Header of FBI wanted poster with three photos of Saif al Adel

Iran Continues To Offer Safe Haven To Al-Qaeda, US Confirms

Tuesday, 02/27/2024

Iran continues to allow al-Qaeda to facilitate its terrorist activities, a key communication channel to transfer funds and fighters to South Asia, Syria, and elsewhere, the US State Department told Iran International. 

The State Department said that “Iran continues to deny al-Qaeda’s presence in the country, despite their knowledge of al-Qaeda leadership figures’ activities there," the relationship dating back to as early as 2009. 

The State Department also confirmed remarks by James Rubin, the US special coordinator for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, who recently talked of “a new partnership between Iran and al-Qaeda" in a briefing in London, saying that Iran is harboring al-Qaeda leaders inside its soil. 

The department also emphasized that “Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism, facilitating a wide range of terrorist activities and other illicit activities around the world -- in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, through militant groups and terrorists such as Hezbollah and Hamas.”

They branded Iran "a primary driver of instability across the Middle East" since the Islamic regime was established in 1979.

Late in January, the United Nations released a report disclosing eight new al-Qaeda training camps and other infrastructure inside Afghanistan as well as five madrasas, or religious schools to teach jihadi ideology. An al-Qaeda leader known as Hakim al-Masri “is responsible for the training camps and conducting suicide bomber training for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” the Pakistani branch of the outfit. Al Qaeda has also established a new base “to stockpile weaponry” in the central province of Panjshir. 

The report cited several UN Security Council member states as saying that the key al-Qaeda figures are travelling to provide liaison between the terrorist group’s de facto leader, Saif al-Adel, who resides in Iran, and senior al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, including Abdul Rahman al-Ghamdi. Al-Ghamdi is one of the suspects in the September 11 attacks, who was unable to participate for unknown reasons. 

(From left to right) Al-Qaeda leaders Saif al-Adel, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and Abu Abu al-Khayr al- Masri in Tehran, Iran, circa 2015. (Photograph from Anonymous hacking group)

Seif al-Adel, a former Egyptian special forces officer and a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda with a $10 million US bounty on his head, became the "uncontested" leader of the militant group following the July 2022 death of Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US missile strike in Kabul. 

The Taliban has not formally declared him "emir" because of sensitivity to the concerns of the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan, who haven't wanted to acknowledge that Zawahiri was killed by a US rocket in a home in Kabul, another big blow to the group since its founder Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Another UN report said that the Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda is also sensitive to the issue of Adel residing in largely Shiite Iran.

The latest UN report highlighted that “The group maintains safe houses to facilitate the movement between Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Provinces of Herat, Farah and Helmand, with additional safe house locations in Kabul.” 

In February 2023, then State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “Our assessment aligns with that of the UN… offering safe haven to al-Qaeda is another example of Iran’s wide-ranging support for terrorism, its destabilizing activities in the Middle East and beyond.”

A day after Washington aligned itself with the UN statement locating Adel in Iran, the regime’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, denied he is based in the country. "I advise the officials of the White House to stop the failed game of Iran-phobia, making news about the leader of al-Qaeda and linking him to Iran is laughable," he said. 

According to the US State Department’s Rewards for Justice program, Adel moved to southeastern Iran after bomb attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 civilians and wounded more than 5,000 others in 1998. He reportedly lived under the protection of Iran's Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), but in April 2003, Iran placed him and other al-Qaeda leaders under house arrest. In September 2015, Adel and four other senior al-Qaeda leaders were released from Iranian custody in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Yemen. They stayed in Iran after their release.

The UN report also confirmed that “the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda remains close, and the latter maintains a holding pattern in Afghanistan under Taliban patronage.” Expressing concerns about the presence of al-Qaeda senior figures in Afghanistan, the UN team said, “the group continues to pose a threat in the region, and potentially beyond.” The report noted that Taliban tries to “reduce the visibility” of its ties with al-Qaeda.

In addition to harboring al-Qaeda leaders, Tehran is also bolstering its relations with Taliban, which agreed not to allow al-Qaeda to operate in areas under their control days after the takeover of Kabul in August 2021. Al-Qaeda is bound to the Taliban by a pledge of allegiance first offered in the 1990s by Osama Bin Laden to his Taliban counterpart Mullah Omar. The pledge has been renewed several times since, although it has not always been publicly acknowledged by the Taliban.

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