On Thursday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on six al Qaeda operatives based in Kuwait, Qatar, Pakistan and - significantly - Iran. The U.S. government accused Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a “prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator,” of operating his network with the complicity and cooperation of the Tehran government. “This network serves as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia,” according to Treasury, “including to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a key al Qaeda leader based in Pakistan.” Mr. Al-Rahman, who reports directly to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, was also named in the action.
David S. Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, explained, “By exposing Iran’s secret deal with al Qaeda, allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism.”
The degree of Iran’s support for al Qaeda is a topic of debate in the intelligence community. One camp argues the Shiite regime in Tehran would never support al Qaeda’s Sunni extremism. They note that fomenting open warfare between the sects was part of al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq. Common interest, however, is a more reliable predictor of behavior in the chaotic international realm, and Iran and al Qaeda share powerful adversaries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. When the two work together against these countries, their theological divide is irrelevant.
Iran has been linked to al Qaeda since before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. Al Qaeda cooperated with Iranian-backed Hezbollah in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. The 1998 indictment of Osama bin Laden for the African embassy bombings noted his group, “forged alliances … with the government of Iran and its associated terrorist group Hezbollah for the purpose of working together against their perceived common enemies in the West, particularly the United States.” The 9/11 Commission found evidence that the mullahs reached out to bin Laden after the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, but that the al Qaeda leader was wary about crafting too close a relationship for fear of alienating his supporters in Saudi Arabia.
Iran became an important transit point for al Qaeda terrorists. Of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, eight to 10 passed through the Islamic Republic between the time of the Cole bombing and February 2001. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran gave safe haven (called “house arrest”) to scores of al Qaeda operatives, including bin Laden’s sons. Currently, Iran supplies advanced explosively formed penetrators to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and pays bounties to those who kill U.S. troops.
The George W. Bush administration knew about Iran’s ties to al Qaeda but didn’t press the case. Mr. Obama initially followed suit, implementing an outreach campaign to Tehran early in his administration which was soundly rebuffed. Now the White House is willing to take a stand against Iran’s support for America’s top terrorist enemy. Hopefully, this is a harbinger of many stronger policies to come.