Iran’s Regional Influence Continues to Grow after Al-Qaeda Revelations

Since the beginning of November, numerous reports have emerged from the latest declassification of documents seized from Abbottabad, Pakistan after the 2011 raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

There are tens of thousands of documents in the entire trove, whereas the process of analyzing and releasing them may still take years. But that which has been released so far has contributed to the development of a clearer picture of the history of the Sunni terrorist group in the run-up to bin Laden’s death. And the latest release included a 19-page document filled with details specifically about Al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy.

In an article about this relationship, The Atlantic acknowledged that some of the initial reactions to the document in Western media had been to downplay its revelations and to insist that any relationship between Iran and Al-Qaeda was being exaggerated to justify the increasingly assertive Iran strategy being pursued by the White House under President Donald Trump.

But The Atlantic quickly added that even though the magazine itself had run an article endorsing this conclusion, it has since proven true that Iran and Al-Qaeda had a close working relationship for many years. The new article, published on Saturday, even proclaimed in its headline that Al-Qaeda has experienced a significant resurgence in recent years, partly because of the help it received from Tehran.

The revelations from the Abbottabad document were backed up by letters from and interviews with various Al-Qaeda operatives and members of the bin Laden family. These sources corroborate reports that the Islamic Republic of Iran had offered full-scale financial and material assistance to Al-Qaeda, including training in camps run by the Iran-backed Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah. The price for this support was reportedly nothing greater than a commitment to terrorist acts targeting assets belonging to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

This commitment was upheld no later than 2003, when numerous Al-Qaeda operatives had relocated to Iran with the blessing of that country’s government and had then used their newfound position to plan an attack on three residential compounds in Saudi Arabia, killing 35 people including nine Americans. Although Al-Qaeda’s power and global reach quickly contracted afterwards in the wake of a concerted anti-terrorism campaign led by the U.S., many of its leaders retained some degree of stability in Iran, where they remained under the guardianship of the Quds Force, the foreign special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In fact, the essential genesis of the Iran-Al-Qaeda collaboration was a meeting that was arranged between Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and Mahfouz ibn el-Waleed, who had been established as a go-between for Al-Qaeda, spanning Pakistan and Iran.

The article also credits both the Quds Force and Hezbollah with serving as models for the recent “evolution” of the Sunni terrorist group into something that retains its commitment to terrorism but also advances a more moderate public image in order to attract a broader range of supporters. This certainly has wide-ranging implications on multinational efforts to combat the proliferation of terrorism and Islamic extremism, but it also has perhaps more specific implications for the future of the Middle East and for the Iranian regime’s imperial designs on the surrounding area.

Al-Qaeda’s resurgence comes in the midst of escalation in the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And the terrorist group’s established commitment to striking Saudi targets means that it could serve as another means by which Iran can attack its regional rival while maintaining plausible deniability regarding its own role.

This sort of strategy has already been evident, particularly in light of the downing of a missile near Saudi Arabia’s King Khaled International Airport on November 4.  Lieutenant General Jeffry L. Harrington, the top official in the U.S. Air Force, had announced that the missile had Iranian markings.

“That in itself provides evidence of where it came from,” he said, thereby adding further American support to the Saudi account of the incident.

In its capacity to carry out missile strikes on Iran’s behalf, the Houthi movement is only one of a number of Iranian proxies operating throughout the Middle East and beyond. And although sectarian differences between Tehran and Al-Qaeda may prevent the latter from sharing this role as a direct Iranian proxy, there is certainly reason to believe that it is acting and will continue to act as an outlet for Iran’s political influence.

Any persistent links between Iran and Al-Qaeda could help to deepen the already-established Iranian influence in areas like Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda had had a prominent presence in the past. Just as Iran has recently contributed to the resurgence of Al-Qaeda itself, it has also contributed to the reclamation of political power by the Taliban, the Sunni extremist movement that held power in Afghanistan and served as an ally and patron to Al-Qaeda prior to the American invasion in 2001.

On Saturday, The New York Times made mention of Iran’s improved relations with the Taliban, describing it as a means for Iran to “hedge its bets” as the stability of the Afghan government looks increasingly questionable. The focus of the article, though, was the growth of Iran’s influence on the other side of the ideological spectrum, through the Fatemiyoun division that the Islamic Republic created from Afghan Shi’ites for the purpose of fighting in defense of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.

The article explains that indoctrination with hardline Shi’ite ideology has been an integral part of the training of the Fatemiyoun, although much of its membership is initially attracted by financial incentives that, in the case of Afghan refugees in Iran, stand in contrast to the threat of deportation back to their homeland.

Meanwhile, Iranian operatives will certainly continue to present challenges to other areas where their Saudi rivals already maintain strong influence over the ruling structures. As evidence of this, explosion occurred on Friday at an oil pipeline leading from the island nation of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. Bahrain’s Saudi-allied government is Sunni, but its Shi’ite majority population includes terrorist elements with known links to Tehran. It is thus no surprise that government officials blamed Iran for the blast. And it will be no surprise if other entities that are concerned about Iran’s influence express the same conclusion in the days to come.