WASHINGTON – With the expulsion of a senior al-Qaida official, Iran appears to be signaling a crackdown on the terrorist group that has long sought refuge within its borders, even as Tehran allows al-Qaida operatives safe transit to Afghanistan, U.S. officials say.
Iran’s ouster of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a former al-Qaida spokesman and the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, marked at least the third time in the past year that a prominent al-Qaida figure has left the country after living for years in a limbo between houseguest and home detention.
U.S. officials and terrorism experts say the tougher stance appears to reflect growing tensions between Iran’s Shiite clerics and the Sunni Muslim terrorist group, particularly over the conflict in Syria, where the two are backing opposing sides.
At the same time, Western intelligence agencies see steps by Iran to preserve low-level ties with al-Qaida, which continues to use Iranian territory as a transit route with the blessing of senior government officials, U.S. officials and analysts say.
“We believe that Iran continues to allow al-Qaida to operate a network that moves al-Qaida money and fighters through Iran to support al-Qaida activities in South Asia,” David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in an interview.
Highlighting the complex nature of the relationship, the same transit networks send “funding and fighters to Syria,” Cohen said, where militant Islamists are battling progovernment forces supported by Iran.
Documents obtained from the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, have shed further light on the relationship between al-Qaida and Iran, which both sides have preserved despite deep mistrust and sharp differences over ideology and tactics.
“It is a partnership of convenience, with some really rough edges,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser on counterterrorism to the Obama administration.
The relationship for years included an unacknowledged policy of granting refuge to al-Qaida members who fled to Iran after the defeat of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001. Iran allowed several top al-Qaida officials and associates — including one of bin Laden’s wives and several of his children — to live in eastern Iran, freely at first, then under a loose form of house arrest.
U.S. officials say the restrictions were both a response to Western pressure and a useful hedge against al-Qaida misbehavior on Iranian soil. But a decade later, Iran appears to have grown weary of its “houseguests,” analysts say.
Two senior al-Qaida figures left Iran last year, although it was unclear whether they were asked to go or departed willingly. But Abu Ghaith appears to have been given no choice, according to a narrative provided by U.S. officials and supported by Web postings on jihadist Internet sites. The former al-Qaida spokesman and Sunni cleric was told earlier this year to leave Iran for his native Kuwait.
Kuwaiti officials initially declined to accept him, so he flew to Turkey, where he was detained by police and then allowed to board a flight for Kuwait on Feb. 28. During a layover in Amman, U.S. intelligence officers arrested Abu Ghaith, who now awaits trial in New York on a variety of terrorism-related charges.
The manner in which Abu Ghaith was expelled seemed calculated to result in his capture, suggesting that Iran was signaling a shift in the relationship, said Dan Byman, a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution.
“It was a big move to send him not to Pakistan, but in the opposite direction. What we’re seeing is a slightly more confrontational al-Qaida policy, suggesting that Iran is becoming more uncomfortable in hosting these guys,” Byman said.
The wariness appears to be mutual, as seen in communications between al-Qaida officials in the months before the killing of bin Laden in May 2011. “The Iranians are not to be trusted,” bin Laden wrote in a May 2010 email. At the time, Iran had decided to grant al-Qaida’s request to allow some of bin Laden’s family members to travel to Pakistan. Yet, bin Laden feared the Iranians might spy on his relatives or lead them into a trap. “It is possible that they may plant chips” in their belongings in order to eavesdrop, he wrote.
Iran appears to have sought to keep its al-Qaida guests on a tight leash, alternately granting and withholding favors to maintain dependency, U.S. officials and analysts said.
The strategy helped ensure that al-Qaida would not attack the Iranian government, and it allowed Iran to preserve the option of working with the group to carry out attacks against Western targets in the event Iran comes under attack, analysts said.
U.S. officials see no evidence of direct Iranian support of al-Qaida terrorism in the United States or Western Europe. But Iran has a long history of supporting proxy groups that can strike against its enemies while insulating Iran from accountability, said Riedel, the former CIA officer.
“You can envision a situation in which the Iranians very carefully assisted al-Qaida in an attack on the United States, as long as the attack is seen as al-Qaida’s, with no Iranian fingerprints,” Riedel said. “There is much that Iran could do, simply by facilitating travel.”
Iran’s willingness to allow al-Qaida to operate critical transit routes through its territory gives Iranian leaders a chit they can collect later, according to Riedel and other current and former U.S. officials.
Al-Qaida’s Iranian pipeline for fighters and cash has been operating for years, using a network of “facilitators” who live along the route and provide a crucial link to sources of funding and manpower in the Arab gulf countries.