Torture Report Adds New Details, No Clarity on Al Qaeda–Iran Ties

Tehran and the terror group have a complicated relationship. Tidbits in the "torture report" add to the confusion.

A few footnotes in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s controversial report on the CIA’s interrogation practices offer a glimmer of light on one of the murkiest dyads in today’s Middle East: Iran and Al Qaeda. The footnotes state that a CIA detainee told his interrogators in early 2004 of an Al Qaeda operative seeking approval from a senior figure in the terror group for “a plan to kidnap Iranian VIPs to gain the release of senior Al Qaeda Management Council members in Iranian custody,” and of another operative “delivering three Arabs who had come from Iran” to Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

The report included these bits of information among several that it says were gleaned from the detainee before he was, to quote the report, “subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” The report raises the information to support an argument that “the vast majority of the information” from the detainee came before that phase of his interrogation. Yet if they’re at all true, the details are interesting in themselves.

There are two broad schools of thought about Iran’s relationship with Al Qaeda. The more common narrative is that Iran, a Shia state, would want nothing to do with a fanatical Sunni organization that kills Shiites in droves. The counternarrative is that the relationship is not so straightforward: that despite ideological differences and clear instances of conflict, the two parties have had some sort of accommodation that, at minimum, puts limits on that conflict.

Because so much of the relevant information is secret, it’s hard to confirm either narrative. We’re on dangerous ground. What information we do have is fragmentary and not always reliable—an array of little tidbits like the ones that came out in the torture report. The full truth may never come out. Caution is in order. Yet both narratives can build suggestive mosaics from the shards.

The narrative of Al Qaeda–Iranian enmity is straightforward: in addition to ideological differences, the two have a history of conflict. Al Qaeda was hosted by the Afghan Taliban; Iran supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and nearly went to war with the Taliban in 1998. When the American invasion of Afghanistan forced some Al Qaeda members to flee into Iran, they were put under arrest or expelled after their passports were copied to help track them. The Iranians have tried, unsuccessfully, to use the detained terrorists as bargaining chips with the United States, but they’ve otherwise been kept quiet. And Iran’s proxies around the region have openly fought Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers. Iran bombs the Al Qaeda–derived Islamic State group and rails against the hardline Sunni ideologies that inspire them. Al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers attack Iranian diplomats in places like Yemen and Lebanon; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula struggles for control of Yemen with the Iranian-backed Houthis.

The counternarrative accepts much of the above, but suggests that overt conflict belies covert contact. The 9/11 Commission Report, released in mid-2004, alleged that Iran-Al Qaeda contacts dated to “late 1991 or 1992,” when a meeting in Sudan “led to an informal agreement to cooperate in providing support—even if only training—for actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States.” This was followed up by training for “senior al Qaeda operatives” in Iran and, in 1993, in Lebanon’s heavily Shia Bekaa Valley. (There were murky dealings between Iran and Sunni jihadists around this time in Bosnia, as well, as documented by former NSA analyst John R. Schindler in his book Unholy Terror.) According to a captured Al Qaeda operative, Iran “made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with Al Qaeda” after the 2000 USS Cole bombing, “but was rebuffed because Bin Ladin did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia.” Further, said the operative (corroborated by other detainees), Iranian officials were willing “to facilitate travel...through Iran” to Afghanistan. Among those who would travel this way were some of the 9/11 hijackers, though the report states that there was “no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.”