Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria are receiving aid from Pakistan and Afghanistan with the tacit agreement of the Iranian government, a recent United States Treasury Department report revealed. According to the report, Al-Qaeda also uses Iran as a transit point for moving funding and foreign fighters through Turkey to support affiliated groups in Syria.
The Department of the Treasury listed six individuals as part of the network in Iran. The key figure is allegedly a Syrian national, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, also known as Yasin al-Suri. “Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with Khalil and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005,” the report reads. “Khalil works with the Iranian government to arrange releases of al-Qa’ida personnel from Iranian prisons.”
The list also includes Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the overall commander in Pakistan’s tribal areas and, as of late 2010, the leader of Al-Qaeda in North and South Waziristan in Pakistan; Umid Muhammadi, a key supporter of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI); Salim Hasan Khalifa Rashid al-Kuwari, based in Qatar, who provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure the release of Al-Qaeda detainees in Iran and elsewhere; Abdallah Ghanim Mafuz Muslim al-Khawar, an associate of Kuwari; and Ali Hasan Ali al-Ajmi, an associate of Khalil who provides financial and facilitation support to Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Taliban.
This is not the first time that Khalil’s name has been highlighted by American security agencies as a facilitator between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian government. In 2011, the US State Department placed a $10 million bounty on Khalil for facilitating the recruitment and transport of Pakistani fighters to Iraq through Iran. Banners with his picture announcing the reward were posted in several cities in Afghanistan.
After the 2011 blacklisting of Khalil, the Department of the Treasury announced a new set of names in 2012. Among others, it designated Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi "a key member of an al Qaeda network operating in Iran and led by Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator Muhsin al Fadhli." The report said that the same network was previously headed by Khalil, but Fadhli took over as chief of Al-Qaeda's Iran-based network in late 2011, while Harbi served as Fadhli's deputy. However, at the beginning of 2014, the Department of the Treasury again named Khalil as the head of the Iranian network.
The Treasury Department did not specify which of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria received support through Iran. Until recently, there had been two groups associated with Al-Qaeda operating in Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. ISIS, however, has been at odds with its former patron for quite some time, as Ayman al-Zawahiri officially declared Jabhat al-Nusra the only Al-Qaeda faction in Syria. But given Zawahiri’s alleged history of smuggling fighters for Al-Qaeda during the war in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra’s targeting Iranian-related objectives in Lebanon and Syria, it is likely that the Department of Treasury was referring to ISIS.
On the ground, in Syria, many activists agree that cooperation between the regime and its Iranian allies and ISIS is not an impossibility. HazemDakel, a young Syrian activist who was kidnapped by ISIS and spent time in detention, told NOW that he believed ISIS was the best strategy the Assad regime could come up with in order to destroy the Syrian opposition. “There was always information circulating about many ISIS emirs who previously lived in Iran. This raised many questions about group from the beginning,” said Dakel. “Al-Qaeda in Iran has supported al-Baghdadi in the past, so all of the signs lead to one conclusion: ISIS is a Syrian intelligence project. It ruined the revolution and the country.”
The idea of Iran secretly supporting Sunni terrorist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda has been circulating in Washington for quite some time, although for the past decade, the Treasury Department has been the only agency to release this information to the public.
According to Johnathan Schanzer, Vice President for Research at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told NOW that despite the obvious Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East, Iran has a long and complicated relationship with Al-Qaeda which dates since the 1990s, when the terrorist group was based in Sudan. The relationship appeared to strengthen over time: several hijackers in the 9/11 terrorist attacks traveled through Iran, while during the Iraq War, Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi chief, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took shelter in the Islamic republic several times.
“There are more areas of cooperation and common interest than one might expect,” said Schanzer. “For example, Assad is keeping these groups strong enough to keep the West concerned. The same goes for Iran. Most of those who embrace the rapprochement between the US and Iran argue that we need Iran and Syria to fight Al-Qaeda,” he said, adding that this strategy has worked very well in Iran’s favor.
Testimonies from former Iranian detainees about secret Al-Qaeda prisoners in high security facilities in Iran have been published in the French media. In Schanzer’s opinion, these reports do not contradict the US intelligence agencies’ statements. “Sometimes they are under house arrest, sometimes they’re under arrest, sometimes they are given free rein, according to one’s intentions of manipulating Al-Qaeda. The question that remains is,” he continued, “how much influence do they have? Have they been able to influence the leadership of Al-Qaeda?”
Luna Safwan contributed reporting.