CIA documents linking Iran to al-Qaeda timed to serve political purpose

The documents signal an attempt to implicate Iran, as the Trump administration continues to build its case against the country.

In this 1998 file photo  Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. The CIA's release of documents seized during the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has again raised questions about Iran's support of the extremist network leading up to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. CREDIT: Mazhar Ali Khan/AP Photo.
In this 1998 file photo Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Khost, Afghanistan. The CIA's release of documents seized during the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has again raised questions about Iran's support of the extremist network leading up to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. CREDIT: Mazhar Ali Khan/AP Photo.

With U.S.-Iran tensions increasing over President Donald Trump’s quest to kill the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal, the timing of the release of CIA documents implicating Iran in al-Qaeda operations is being politicized, but it’s not actually “much news.” The CIA chose to first release the documents to the Long War Journal, backed by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank known for being critical of Iran (the outfit describes its project on Iran as intended to “counter the threat Iran represents to America and its allies”).

“It might be a surprise for the American public who hasn’t really followed the ins and outs of the whirlwind of the Middle East, but for our European partners, this is not going to be much news. If their intel services are anywhere near as good as ours, they pretty much would know that Iran has been dealing with all kinds of nefarious groups, not just Shia, but also Sunni, but also al-Qaeda,” said Firas Maksad, deputy executive director of the Arabia Foundation and adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

“So, I don’t think that this will impact the calculus of our European allies, nor do I think that it will impact the calculus of our Russian allies [within the context of the Iran nuclear deal],” Maksad told ThinkProgress, referring to some of the partners in the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump decertified the deal earlier this month, leaving open the question of whether U.S. sanctions that were removed by the deal will snap back.

“I’ve heard both sides of the argument — that it’s been put out to influence public opinion as it relates to Iran and bolster the administration’s argument in that regard. I’ve also heard the counterargument of, ‘Why have these been kept secret? If Iran has been supporting al-Qaeda and we’ve known about it all along, why has the previous administration not said anything about it and is it for fear of undermining its policy of engaging on Iran?'” said Maksad.

Iran has long denied any support for al-Qaeda, as well as having any role in the attacks, and the semi-official Fars news agency called the release of the documents “a project against Tehran.” Iran also offered the United States support at the start of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and, yet, was later labeled as an “axis of evil” country by then-President George W. Bush.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo in September told Fox News that “Iran has always made a devil’s bargain with al-Qaeda to protect them.” Again in October, when speaking at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies event, Pompeo repeated that line and went further, drawing a direct line between al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria and Iraq and Iranian forces (even though they are on opposite sites of the conflict in both countries):

“With the defeat of the real estate proposition in Syria and Iraq for ISIS, we watch what’s going on in Idlib, you’ve got ISIS folks, al-Nusra front, al-Qaeda folks up in the North. We are watching to see if there aren’t places where they work together for a common threat against the United States.”

The Trump administration’s strategy on Iran, said Maksad, “is a more comprehensive strategy” that “targets Iran, particularly the ballistic missile issues, an attempt to renegotiate the nuclear deal,” but also focuses on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and Quds Forces proxies in the region, specifically in Lebanon and Yemen.

The trove of documents, seized in the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is being used by some to prove that Iran supported the group’s September 11 attacks on the United States. The documents include a report, written in Arabic, that points to Iran being ready to support “anyone who wants to strike against America.” The 2007 report, which is unsigned, claims Iran offered al-Qaeda cash, weapons, and training in Lebanese Hezbollah camps “in return for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia.”

The bulk of the accusations against Iran, the Associated Press reported on Thursday, came from a 19-page report, written in Arabic, that was among the 47,000 other documents, and proved what  “U.S. intelligence officials and prosecutors have long said,” that  “Iran formed loose ties to the terror organization from 1991 on.”

But Maksad minimized the importance of that document as a single source of anything important and said the document should be taken as just “one data point amongst many” documenting evidence of Iran’s support for low and mid-level al-Qaeda operatives.

More than anything, though, Maksad said, the contents of the documents “undercuts the simplistic notion that there’s a bunch of crazy Sunnis and Shia that are killing each other in the Middle East for ideological or religious reasons.”