The reported assassination of a top al Qaeda leader on the streets of Tehran has raised fresh questions about the murky relationship between Iran and the radical Sunni terror group, as well as about the depths of clandestine U.S. and Israeli operations aimed at destroying that relationship.
The gunning down in August by Israeli agents of Abu Muhammea al-Masri — al Qaeda’s second-highest ranking figure and reportedly the planner behind deadly attack on two U.S. embassies in Africa — has been met by denials from Iran, which insists it does not harbor any al Qaeda terrorists and accuses Washington and Jerusalem are spreading lies to fuel anti-Iranian sentiment.
But Tehran’s denials fit a false narrative long perpetuated by the Iranian regime about its role as a safe haven for a string of high-level al Qaeda operatives since American military forces invaded neighboring Afghanistan back in 2001.
It’s a safe haven that has long been known of and talked quietly talked in American intelligence circles, despite the fact that Washington has relatively ignored it — particularly during the pursuit of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. Analysts also dismissed the idea that Iran, the world’s leading Shiite Muslim nation, would ally with al Qaeda, a radical Sunni Muslim offshoot.
“Future historians will be puzzled why, after the international community conducted such wide-ranging and costly actions against al Qaeda worldwide that it practically ignored Iran’s protection of, and engagement with, the al Qaeda leadership in Tehran,” Norman Roule, a retired CIA official who focused on the Middle East during his 34-year career with the spy agency, said in an interview this week.
“I think the families and friends of the thousands of victims of al Qaeda probably want an answer to this question today,” said Mr. Roule, now a non-resident fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University.
Confirmation of the hit on the al Qaeda operative also known as Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah was first reported last week by The New York Times. The paper cited anonymous intelligence officials as saying al-Masri, who has long been credited as a mastermind of the deadly 1998 attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was gunned down in an upscale Tehran neighborhood by two assassins on a motorcycle on Aug. 7, the anniversary of the attacks.
Officials said al-Masri was assassinated along with his daughter, Myriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden, who was killed last year in a U.S. counterterrorism operation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
The Associated Press subsequently reported that Myriam al-Masri was being groomed for a leadership role in al Qaeda and that she and al-Masri were killed by Kidon, an assassination unit within the Israeli spy organization Mossad. In Hebrew, Kidon means bayonet or “tip of the spear.”
While questions now swirl over the incident and why it was leaked, the issue of Iran’s relationship with the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s original al Qaeda network has attracted growing interest in Washington.
With the once-prominent Islamic State having receded from the spotlight, The Washington Times reported last year that the Trump administration had begun paying increasing attention to the unlikely alliance between Iran and al Qaeda with what some sources said was an eye toward justifying military strikes against Iran or its allies.
Despite their deep sectarian differences U.S. officials and analysts say a confluence of interests and a common enemy in the U.S. and its allies has long brought a level of covert cooperation and coordination between Tehran’s Islamic Republic and fugitive al Qaeda leaders.
“They have different world views [and] there are problems with the relationship, but at the end of the day, they both benefit from allying with each other,” Bill Roggio, senior fellow and editor of the Long War Journal at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) said in an interview this week.
The State Department in its annual reports on global terrorism has gone further in recent years, laying out in 2017 the case for at least a working relationship between Iran and al Qaeda: “Iran remained unwilling to bring to justice senior al Qaeda members residing in Iran and has refused to publicly identify the members in its custody. Iran has allowed al Qaeda facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling al Qaeda to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.”
Washington has long listed Iran as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism. It cites the estimated $1 billion a year that Tehran sends to a host of recognized terrorist organizations, most notably the Lebanon-based Shiite group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Sunni group Hamas.
Some analysts warn the Trump administration’s wider Middle East policy moves — including the drive to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab nations such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — could deepen cooperation between Tehran and al Qaeda.
The normalization deals were deeply unpopular among Palestinian leaders who relied on solidarity in the Arab world against Israel. Iranian officials also condemned the agreements out of the realization that a thawing of tensions with Israel — Iran’s chief enemy in the region — could leave Tehran isolated.
“Iran has an additional card to play in leveraging Palestinian radicalization: al Qaeda,” Douglas London, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute who spent 34 years in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, wrote in a recent blog post for the Atlantic Council.
“While some observers still discount extremist Sunni-Shia collaboration, Iran has consistently supported Hamas and the [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] and, more discreetly, al Qaeda and the Taliban in certain situations,” he wrote.
Going after al Qaeda
While the U.S. has pursued peace negotiations with the Taliban in recent years, the Trump administration has authorized continued military strikes against al Qaeda in various nations.
The alleged al-Masri strike was the latest in a wave that have killed top leaders of the group that orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks over the past year from Afghanistan to Syria.
“Killing al-Masri is a significant blow to al Qaeda’s leadership, but keep in mind that multiple senior al Qaeda leaders have been sheltering in Iran for 19 years and so far the U.S. has killed exactly one,” said Mr. Roggio.
Iranian state media identified the victims of the reported al-Masri assassination as “Habib Daoud,” a Lebanese history professor, and his 27-year-old daughter Maryam, while the Lebanese news channel MTV and social media accounts affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps reported that Mr. Daoud was a member of Hezbollah.
Iran’s Fars News Agency reported that Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Mirwais Naab rejected The New York Times account, claiming al-Masri was actually killed in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province by an Afghan special forces raid in late October.
Murkiness around the reporting, coupled with the gap in time before al-Masri’s death was finally revealed, have left many with questions over exactly what happened.
One high-level foreign intelligence official told The Washington Times that “it just seems unbelievable that the Trump administration would have kept this assassination quiet for several months.”
“Based on the way this administration has functioned on Iran, this killing would have been projected to the media right after it happened back in August,” the official said. “This was a very an embarrassing development for Iran and a major success for Washington and Israel. The Trump administration would have wanted to capitalize on that ahead of the American election. It doesn’t make sense that the story has only now suddenly come out.”
But others said the al-Masri operation was likely kept quiet for a range of reasons, not least of which being a desire to leave the Iranians guessing about who carried out the mission.
One former American intelligence official, meanwhile, said Washington may have sought to keep the al-Masri mission secret, but that Israeli officials may have leaked to send a message that Israel retains the capability “do whatever it wants, whenever it wants.”
It’s a message Israeli intelligence may be particularly eager to emphasize amid concern that a Biden administration in Washington will embrace a considerably softer approach to Tehran.