actors, will be published next month by Columbia University Press. Follow @assafmoghadam

Substantive Notes
[a] This article draws from a chapter examining the al-Qa`ida-Iran-Hezbollah connection in the author’s forthcoming book on terrorist cooperation. See Assaf Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad: Understanding Cooperation Among Terrorist Actors (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), chapter 8.

[b] To date, al-Qa`ida has not officially confirmed the presence of Saif al-`Adl and Abu Muhammad al-Masri in Syria. The release of the four al-Qa`ida operatives was first reported by Sky News and later confirmed by U.S. officials and online activists close to al-Qa`ida. “Terror Fears as Iran Frees Al Qaeda Members,” Sky News, September 14, 2015; Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Iran Released Top Members of Al Qaeda in a Trade,” New York Times, September 17, 2015; Thomas Joscelyn, “Senior al Qaeda Leaders Reportedly Released from Custody in Iran,” Long War Journal, September 18, 2015.

[c] Most recently, on July 20, 2016, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated three Iran-based al-Qa`ida operatives who were considered part of al-Qa`ida’s support network in the country. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Three Senior Al-Qaida Members,” July 20, 2016.

[d] Former al-Qa`ida trainer Ali Mohamed, for example, testified that he provided security for a meeting between bin Ladin and Mughniyeh in Sudan; that Hezbollah provided explosives training for al-Qa`ida; that Iran provided weapons to EIJ; and that Iran used Hezbollah to transfer weapons. Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 143.

[e] According to the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program, “Anas al-Sabai” was a known alias of Abu Anas al-Libi. It is also widely believed that following the 9/11 attacks, al-Libi indeed spent about a decade in Iran. Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank, “Senior Al Qaeda Figure Living in Libyan Capital,” CNN Security Clearance, September 27, 2012. Editor’s note: For more on Abu Anas al-Libi, see Paul Cruickshank, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Bernard Kleinman, Defense Attorney,” CTC Sentinel 10:4 (2017).

[f] The statements by both Abu Ghayth and al-Subay’i/al-Libi are the most important primary sources on al-Qa`ida members in Iran released thus far. While both sources describe relatively similar conditions and suggest that conditions varied for individual members of al-Qa`ida, the two sources do not always correspond in their description of dates and location of the detention of al-Qa`ida and affiliated jihadi operatives. Given that the length of their detention and lack of information flow, it is not surprising that the dates provided by these two sources do not always match up.

[g] According to the comprehensive report of al-Libi, there were at least four groups of jihadi detainees in Iran. A cross-check between al-Libi’s letter and the statement provided by Ghayth to the FBI suggests that Ghayth was a member of the first of the four groups mentioned by al-Libi. Indeed, in recounting his experience in Iran, Ghayth seems to refer exclusively to the experience of this first group. Al-Libi’s letter is therefore more comprehensive in recounting the experience of al-Qa`ida operatives in Iran than the statement by Ghayth. Ghayth’s statement, however, provides a large amount of detail on his specific group.

[h] The Treasury report also named five other operatives who contributed to al-Qa`ida’s activity in Iran, including the prominent bin Ladin emissary Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. Bin Ladin appointed al-Rahman al-Qa`ida’s envoy in Iran before tasking him with commanding al-Qa`ida in Pakistan’s tribal areas.Helene Cooper, “Treasury Accuses Iran of Aiding Al Qaeda,” New York Times, July 28, 2011; Solomon, “U.S. Sees Iranian, al Qaeda Alliance.”

[i] The author is grateful to Dan Byman for this point. Author correspondence, Daniel Byman, October 12, 2015.

[1] U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2015,” June 2016, p. 10.

[2] Assaf Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad: Understanding Cooperation Among Terrorist Actors (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), chapters 1 and 4.

[3] Assaf Moghadam, “Terrorist Affiliations in Context: A Typology of Terrorist Inter-Group Cooperation,” CTC Sentinel 8:3 (2015); Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad, chapter 4.

[4] On this point, see also Tricia Bacon, “Strange Bedfellows: Why Terrorist Organizations Ally” (Ph.D. Dissertation: Georgetown University, 2013), p. 756.

[5] Moghadam, Nexus of Global Jihad, chapter 4. For comparable typologies, see also Phil Williams, “Cooperation among Criminal Organizations,” in Mats Berdal and Monica Serrano eds., Transnational Organized Crime and International Security: Business as Usual (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002).

[6] The distinction between operational, logistical, and ideological cooperation was first made by Ely Karmon. See Ely Karmon, Coalitions between Terrorist Organizations: Revolutionaries, Nationalists and Islamists (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2005), pp. 49-50.

[7] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Vintage, 2006), p. 56.

[8] Ali Alfoneh, “Iran’s Suicide Brigades: Terrorism Resurgent,” Middle East Quarterly 14:1 (2007).

[9] Wright, p. 197.

[10] “Affidavit of Dr. Ronen Bergman,” United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Civil Action No. 03 MDL 1570 (GBD), April 8, 2010, p. 15.

[11] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, 1st ed. (New York: Norton, 2004), p. 61.

[12] 9/11 Commission Report, p. 68; Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 143; Marc A. Thiessen, “Iran Responsible for 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings,” Washington Post, December 8, 2011.

[13] Spencer S. Hsu, “U.S. Judge Finds Iran Liable in 2000 Attack on USS Cole,” Washington Post, April 1, 2015.

