Al Qaeda Documents Shed New Light On Tense Relationship With Iran

One of the most successful Bush administration talking points in rousing public opinion to go to war with Iraq drew on exaggerated claims of Iraqi involvement with Al Qaeda — pulling at the emotional heartstrings that naturally go hand in hand with the memory of the tragic attack of 9/11. Again today, hawks pushing for harsher measures against Iran exaggerate ties between Iran and Al Qaeda. For example, Thomas Joscelyn of the Weekly Standard, whose editor has called for war with Iran, composed three articles in the past two months about Iran-Al Qaeda links.

But a batch of documents seized from Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and analysis of them released today by West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) show a tense relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda — a far cry from breathless hawks’ pronouncements of “cooperation” and “affiliation” that is unencumbered by theological and ideological differences. Instead, the documents refer to Iranians as “Al Rafidah,” which CTC translators render in English as “the rejecters,” meaning the Shia Muslims whose sect dominates Iran. The documents, according to the CTC report (PDF) describe “an antagonistic relationship, largely based on indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of detained jihadis and their families.”

The declassified collection and analysis show that, at least from Al Qaeda’s perspective, some of the cooperation was accomplished through threats and coercion. One of the documents, a letter by close Bin Laden confidant Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyat Allah (who is known as Attiya and died in a U.S. drone strike last year), clearly lays out that Al Qaeda’s understanding of Iran’s compliance with demands — like freeing Al Qaeda operatives kept under house arrest in Iran — was accomplished not due to mutual ideological considerations (as some neoconservatives have proposed), but because of Al Qaeda’s direct affronts against Iran:

If `Atiyya’s explanation is credible, then the Iranians were not releasing jihadi prisoners to forge a bond or strengthen an existing one with al-Qa`ida. Rather, `Atiyya was of the view that “we believe that our efforts, which included escalating a political and media campaign, the threats we made, the kidnapping of their friend the commercial counselor in the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar, and other reasons that scared them based on what they saw [we are capable of], to be among the reasons that led them to expedite [the release of these prisoners].”


To be sure, Al Qaeda and Iran do have some interaction. The top U.S. intelligence official Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently said Iran and Al Qaeda have a “marriage of convenience” because of mutual enmity for the U.S. Clapper even hypothesized that Iran could foreseeably be willing to use Al Qaeda as a proxy group against U.S. interests. But that description doesn’t jibe with a CTC description that calls for tossing out the old clichés:

Al-Qa`ida did not appear to have looked to Iran from the perspective that “the enemy of my (American) enemy is my friend,” but the group might have hoped that “the enemy of my (American) enemy would leave me alone.”

The documents must, we can reasonably conclude, constitute only a sliver of what the government must have on Al Qaeda; the releases today were 175 of 6,000 pages found in Abbottabad. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable lessons in this small declassified batch. But don’t expect the Weekly Standard’s Thomas Joscelyn to address the lessons about Al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran: His piece on the released documents today didn’t even mention Iran.