Osama bin Laden relied on Iran as a conduit to replenish his terrorist army with money and fighters as he worked to keep al Qaeda in the killing business during his decade in hiding.
Details on the Iran-bin Laden strategic link come from the terrorist leader himself, who handwrote a steady stream of letters from various hideouts, including the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs killed him in May 2011. The SEALs seized reams of documents, and the government released a second declassified batch this month.
It has been known that Iran allowed al Qaeda fighters to travel through its territory from the tribal areas of Pakistan to Iraq, where the parent terrorist group founded al Qaeda in Iraq. Iran also gave safe haven, sometimes in the form of accommodations, to al Qaeda leaders and bin Laden family members.
The bin Laden letters show the relationship ran deeper. While not an operational alliance, it was a logistical one. It underscores the reality that both Sunni Muslim al Qaeda and the Shiite Iranian regime shared one overriding emotion: an intense hatred of the United States.
Iran itself, and through surrogates such as Hezbollah, has been responsible for the killings of hundreds of Americans. It trained Iraqi Shiites in how to bomb and shell U.S. military personnel in Iraq. In that vein, Iran was an ally of al Qaeda in Iraq, which was targeting the same personnel.
In a 2007 letter to a terrorist named “Karim” at a time of intense fighting in Iraq, bin Laden warned his ally not to begin attacking Iran in retaliation for Tehran’s arming and training of Iraqi Shiites.
“You did not consult with us on that serious issue that affects the general welfare of all of us,” bin Laden admonished Karim, who had made public threats. “We expected you would consult with us for these important matters, for as you are aware, Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages.”
That disclosure, that Iran is a “main” logistics channel, would indicate that Tehran was either actively supporting al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal regions or tacitly letting the flow go through its territory. Why else would bin Laden not want to agitate Tehran?
The manpower flow through Iran appears to have continued for years.
Bin Laden wrote in 2010 in a letter to an ally: “As it pertains to the brothers coming from Iran, I think that at this stage they are in safe places outside the areas of bombardment.”
The “bombardment” may refer to the U.S. drone war over the tribal areas, where U.S. intelligence hunted down terrorist leaders and killed them with Hellfire missiles.
“It was sort of a nonaggression pact between Iran and al Qaeda,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East scholar at the Congressional Research Service. “A lot of this was tactical. This was part of Iran’s way of saying, ‘We’re not going to make trouble for your people, and in return, you don’t make trouble for us.’”
A senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times that Karim was Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who led al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007.
Al-Masri was killed in April 2010 by a U.S.-Iraq raid. A month later, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed command of what became the Islamic State of Iraq. He fled for civil war-torn Syria and founded what is today the Islamic State terrorist army that controls sections of both countries.
The intelligence official said the bin Laden letter does not necessarily mean the Iranian regime had an official policy of nurturing al Qaeda in Pakistan.
“For clarity, the reference to Iran as an ‘artery’ should not be read as anything official with respect to the Iranian regime,” the official said. “We have not uncovered any evidence of anything formal or official when it comes to Iran and AQ.”
James Phillips, a Middle East expert at The Heritage Foundation, calls al Qaeda and Iran “frenemies.”
“They cooperated against common enemies, especially the United States, but were divided by ideology, priorities and sectarian differences,” he said.
Mr. Phillips said there is a history to the al Qaeda-Iran relationship that predates the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. For example, Hezbollah, a creation of Iran in Lebanon, trained al Qaeda terrorists in bomb-making.
Hezbollah and al Qaeda both played a role in the 1996 Khobar Towers truck bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans.
“Iran allowed members of al Qaeda to travel freely through Iran without stamping their passports, including at least eight of the 9/11 hijackers,” Mr. Phillips said. “After al Qaeda was forced out of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Tehran allowed surviving members to transit freely to Iraq to fight the U.S.”
Iran housed al Qaeda VIPs, such as bin Laden’s son, Saad, and Saif al Adel, a top al Qaeda military leader who is under indictment for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa. Press reports say Adel was traded for an Iranian prisoner and is at large today. Saad was killed in a 2009 U.S. drone strike.
“That supports the conclusion that bin Laden’s relations with Iran’s dictatorship were convoluted, a mix of cooperation, competition, distrust and opportunistic collusion,” Mr. Phillips said.
The Obama administration has reached out to the hard-line Islamic regime in Tehran, culminating in a landmark nuclear deal that freed up billions of dollars in Iranian cash in exchange for suspending its pursuit for 10 years of nuclear weapons research. Republican critics say the cash will be used to fund terrorism and that Iran will likely violate the deal. Iran this week test-fired two ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. resolutions.
Bin Laden’s writings touched on the health of his family members residing in Iran and on Tehran’s overall strategic objectives, which included kicking the U.S. out of the Persian Gulf.
“They want the whole Gulf to be under their direct and absolute control,” he wrote in a draft speech.
“They started with the south of Iraq, and some of its center, and got no opposition from the Gulf states, which encouraged them to go on, as Iran sees itself as holding rights in that matter because it is a Gulf and major regional country, and claims that its security requirements call for there being no American military bases on the other shore of the Gulf.”
The U.S. permanently stations ground, air and naval forces in the Gulf area to block Iran’s regional ambitions.
If, as it appears, that Iran was actively aiding al Qaeda, as the bin Laden letter states, the action would place it in jeopardy under the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force signed into law by President George W. Bush. The AUMF was essentially Congress’ declaration of war against al Qaeda as well as countries and organizations that support it.
The law says, in part: “That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”