"Al Qaeda Will Never Work with Iran."
Never say never. Some scholars and former policymakers dismiss the possibility of al Qaeda-Iranian cooperation. "I think [there] is a war-fevered hysteria that is going on now," protests Hillary Mann Leverett, a National Security Council aide during the Clinton and Bush administrations. "A lot of this stuff is really flimsy." On the surface, she seems right. Not only is Iran a fundamentalist Shiite regime while al Qaeda is violently Sunni, but the two groups also have different long-term goals and have occasionally clashed.
Yet on the geopolitical chessboard, they share a common enemy: the United States. Iran has held several al Qaeda senior leaders since they were driven from Afghanistan in late 2001. Some have raised funds for the terrorist organization by leveraging wealthy Persian Gulf donors, while others have provided strategic and operational assistance to al Qaeda Central. Of particular importance are members of al Qaeda's former management council, which bin Laden established as a backup command-and-control node in Iran. They include Saif al-Adel, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani -- all of whom apparently remain in Iran under various forms of house arrest, according to my interviews with government officials from Britain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
The details of al Qaeda's relationship with the Iranian government are hazy. Many of the operatives under house arrest have petitioned for release. In 2009 and 2010, Iran began to free some detainees and their family members, including members of bin Laden's family, while the management council remains in Iran under limited house arrest. Members are allowed to communicate with al Qaeda Central, fundraise, and help funnel foreign fighters through Iran, according to several senior U.S. government officials.
Iran is likely holding al Qaeda leaders on its territory first as an act of defense. So long as Tehran has several leaders under its control, the terrorist group is unlikely to attack Iran. The strategy, however, might also have an offensive component if the United States or Israel were to target Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran has long used proxies to pursue its foreign-policy interests, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon. And several of al Qaeda's leaders in Iran, such as Adel, the group's onetime security chief, have extensive operational experience that would be valuable in such a situation.
Al Qaeda is likely making similar calculations about working with Iran. To be sure, some al Qaeda leaders revile the ayatollahs. In a 2004 letter, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late al Qaeda chief in Iraq, called Shiites "the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion." In a sign of Churchillesque pragmatism, though, Zawahiri publicly chastised Zarqawi, writing that the Shiites were not the primary enemy -- at least not for the moment. It was crucial, he explained, to understand that success hinged on support from the Muslim masses in Iraq. "In the absence of this popular support," argued Zawahiri, "the Islamic mujahid movement would be crushed in the shadows."
For al Qaeda, Iran is a refuge. The United States has targeted al Qaeda in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries, but it has limited operational reach inside the Islamic Republic. What's more, Iran borders the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, making it centrally located for most al Qaeda affiliates.
With the management council under limited house arrest, Iran and al Qaeda's relationship remains at arm's length. But that could change if Washington and Tehran finally come to blows. Should the United States or Israel decide to attack Iranian nuclear facilities or tensions otherwise escalate, Iran and al Qaeda could find that they share a common interest in bloodying America's nose.