[14] Fuad Husayn, Zarqawi . . . The Second Generation of Al-Qaeda, part 8, translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Al-Quds al-Arabi, May 2005.

[15] 9/11 Commission Report, p. 240.

[16] 9/11 Commission Report, p. 241.

[17] Bergen, pp. 353–54.

[18] “Statement by Sulayman Abu Ghayth to the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” document number 415-A-NY-307616, March 1, 2013, p. 7. See also Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 326 and Mark Hosenball, “The Iran Connection,” Newsweek, March 3, 2003.

[19] “Statement by Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” p. 7.

[20] Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Letter by Abu abd al-Rahman Anas al-Subayi,” Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, October 13, 2010.

[21] “Letter by Abu abd al-Rahman Anas al-Subayi.”

[22] See, for example, Seth Jones, “Al Qaeda in Iran: Why Tehran is Accommodating the Terrorist Groups,” Foreign Affairs, January 29, 2012.

[23] Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 358; Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, “Havens: U.S. Suggests a Qaeda Cell in Iran Directed Saudi Bombings,” New York Times, May 21, 2003; Paul Hastert, “Al Qaeda and Iran: Friends or Foes, or Somewhere in Between?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30:4 (2007): pp. 333–34; Daniel Byman, “Unlikely Alliance: Iran’s Secretive Relationship with Al-Qaeda,” IHS Defense, Risk and Security Consulting, July 2012, p. 31.

[24] Douglas Farah and Dana Priest, “Bin Laden Son Plays Key Role in Al Qaeda,” Washington Post, October 14, 2003.

[25] “Letter by Anas al-Subayi;” “Statement by Sulayman Abu Ghayth.”

[26] “Letter by Anas al-Subayi.”

[27] “Statement by Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” p. 8.

[28] “Letter by Anas al-Subayi.”

[29] “Statement by Sulayman Abu Ghayth,” p. 9.

[30] Ibid., pp. 8-9, 11.

[31] Ibid., p. 12.

[32] Ibid., p. 11.

[33] Ibid., p. 12.

[34] Ibid., p. 13.

[35] Joby Warrick, “U.S. Accuses Iran of Aiding Al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, July 28, 2011.

[36] U.S. Department of State, “Rewards for Justice—al-Qaeda Reward Offer,” October 18, 2012.

[37] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Further Exposes Al-Qa’ida’s Iran-based Network,” October 18, 2012; Eric Schmitt, “Leader of Qaeda Cell in Syria, Muhsin al-Fadhli, is Killed in Airstrike, U.S. Says,” New York Times, July 21, 2015.

[38] U.S. Department of State, “Rewards for Justice: Yasin al-Suri.”

[39] For more on this plot, see Guido Steinberg, German Jihad: On the Internationalization of Islamist Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Yassin Musharbash, “‘Euro Plot’: Al- Qaida Said to Be Planning European Hostage-Takings,” Spiegel Online, October 27, 2010; and Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank, “Hamburg cell at heart of terrorist plot against Europe,” CNN, October 4, 2010.

[40] Benjamin Weinthal and Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda’s Network in Iran,” Weekly Standard, April 2, 2012.

[41] Ian Austen, “Two Are Accused in Canada of Plotting Train Derailment,” New York Times, April 22, 2013.

[42] “Rewards for Justice—al-Qaeda Reward Offer.”

[43] Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Letter to Karim,” Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, p. 1.

[44] “Al-Zawahiri Interview ‘The Facts of Jihad and the Lies of Hypocrisy,’” World News Connection, August 4, 2009.

[45] Ibid.

[46] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Three Senior Al-Qaida Members,” July 20, 2016.

[47] Saif al-`Adl, “Jihadist Biography of the Slaughtering Leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi,” 2005, as quoted in Ari R. Weisfuse, “The Last Hope for the Al-Qa’ida Old Guard? A Profile of Saif al-`Adl,” CTC Sentinel 9:3 (2016): p. 26.

[48] “SOCOM-2012-0000019,” p. 42, available at www.ctc.usma.edu.

[49] “Letter to Sons Uthman and Muhammad,” Office of the Director for National Intelligence, Bin Laden’s Bookshelf.

[50] Affidavit of Daniel L. Byman, United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Civil Action No. 03 MDL 1570 (GBD), June 8, 2010, p. 10.

[51] “Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi,” available at http://fas.org/irp/news/2005/10/letter_in_english.pdf.

[52] “A Speech by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami,” translated by Musa Cerantonio, Jihadology.net.

[53] “Letter to Karim,” p. 2.

[54] The comments were made in Issue 19 of Al-Nada. See Thomas Joscelyn and David Daoud, “Al Qaeda Defector Discusses Group’s Secrets in Islamic State Magazine,” Long War Journal, May 3, 2016.

[55] “SOCOM-2012-0000019,” pp. 42-43, available at www.ctc.usma.edu.

[56] “Letter to Sons Uthman and Muhammad.” For another example, see Office of the Director for National Intelligence, “Letter to Son Hamzah,” Bin Laden’s Bookshelf.

[57] Khalid bin Ladin, “Min Khalid Bin Usama bin Ladin ila Murshid al-Thawra `Ali Khameni’j,” as quoted in Nelly Lahoud, Stuart Caudill, Liam Collins, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Don Rassler, and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2012), p. 46.

[58] Thomas Joscelyn, “DNI Clapper: ‘Shotgun Marriage’ between Iran and Al Qaeda,” Weekly Standard, February 17, 2012.

[59] “Letter to Karim,” p. 1.

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