U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a speech at the National Press Club on 12 January 2021 revealing new evidence about Iran’s relationship with Al-Qaeda and the danger it poses to the progress of peace in the Middle East, such as has been seen with the recent Abraham Accords between Israel and moderate Arab states like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Pompeo began by confirming for the first time in public that Al-Qaeda’s deputy, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al-Masri), was killed in Tehran on 7 August 2020. Interestingly, Pompeo noted—as we did here at EER in November—that The New York Times coverage saying it was “surprising” that Abdullah was in Iran was itself surprising, since the facts about Al-Qaeda’s leadership being harboured in Iran are long-established and well-documented. “It wasn’t surprising at all,” said Pompeo. “Al-Qaeda has a new home base. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Al-Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan and decimated after 2001, said Pompeo, but the Iranian government gave Al-Qaeda a safe haven and “[Osama] Bin Laden’s wicked creation is poised to gain strength and capabilities”. Pompeo called for other countries to acknowledge this Iran-Al-Qaeda nexus and work with the U.S. to defeat it.
The 9/11 Commission Report, published in 2004, documented connections between Iran and Al-Qaeda extending back “for nearly three decades,” to the early 1990s, when Al-Qaeda operatives trained in the Beqa’a Valley in Lebanon with Iranian-supported Hezbollah, Pompeo noted. This was pre-9/11.
Of 9/11 itself, Pompeo noted “there is no evidence Iran helped plan or had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks,” but it is also true that “at least eight of the 9/11 hijackers travelled through Iran between October of 2000 and February of 2001.” Moreover, Iran had a standing, systematic policy of not stamping the passports of jihadists coming and going from Afghanistan; this avoided raising suspicions in their home countries that might have led to the 9/11 plot being discovered and prevented.
Pompeo quoted a letter from Bin Laden, where the terrorist leader said: “Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communications. There is no need to fight with Iran—unless you are forced to.”
It was these facts among others that led to a U.S. court ruling that found Iran culpable for the 9/11 attacks, as Pompeo said, and, in 2013, Canada disrupted a terrorist plot against the train system in Toronto that was directed by Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran.
The exact circumstances under which Al-Qaeda’s leaders have been kept in Iran has been a matter of controversy. Pompeo sought to resolve the issue today, saying that up to 2015, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (Ettela’at, formerly known as VEVAK) and more importantly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) kept tight control of Al-Qaeda’s leaders in conditions akin to house arrest, but there was a “sea change” in that year, not coincidentally around the time the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or nuclear deal, was signed.
“Iran decided [around 2015] to allow Al-Qaeda to establish a new operational headquarters on the condition that Al-Qaeda operatives abide by the regime’s rules governing their stay inside of the country: agency and control.” Al-Qaeda was given greater freedom of movement, albeit continually supervised by Iranian authorities, and in addition to safe haven, Ettela’at and IRGC gave “logistical support” to Al-Qaeda, such as travel documentation.
With Iran’s support, Al-Qaeda has “centralised its leadership inside of Tehran,” said Pompeo, and the group has been able to feel safe and secure enough—and to raise enough money—to begin again “plotting attacks all across the world”. “I would say Iran is, indeed, the new Afghanistan as the key geographic hub for Al-Qaeda,” said Pompeo, “but it’s actually worse” since Al-Qaeda is no longer confined to the mountains of the Hindu Kush: it has the “hard shell of the Iranian regime’s protection” and a “range of Iranian support” that blinds the U.S. to Al-Qaeda’s activities and makes targeting its leaders in retaliation for terrorist acts more perilous.
Iran and Al-Qaeda are “partners in terrorism” and a threat to the whole region, notably to “the progress of the Abraham Accords,” says Pompeo. “If Al-Qaeda can use terror attacks in the region to blackmail nations from joining the warm peace with Israel, then we risk grinding generational momentum for peace in the Middle East to a halt.” And the threat extends to the whole world, to Europe and beyond. Pompeo reminds his audience that key parts of the 9/11 attacks were planned in Germany.
Looking ahead, Pompeo asks: “Who is to say that [Iranian-sponsored Al-Qaeda attacks] isn’t the next form of blackmail to pressure countries back into a nuclear deal?” Before things can get that far, Pompeo says the free countries must move to “crush the Iran-Al-Qaeda axis” and “not lie … about Iranian moderation”. Pompeo urged the United Nations and all individual countries to apply sanctions—as international law demands—to Iranian institutions involved in collaborating with Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Pompeo concluded his speech by announcing sanctions on two Iran-based Al-Qaeda figures, one Saudi, Sultan Yusuf Hasan al-Arif, and one Moroccan, Muhammad Abbatay (Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi), plus three Iraqi leaders of Al-Qaeda Kurdish Battalions (AQKB): Ismail Fuad Rasul Ahmed (Abdallah Kurdi), Fuad Ahmad Nuri Ali al-Shakhan (Bilal Kirkuki or Mam Karim), and Niamat Hama Rahim Hama Sharif (Sa’d Tawealy). AQKB operates on the border between Iran and Iraq with various forms of deniable support from the Islamic Republic.
The first reaction from Iran came from Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif, whose tweet, while bombastic in tone, was very careful in its content. Zarif asserted that none of the 9/11 attackers “came from” Iran in the sense of having nationality, which is true; he did not deny either the facilitation of the 9/11 hijackers in 2000 and 2001, nor the harbouring of Al-Qaeda’s leaders to the present moment.