In this comment, Praktike stated his belief that the evidence for the al-Qaeda leaders in Iran directing operations were pretty thin in his opinion. This kinda grated me because I've spent a lot of time, effort, and research into this so I figured I'll just recap some of the basics and go from there.
The 9/11 commission covered a lot of this, but it's always nice to recap:
- Ayman al-Zawahiri has been working with the Iranians in general and the Revolutionary Guards' elite Qods Force unit in particular since at least the late 1980s if not earlier. Iran has supported Egyptian terrorist groups seeking to overthrow Mubarak throughout the 1980s and 1990s, something that no one in the counter-terrorism community disputes. These two Egyptian groups later formed the core of al-Qaeda when they folded into bin Laden's coalition and brought their ties to Iran with them.
- Bin Laden has had a working alliance with Iran since 1991-1992 according to the 9/11 commission report, which also states that Iran trained senior al-Qaeda operatives and camp instructors in Iran and the Bekaa Valley as well as that al-Qaeda collaborated with Iran's Saudi Hezbollah in the Khobar Towers bombing. Iran also continues to harbor Ahmad Ibrahim al-Mughassil, one of the masterminds of that particular attack.
- Ali Mohammed testified at the embassy bombers' trial that bin Laden was meeting senior Iranian and Hezbollah leaders while he was in Sudan and that Iran agreed to supply al-Qaeda with explosives.
- 9/11 Commission report says that Iran "security officials" (read: the Revolutionary Guards) continued to meet with al-Qaeda leaders after bin Laden returned to Afghanistan and even made a concerted attempt to strengthen relations between the two after the Cole bombing. This is significant because the Cole bombing occurred well after the killing of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif that is generally referenced as having been the breaking point between the two. The 9/11 report also states that Iranian officials helped al-Qaeda members to transit through Iran while going to and from Afghanistan and cites the example of Iranian border guards being told not to place stamps on the passports of travelers.
- The minority view of the US intelligence community is that bin Laden is in eastern Iran.
- Cofer Black told Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir that the Revolutionary Guards are in regular contact with al-Qaeda in July 2004.
- German BKA files leaked to the German political magazine Cicero state that the Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force "provided Al-Zarqawi with logistical support on the part of the state."
- Spanish counter-terrorism Judge Baltasar Garzon has stated in early 2004 that the al-Qaeda leadership was based in Iran and providing general direction and strategy to the rest of the terror network.
- Khalid al-Harbi, the guy who appeared in the videotape with bin Laden where he was gloating over the 9/11 attacks, was living at an IRGC villa north of Tehran before accepting the Saudi amnesty offer in July 2004 according to Al-Sharq al-Awsat.
- A French counter-terrorism official told AFP in July 2004 said that the Iran-based al-Qaeda leaders have "controlled freedom of movement" inside Iran. The French government believes that the Iranian al-Qaeda leaders directed both the first Riyadh bombings and the Casablanca bombings.
- Turkish al-Qaeda member Adnan Ersoz testified in court that Iranian-based al-Qaeda leader Abu Mohammed al-Masri ordered and helped to finance the November 2003 Istanbul bombings, a claim corroborated by Luai Sakra.
- Spanish investigators believe the 3/11 bombings were at least partially planned in Iran and that both Mustafa Setmariam Nasar and Amer Azizi operated out of the country both before and after the attacks.
- Jordanian intelligence has provided the US with literally reams of data on Iranian involvement with Zarqawi and the Iraqi insurgency. Their files on Zarqawi are also probably the most complete of any intelligence agency outside that of the US.
- Al-Sharq al-Awsat and MSNBC's investigative unit have both named the IRGC military base at Lavizan and the resort town of Chalous along the Caspian Sea as the location of hundreds of al-Qaeda members. Neither of these are high-security detention facilities, which leads one to the distinct impression that they are not in fact being detained.
- Former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke writes at length in Against All Enemies about past and current Iranian ties to al-Qaeda and states up-front towards the end that the al-Qaeda leadership relocated to Iran post-Afghanistan.
- Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) believes that the Iranian al-Qaeda leaders are under extremely lax house arrest at these locations at the absolute worst.
- Middle East analyst Rasool Nafisi believes the Iranians are retaining the al-Qaeda leadership and its operational capacity as insurance against any US action against it.
This is just a short sprinkling and I can certainly go on, but to say that the evidence is pretty thin when you have not only US officials (whose claims to this effect I mostly omitted) but also Spanish, Saudi, French, Turkish, and Jordanian law enforcement and intelligence agencies all saying the same thing strikes me as wildly implausible. About the only possible rebuttals to these types of claims are those provided by Scheuer and Cole, which hold that this is all part of an elaborate Israeli disinformation campaign to get the US to move against Iran. You decide whatever you want to think is more plausible.
Al-Qaeda military commander saif al-Adel is also remarkably up-front about this, describing the al-Qaeda reorganization inside Iran as follows:
We began to converge on Iran one after the other. The fraternal brothers in the peninsula of the Arabs, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates who were outside Afghanistan, had already arrived. They possessed abundant funds. We set up a central leadership and working groups. We began to form some groups of fighters to return to Afghanistan to carry out well-prepared missions there. Meanwhile, we began to examine the situation of the group and the fraternal brothers to pick new places for them. Abu Mus'ab and his Jordanian and Palestinian comrades opted to go to Iraq ...
Al-Adel notes that upon arriving in Iran he and the other al-Qaeda leaders stayed at homes owned by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e-Islami and that there was an "unspoken understanding" with the Iranians. Now he also notes, as Praktike is sure to point out, that the Iranians arrested a sizeable number of Zarqawi's cohorts and that Zarqawi left for Iraq as a result. Yet he might also want to note that if the "central leadership" and "working groups" that al-Adel mentioned earlier were shut down by the Iranians, he sees no reason to mention it or to take the opportunity to rail against the evil Shi'ites. The fact that he is still writing and able to disseminate them is reason enough to suspect that he's probably up to no good - you figure the Iranians are going to give the same rights to all the folks currently detained at Evin Prison?
I'll close by quoting a senior French law enforcement official who was quoted by the Los Angeles Times in August on the subject:
"Iranians play a double game. It is a classic Iranian style of ambiguity, deception, manipulation. Everything they can do to trouble the Americans, without going too far, they do it. They have arrested important Al-Qaeda people, but they have permitted other important Al-Qaeda people to operate."
"Going too far" in this case means anything that the Iranians feel would result in war against them - though it seems Qods Force disagrees with the rest of the regime on that point.
A final point that I'll go into some further depth on in another medium is the fact that by all accounts, Qods Force supremo Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani has had his hands in some very nasty business over the last several years ranging from protecting al-Qaeda to backing Ansar al-Islam and Zarqawi in Iraq to supporting Muqtada al-Sadr with basically no consequences whatsoever for him. This is one of what I think is one of the most telling indications that he isn't as much of a "rogue element" as the regime likes to maintain for purposes of plausible deniability so that they can reap the benefits of these actions without assuming responsibility for them, but one question that needs to be asked is how long he can be allowed to continue this behavior with virtual impunity. But then again, all the international mechanisms that might be used to hold Suleimani accountable for his actions, to the extent that they are being employed, are being used against US rather than Iranian military officials.