The assassins were professionals and they had planned carefully. On Aug. 7, 2020, around 9 o’clock on a warm evening, they rode a motorcycle down a street in Pasdaran, a well-off Tehran neighborhood. They pulled alongside a white Renault L90. A middle-aged man was at the wheel, a young woman in the seat next to him. Five shots were fired from a pistol fitted with a silencer. The motorcycle sped off as the couple in the sedan drew their last breaths.
News of this assassination appeared in October on an al Qaeda-linked social media platform translated by MEMRI. Unnamed intelligence officials subsequently confirmed details to The New York Times, which on Nov. 13 published an extensive report naming the primary target of the assassination as Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, 58.
His nom de guerre was Abu Muhammad al-Masri (indicating his Egyptian origin) and the guerre he was fighting was al Qaeda’s: He was the organization’s “deputy emir,” second only to Ayman al Zawahiri, 69, who is presumed to be in hiding in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
For years on the FBI’s Most Wanted list with a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture, al-Masri is believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, precisely 22 years prior to the day of his sudden and violent demise. More than 200 people were killed in those attacks with 20 times that number wounded. He is linked to other terrorist atrocities as well.
The woman accompanying him was his 27-year-old daughter, Miriam. She also was the widow of Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, who was being groomed as a future AQ leader until he was killed in an American counterterrorism operation somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan within the last few years. She, too, was being trained for a leadership role in AQ, an anonymous intelligence source told the Associated Press.
The attack in Tehran “was carried out by Israeli operatives at the behest of the United States,” according to The Times’ sources. However, it is unclear “what role if any was played by the United States, which had been tracking the movements of al-Masri and other al Qaeda operatives in Iran for years.”
Al-Masri is believed to have been in Iran’s “custody” since 2003, but at least since 2015 he had lived freely in Tehran. The clerical regime had even permitted al-Masri to adopt a false identity: Habib Daoud, a Lebanese history professor. It was this fictious character that Iran’s official media reported to have been killed. Lebanese media parroted those reports.
The revelation that Iran’s rulers have played gracious host to an al Qaeda leader has caused bewilderment at The Times. “That he had been living in Iran was surprising, given that Iran and Al Qaeda are bitter enemies,” the article noted. “Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, and Al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim jihadist group, have fought each other on the battlefields of Iraq and other places.”
Perhaps I can help sort this out. The regime in Tehran and the terrorist organization with franchises in multiple countries have long collaborated against common enemies, the United States chief among them.
Their theological differences notwithstanding, they have much in common. Both are committed to waging jihad (with terrorism as a signature weapon), spreading their (not identical) interpretations of Islamic law, and re-establishing a great and powerful Islamic empire that is to diminish and eventually defeat America and the West. In other words, they are rivals. Rivals are not the same as enemies, bitter or otherwise.
My colleague, Thomas Joscelyn, has been studying and reporting on the Tehran/AQ relationship for years. “There is a wealth of evidence, stretching back to the early 1990s, showing that the two have repeatedly cooperated,” he wrote last week in The Dispatch. “The 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings are a good example.”
He pointed out that the U.S. government’s own 9/11 Commission “found Iran and its chief terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, gave al Qaeda the ‘tactical expertise’ necessary for those near-simultaneous attacks” in Africa. “Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants were impressed with how Iranian-backed terrorists forced America’s retreat from Lebanon in the 1980s. And al Qaeda wanted to replicate that success.”
The current administration has understood that Iran’s rulers do business with al Qaeda, as well as with the Taliban, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad — Sunni groups all. “There is no doubt there is a connection. Period. Full stop,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last April.
The Obama administration also was aware of the AQ/Tehran relationship. Mr. Joscelyn noted: “Beginning in July 2011, the Obama administration’s Treasury and State Departments began exposing the Iranian regime’s ‘secret deal’ with al Qaeda. This deal allows for AQ to maintain its ‘core facilitation pipeline’ inside Iran.”
But such ties did not impede Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran’s rulers, in particular his provision of billions of dollars and the promise of lucrative trade in exchange for a pledge that they would delay — not terminate — their nuclear weapons program.
Concluded in 2015 without congressional approval, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was not so comprehensive as to include anything in regard to terrorism sponsored by Tehran, or carried out by Tehran’s proxies and partners, al Qaeda among them.
Joe Biden has defended the JCPOA and indicated that he’d like to revive it. Will the revelation that AQ’s second-in-command has been living comfortably as a guest of the ayatollah provoke second thoughts? The answer to that question will speak volumes about who Mr. Biden is and who he aspires to become.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.