Why Was Iran Hiding Al Qaeda’s No. 2 in Tehran?
The United States and its allies have hammered the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. But Al Qaeda’s leaders up until recently have enjoyed a respite in Iran.
Last Saturday, Iran denied reports that a covert Israeli intelligence operation had recently killed a high-ranking Al Qaeda leader in Tehran, despite his being protected by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
According to U.S. intelligence officials interviewed by the New York Times, Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah, wanted by the U.S. government for plotting the 1998 truck bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and other terrorist attacks, was killed by Israeli agents in the heart of Iran’s capital at Washington’s behest.
Abdullah, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad al-Masri, reportedly was shot by two men on a motorcycle while driving near his home. His daughter Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza, also was killed while riding with him.
Abdullah joined jihadists fighting in Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion and later became one of Al Qaeda’s founders. By 2008, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center deemed him the “most experienced and capable operational planner not in U.S. or allied custody.”
By the time of his death, he had risen to become Al Qaeda’s number two official, with a $10 million reward offered for his capture by the U.S. government.
Abdullah was a longtime fixture on the FBI’s “most wanted” list for his role in planning the August 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those attacks killed 224 people, including twelve Americans, and wounded more than 5,000. His August 7 assassination occurred on the twenty-second anniversary of that attack, which was Al Qaeda’s most lethal operation before 9/11.
Abdullah also was involved in training Somali militias that shot down two U.S. helicopters in the 1993 battle of Mogidishu, using rocket launcher tactics that he had learned in Afghanistan. The resulting carnage was dramatically portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down.
An Unholy Alliance
Tehran was quick to deny it harbored Abdullah. It sought to escape any international consequences for supporting terrorism, as well as avoid the embarrassment of suffering an Israeli covert strike in its own capital.
But Tehran long has cultivated clandestine links with Al Qaeda. According to the 9/11 Commission Report (page 61), the official investigation into Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks:
In late 1991 or 1992, discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives 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. Not long afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. Bin Ladin reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983.
That bombing was perpetrated by Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organization that Tehran created, trained, financed, armed, and directed. Iranian Revolutionary Guards worked closely with Hezbollah and facilitated the training of Al Qaeda terrorists in Hezbollah training camps.
The 9/11 Commission recommended that further investigation was needed to examine Iran’s ties to Al Qaeda. It also concluded that Al Qaeda may have assisted the Iran-backed Saudi Hezbollah terrorists who executed the June 1996 bombing that killed nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel at the Khobar Towers residential complex in Saudi Arabia.
Al Qaeda’s facilitator within Iran was the Quds Force, the elite special forces unit within the Revolutionary Guards that serves as the spearhead of Iran’s Islamist revolution and functions as a liaison with foreign revolutionaries and terrorist groups.
The Quds Force, which supports attacks against American personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, was also involved in the 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington.
General Qassem Soleimani, the chief of the Quds Force, which the Trump administration designated as a terrorist organization, was killed in a U.S. drone strike January 2020 in Baghdad.
Iran’s Cover Story
After Abdullah’s August 7, 2020 death in Tehran, Iran’s state-controlled media reported the incident as an attack on a fictional Lebanese history professor, Habib Dawoud, and his daughter Miriam, without giving further details. U.S. intelligence officials maintain that Habib Dawoud was an alias that Iranian officials gave Abdullah as part of his cover story.
In reality, Abdullah had been living in Iran since at least 2003 after fleeing from Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban regime which was allied with Al Qaeda. He was not alone. Many senior Al Qaeda leaders found sanctuary in Iran, including several members of Osama bin Laden’s family.
The Iranians initially denied the presence of Al Qaeda terrorists, then claimed that they were imprisoned or under house arrest and incapable of launching attacks.
But Iran’s Al Qaeda guests were free to attack Iran’s enemies as long as they did not target Iran. Tehran facilitated their travel between Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that a May 2003 terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia was planned and directed by Al Qaeda leaders located in Iran, according to The Washington Post.
Although Tehran periodically restricted their activities under some form of house arrest, it relaxed its grip and allowed many Al Qaeda cadres to leave Iran beginning in late 2008.
Terrorism analyst Seth Jones, writing in Foreign Affairs in 2012, noted Iran’s increased willingness to take risks to expand its complicated relationship with Al Qaeda. Although Shiite Iran and Sunni Al Qaeda have conflicting ideologies and sectarian agendas, they share many common enemies, including the United States, Israel, and many Arab states.
Iran’s collusion with various factions of Al Qaeda has persisted. In April 2013, Canadian authorities arrested two foreign Arabs who planned to bomb a train bound for New York City and had received “direction and guidance” from “al-Qaeda elements located in Iran.”
Abdullah and four other Al Qaeda leaders were released in 2015 in exchange for a kidnapped Iranian diplomat. Three of the five were later killed in Syria but Abdullah and Saif al-Adel, Al Qaeda’s military leader, remained active inside Iran.
U.S. Countermeasures Against Al Qaeda’s Iran Sanctuary
The United States and its allies have hammered the Al Qaeda network in a global war of attrition against its cadres in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. But Al Qaeda’s leaders up until recently have enjoyed a respite in Iran.
Al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Iran could loom even larger in view of unconfirmed reports that Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the chief of Al Qaeda, may be extremely sick or already dead of natural causes.
CNN reported that the Pentagon made plans in 2002 to raid an Al Qaeda safe house in the Iranian town of Chalus, but the raid was called off due to a lack of precise intelligence.
The CIA reportedly established a highly classified program, code-named RIGOR, to study whether it could track and kill Al Qaeda terrorists in Iran, but reportedly achieved only mixed results.
The targeted strike against Abdallah marks an escalation in pressure against both Al Qaeda and Iran through a joint Israeli-American counterterrorism operation.
Abdullah reportedly was killed by agents working with Kidon, the secretive unit within Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency responsible for the assassination of high-value targets. In Hebrew, Kidon means “bayonet” or “tip of the spear.”
The Abdullah strike fits the pattern of several attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists that were widely attributed to Israel. More recently, Israel also has been suspected of involvement in a string of mysterious explosions and accidents at Iranian nuclear facilities.
Taken together, the apparent message of the operations is that Iran’s dictatorship, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, cannot be allowed to develop the world’s most terrifying weapons.
James Phillips is The Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs.