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A striking commonality between two al-Qaeda figures that made headlines this week is that they both lived in Iran. Muhsin al-Fadhli, targeted by a U.S. airstrike in Syria on Monday night, is a reported al-Qaeda figure who was reportedly placed under house arrest in Iran, while Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law), slapped with a life sentence in a New York court, had spent more than 10 years in Iran. According to U.S. officials, he was in confinement, however.
The juxtaposition of al-Qaeda as in theory an arch-foe of the Iranian regime while at the same time having senior members inside Iran, underscores a very complex relationship that Tehran has with the terrorist organization. In approaching its ties with al-Qaeda, Iran perhaps seeks to gain leverage over the group, use it as a card in promoting regional interest and in worst case scenarios perhaps seeks to utilize it operationally against the West or Israel or Arab neighbors in an event Tehran is attacked.
According to the U.S. Department of State, al-Fadhli was al-Qaeda’s senior facilitator and financier in Iran, with a bounty on his head of $7 million. He is believed to have relocated to Iran from Afghanistan in 2009, where he was under “house arrest” but later ran a group to “move fighters and money through Turkey to support al-Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria” before moving there himself in 2013. His transfer to Syria was based on orders from al-Qaeda central in Pakistan to lead the “Khorasan” group and help bridge differences between ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Many alleged Nusra followers on twitter have declared that al-Fadhli was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Northern Syria on Monday, while the Pentagon is still investigating.
At a time when extremism is engulfing the Middle East and brutality is unleashed in its ugliest forms in Syria, the region needs to collectively reject this narrative rather than exploit it
Bin Laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, followed a similar trajectory to al-Fadhli’s, where, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, “he was successfully smuggled from Afghanistan into Iran in 2002” where he spent at least 10 years before his arrest during a stopover in Jordan in March, 2013. Abu Ghaith was labeled as the “spokesperson” for al-Qaeda, editing videos of Bin Laden and expanding the recruiting efforts of the organization.
Abu Ghaith and al-Fadhli are not the only al-Qaeda figures who have history with or still reside in Iran. Following the collapse of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001, and the escape of al-Qaeda leaders to Pakistan, many figures reportedly sought shelter in Iran in what appeared as a win-win gamble. Iran is relatively safe since it is not subjected to U.S. airstrikes the way that Somalia or Pakistan or now Iraq and Syria are, and some believe there is common ground in distrusting America and Israel and the Sunni Arab states. It is a convergence that has led, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, al-Qaeda members Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi and Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil (better known as Yasin al-Suri) and five others to Iran.
The supposed relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran is full of distrust and is bound with limitations and operational boundaries that both sides adhere to. In 2008, al-Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Pakistan and negotiated his release in exchange of freeing some of its members in Iran including a former colonel in the Egyptian army Saif al-Adel.
It was a swap that granted al-Qaeda members operational freedom that they don’t fully enjoy in Iran, while proving to Tehran that hosting those members provides leverage in such crisis. In that same context, al-Qaeda, unlike ISIS, is more cognizant of appeasing Tehran and not embracing what some of its offshoots have started in 2003 in massacring Shiites. In 2004, both Bin Laden and Zawahiri did not condone Abu Musaab Zarqawi’s “total war” on Shiites in Iraq, and eight years later it is the same divide that al-Qaeda has with ISIS.
The al-Qaeda operatives that were or still reportedly reside in Iran are, in my view, some of the most atrocious in the organization. Saif al-Adel was indicted by the United States for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya, while al-Suri has a $10 million reward for his capture and is involved in moving money and fighters into Syria. Al-Fadhli on the other hand is reportedly heading Khorasan, which according to U.S. officials is more of a threat than ISIS to American security, plotting attacks from inside Syria.
The apparent al-Qaeda arrangement with Iran, despite the operational limitations, is very alarming for regional security. At a time when extremism is engulfing the Middle East and brutality is unleashed in its ugliest forms in Syria, the region needs to collectively reject this narrative rather than exploit it. History is not kind to those who have played with al-Qaeda fire and there is no reason to believe why Iran would be any different.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam