The arrests of two foreign nationals in Canada Monday on charges of plotting to blow up a train from Toronto to New York highlight how al Qaeda operatives in eastern Iran have the capability to set in motion operations capable of striking a target half a world away in the Western hemisphere.
The two men arrested—30-year-old Chiheb Esseghaier and 35-year-old Raed Jaser—had direct communications with al Qaeda operatives based in eastern Iran, current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials told The Daily Beast. These officials however stress that the Qaeda network in Iran gave the operatives autonomy to choose targets and the means of attack.
On Monday James Malizia, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police official told reporters, "The individuals were receiving support from al Qaeda elements located in Iran." Canadian officials later said they had no evidence that Iran's government participated directly in the attack. Iran's government dismissed the charges Tuesday asking for evidence for the indictment.
The arrests appear to show for the first time that Qaeda elements operate openly in parts of Iran in support of operations in the West—the latest sign of cooperation between the Sunni terror group and the theocratic Shia state.
“The evidence we have seen is very solid,” one U.S. counterterrorism official said of the signs of communication between the two men charged Monday—and the Qaeda facilitators. These facilitators were working out of the largely Sunni city of Zahedan, on Iran’s Eastern border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, Reuters reported. Current and former U.S. counter-terrorism officials told The Daily Beast that while the two men were in contact with al Qaeda operatives in Iran, they operated in Canada without direct guidance from them.
Iran’s government adheres to Shia Islam, a branch of the religion viewed with hostility by the fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam preached by al Qaeda’s theologians and leaders. At times Iran’s proxies have fought al Qaeda affiliates, such as the current civil war in Syria where al Qaeda supports the rebels under the banner of al-Nusra while Iran has supported the Syrian government.
But Iran and al Qaeda have also cooperated at times against perceived common enemies. “No one should be surprised that there are al Qaeda elements in Iran, from senior leadership on down,” said Matthew Levitt, a former senior FBI counterterrorism official and the director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Since 2009, the Treasury Department has designated senior members of al Qaeda who have resided in Iran for financial sanctions under U.S. counter-terrorism laws. In 2011, following the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, the Treasury Department openly accused Iran of facilitating the transfer of money and people on its territory to Qaeda operatives.
Evidence collected by the United States and others in recent years shows that Iran provided travel documents to a Kurdish jihadist organization closely linked to al Qaeda. The 9-11 commission in 2004 also found some operational links between al Qaeda and Iran suggesting Iran’s government helped facilitate the terrorists who launched the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Nonetheless, the small sliver of documents declassified by the U.S. government captured from bin Laden’s compound suggest the late Qaeda leader had been wary of Iran’s government, which he thought was detaining his jihadis and their families.
“This kind of on and off again tolerance of al Qaeda is not surprising,” said Bruce Hoffman, the director of the security studies program at Georgetown University. “The point is throughout its history the Islamic Republic of Iran has always used terrorism as an instrument of power.”