The British press is awash in reports of a secret al Qaeda alliance with Iran to stage a spectacular attack in Europe this summer, perhaps at the London Olympics. Al Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is said to be orchestrating the plot with Tehran to avenge his predecessor Osama bin Laden’s death.
The relationship between al Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran has been shrouded in mystery and secrecy for years. Al Qaeda operatives traveled through Iran for years before and after 9/11, and some found sanctuary there after fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001, although the circumstances of their status in Iran were always unclear. But the hints of occasional operational cooperation between al Qaeda and Tehran are mostly outweighed by the very considerable and public evidence of the deep animosity between Sunni extremist al Qaeda and Shia extremist Iran. Antipathy for each other is at the root of their ideologies and narratives and has been most visible in their competition for influence in Iraq and now in Syria.
The 9/11 plot is a good place to start to understand the mystery. The 9/11 Commission report concluded that there was evidence of contacts between bin Laden and Iran and its Lebanese Hizbullah ally dating back to his years in Khartoum in the mid-'90s. Bin Laden may even have met with the infamous Hizbullah terrorist Imad Mughniyah back then to share terror tricks. Three of the 9/11 hijackers reportedly traveled from Saudi Arabia to Beirut, then on to Iran and into Afghanistan on a flight with an associate of a senior Hizbullah official, according to the commission’s report. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Ramzi Binalshibh (two captured al Qaeda operatives who masterminded the 9/11 attack) confirmed that eight or 10 of the 9/11 hijackers at one time or another between October 2000 and February 2001 traveled through Iran on their way to or from Afghanistan for training purposes, taking advantage of the Iranian practice of not stamping Saudi passports.
The bottom line of the 9/11 report is unequivocal, however, and it reports that both Mohammad and Binalshibh categorically denied any relationship between the hijackers and Hizbullah. On Iran the commission concludes, “We have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.” So passive assistance not actual co-plotting.
On the other side of the ledger, the animosity between Iran and al Qaeda is public and abundantly clear. For al Qaeda and its allies like the Afghan Taliban, all Shia are not true Muslims and should be treated at best as outcasts if not apostates. Al Qaeda’s first leader in Iraq, Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, was notoriously vicious in his hatred for the Shia, even earning a private reproach from Zawahiri for his indiscriminate attacks on Shia leaders, mosques, and processions six years ago. Al Qaeda in Iraq still regularly targets Shia innocents. At the same time, however, al Qaeda operatives regularly go through Iran to travel between Iraq and Pakistan.
Now in Syria, al Qaeda is backing the Sunni majority in its civil war with the Alawite-Christian minority alliance that backs President Bashar al-Assad. This week Zawahiri urged al Qaeda operatives from all over the region to rush to Syria to fight Assad’s “pernicious, cancerous regime.” Al Qaeda has been linked to car-bomb attacks on Assad’s thugs in Aleppo and Damascus. Iran and Hizbullah, of course, are fully behind Assad.
So despite their animosity, al Qaeda, Iran, and Hizbullah can probably also find new places to quietly cooperate, if only passively. America and its allies are on a collision course with Tehran over Iran’s determination to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. From Tehran’s perspective, the war has already begun. Iran’s nuclear scientists are being assassinated, its nuclear and missile facilities blown up, and its computers hacked into. Now its economic lifeline—oil exports—is being threatened. As the confrontation worsens, Iran is clearly looking for ways to fight back. The attempted bomb attacks on Israeli diplomats in India, Georgia, and Thailand this week, probably by Hizbullah teams, are one manifestation of Iran’s efforts at retaliation.
Allowing al Qaeda greater use of Iranian territory for travel or for safe haven would be another. Such cooperation will be very hard to detect by Western intelligence agencies, and even harder to prove. As the U.S. puts pressure on al Qaeda’s safe haven in Pakistan, Zawahiri and his terrorists are likely to start looking for an alternative sanctuary. Iran is right next door, and if it opens the door, al Qaeda might find the change of venue attractive, at least for parts of its infrastructure. In short, al Qaeda and Iran still hate each other, but they could find common cause to fight America and Britain.