Why Iran protects Al-QaedaCooperation between international intelligence agencies has proven one of the most effective tools in thwarting terrorist attacks. That is why Iran’s refusal to grant access to over a dozen senior Saudi-born Al-Qaeda suspects is disturbing.
On Monday, press reports, citing Iran’s ambassador in Riyadh, suggested that Iran had handed over to Saudi Arabia a number of Al-Qaeda members. However, the individuals, like the 16 Saudis Iran turned over last year, are merely foot soldiers. What the Saudis want are the ringleaders of one of the last functioning Al-Qaeda cells with regional command and control powers. Intelligence officials also believe that members of this group know the identities of dozens of Al-Qaeda operatives dispersed in Saudi Arabia, Europe and the United States. That is why Saudi officials are keen to interrogate the suspects. In the last few months, however, Iran has hindered this effort.
To be more precise, radical Iranian clerics have hindered these efforts. Iran’s moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, has promised to hand over the Saudi Al-Qaeda suspects. However, Saudi security officials were twice rebuffed when arriving to pick them up.
In the most recent attempt, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the assistant minister of interior for security affairs (the highest civilian administrator of the Saudi Arabian General Security Service), was told he would not be allowed to see the prisoners. A senior general in the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency who oversees coordination with Iran’s Intelligence Ministry was furious. According to him: “(supreme leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei’s people are holding up the extradition because they fear they’ll be implicated.”
This episode highlights the strength of Khamenei and the radical clerics who follow him. Khamenei controls several powerful state security organs, including Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the newly created Foreign Intelligence Service. Both report directly to Khamenei’s Office of the Supreme Leader, entirely bypassing Khatami’s government. In the past few years, American, Saudi and other regional intelligence services have compiled a detailed dossier on the extremists within these institutions and their connections to international terrorism.
The 1996 Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia serves as an example. Ali Fallahian, the former Iranian intelligence minister who is believed to have orchestrated the attack, now serves as a top adviser to Khamenei. General Ahmad Sharifi, the “case officer” who oversaw the group that carried out the bombing, is an adviser to the Revolutionary Guards military operations chief. And Ibrahim al-Mughassil, the Saudi Shiite who organized the operation from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, has found refuge in Iran with his two main accomplices.
Since the demise of the Taleban, Iran has become a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda, making it the only place in the world where both Shiite and Sunni terrorists have found haven. US, Saudi and Pakistani intelligence officials have concluded that the radical wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has harbored numerous top Al-Qaeda operatives, of which the three most dangerous are Said al-Adel (Osama bin Laden’s chief of global operations), Saad bin Laden (Osama’s son and a regional Al-Qaeda leader) and a third man who is yet to be identified. With help from Revolutionary Guards radicals, the so-called “Tehran trio” masterminded the recent suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed 34 and injured over 200.
Since the bombing, Saudi intelligence officers have uncovered much information about Al-Qaeda’s operations within the kingdom and the group’s connections to Iran. One of the leaders of the cell that carried out the attacks, Ali Fagasi al-Ghamdi, has been talking to Saudi agents since he turned himself in last June. Ghamdi identified the Tehran trio as the masterminds of the bombing and Turki al-Dandani as the main leader of his cell (a cousin of Dandani is the unidentified third of the trio). Dandani was killed in the northern Saudi province of Jouf while attempting to flee to Iraq. Saudi intelligence officials believe he was heading to Iran, to reunite with his comrades.
Ghamdi has provided an inside view of the structure and operations of the Al-Qaeda cells, of which eight to 10 are now believed to be operating in Saudi Arabia. Supposedly, Ghamdi and Dandani were sent to establish a new cell because Al-Qaeda’s ranks had thinned and it lacked the manpower to carry out attacks in the kingdom. But since Al-Qaeda cells are purposely kept isolated from each other, only those who recruited and dispatched the operatives know their identities and plans. Perhaps dozens of militants can be traced back to the Tehran trio, and this explains why Saudi authorities are extremely anxious to interrogate them.
Unfortunately, Iranian “custody” of these individuals puts them effectively under the protection of the extremists. This may for a time shield Revolutionary Guards officers with blood on their hands, but in the long run an alliance between Iranian officials and Al-Qaeda cannot hold. International pressure and domestic anger will eventually break the bond, especially if another terrorist attack can be attributed to the actions or inaction of Iranian officials. In that case, they may meet the same fate as the last group of radicals who made common cause with Al-Qaeda, the repressive Taleban thugs in Afghanistan.