Last month President Donald Trump caused a minor stir in his speech on Iran policy by discussing that regime’s connection to al-Qaeda. He said “Iranian proxies” provided training to al-Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He said Iran hosted high-level al-Qaeda operatives after the Sept. 11 attacks, including Osama bin Laden’s son.
His critics pounced. Former Obama administration Middle East policy coordinator Philip Gordon wrote that the president “stretched the evidence” to portray Iran as a partner of al-Qaeda. Paul Pillar, the former senior intelligence analyst who signed off on the U.S. conclusions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction programs, dismissed Trump’s claims as based on the fact that some al-Qaeda operatives resided in Iran under house arrest.
It turns out Trump was closer to the mark than his detractors. On Wednesday the CIA released hundreds of thousands of documents captured in the 2011 raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s founder.
Ryan Trapani, a spokesman for the CIA, told me Thursday: “Documents collected during the bin Laden raid, which have been declassified, indicate Iran and al-Qaeda have an agreement to not target each other. The documents indicate bin Laden referred to Iran as the ‘main artery’ for al-Qaeda to move funds, personnel and communications.”
Some of this was known before. The U.S. government has sanctioned members of al-Qaeda’s network in Iran going back to the Obama years. The State Department’s annual reports on terrorism also touch on this.
Nonetheless, it’s understandable why many observers would dismiss the notion of an Iran-al-Qaeda connection. Earlier releases of the bin Laden files under the Obama administration emphasized the Iran-al-Qaeda rivalry. All the while documents that showed cooperation remained classified.
Take for example the 2012 release, the first time the intelligence community declassified files captured in the 2011 raid on bin Laden’s bunker in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Those documents publicized al-Qaeda’s tense negotiations with Iran to return members of bin Laden’s family, following al-Qaeda’s taking an Iranian diplomat as hostage.
The new releases tell a more nuanced story. Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, the founders and editors of the Long War Journal, got early access to the latest bin Laden files this week. They say the latest information shows two wary rivals, willing to cooperate against America.
They focus on a 19-page document from a senior al-Qaeda operative that gives an early history of the relationship. It began on friendly terms in the late 1990s. They write that the author of the document, who is not named but appears to be well connected, “explains that Iran offered some ‘Saudi brothers’ in al-Qaeda ‘everything they needed,’ including ‘money, arms’ and ‘training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.’ Iranian intelligence facilitated the travel of some operatives with visas, while sheltering others.”
Like most deals between thugs, the relationship at times soured. Al-Qaeda operatives for example wrote a letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, demanding he release members of their operatives’ families. The Iranians too considered in 2003 a possible deal with the U.S., offering up some al-Qaeda operatives in exchange for members of the People’s Mujahadin, an anti-Iranian group supported by the not-yet-deposed Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Nothing ever came of the offer.
The 19-page document says that an al-Qaeda operative named Abu Hafs al-Mauritani negotiated the arrangement for some al-Qaeda operatives to enjoy safe haven in Iran after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. Most of al-Qaeda’s leadership fled to Pakistan, but bin Laden’s and his deputy’s wives and children went to Iran, along with a handful of others.
Initially the deal required Iran’s al-Qaeda guests to keep a low profile. They did not keep their end of the bargain though, accordi
ng to the document. The author says al-Qaeda’s operatives began using cell phones, which the Iranian regime prohibited on the grounds that the U.S. would find out about it, according to a rough translation of the document shared with me by Joscelyn. “They began to buy cars and they began to move the way they like and gathering with people, and relationships with Sunnis in the city and other places,” the 19-page document says.
Joscelyn told me this week that his journal, which is part of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, will be combing through the thousands of new documents and translating them. He said he would be looking for more on the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda, along with more insights into al-Qaeda’s relationship with Pakistan, the role bin Laden played in day-to-day operations and the history of his terror network.
For now the release of the files from the CIA is itself a victory for anyone who was frustrated by the slow pace of declassifications from the Obama administration. That would include Obama’s Defense Intelligence Agency director, Michael Flynn, who became Trump’s first national security adviser. He wrote in his book about the bin Laden documents and said there was ample evidence of al-Qaeda-Iranian cooperation against the U.S. Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has also pressed the government to declassify the documents, going so far as to require the document release in the bills that authorize spending for the intelligence agencies.
Current and former Trump administration officials tell me the declassification of the documents was a priority for the new president’s team. The former senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, pressed the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify the bin Laden documents. He met with resistance because translations, vetting the documents and providing official analysis would sap resources from higher priorities, according to these current and former officials. In the end, the CIA released most of the documents on Wednesday without translations and analysis, in hard-to-download zip files.
In the coming days and weeks, outside analysts and experts will be able to see for themselves the extent of Iran’s cooperation with al-Qaeda. What’s already emerging though is a more complex relationship than ideologues on either side of this issue would care to admit. Al-Qaeda and Iran were not exactly allies. They were not enemies either.