AP Exclusive: Iran eases grip on al-Qaida
Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2010 8:01 pm
WASHINGTON (AP) — Al-Qaida operatives who have been detained for years in Iran have been making their way quietly in and out of the country, raising the prospect that Iran is loosening its grip on the terror group so it can replenish its ranks, former and current U.S. intelligence officials say.
This movement could indicate that Iran is re-examining its murky relationship with al-Qaida at a time when the U.S. is stepping up drone attacks in Pakistan and weakening the group’s leadership. Any influx of manpower could hand al-Qaida a boost in morale and expertise and threaten to disrupt stability in the region.
U.S. officials say intelligence points to a worrisome increase in movement lately.
Details about al-Qaida’s movements and U.S. efforts to monitor them were outlined to The Associated Press in more than a dozen interviews with current and former intelligence and counterterrorism officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
The relationship between Iran and al-Qaida has been shrouded in mystery since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when many al-Qaida leaders fled into Iran and were arrested. The Shiite regime there is generally hostile to the Sunni terrorist group, but they have an occasional relationship of convenience based on their shared enemy, the U.S.
U.S. intelligence officials have tried wiretapping and satellite imagery to watch the men. The CIA even established a highly classified program — code-named RIGOR — to study whether it could track and kill terrorists such as al-Qaida in Iran. Results have been mixed. Monitoring and understanding al-Qaida in Iran remains one of the most difficult jobs in U.S. intelligence.
“This has been a dark, a black zone for us,” former CIA officer Bruce Riedel said. “What exactly is the level of al-Qaida activity in Iran has always been a mystery.”
That activity has waxed and waned, officials said. Sometimes the men could travel or communicate with other operatives. Other times, they were under tight constraints and the U.S. considered them to be out of commission. There was no obvious pattern to the movement.
The departures began in late 2008 as the U.S. stepped up international efforts to sanction Iran for its nuclear program. Saad bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, was allowed to leave the country around that time with about four other al-Qaida figures.
Since then, U.S. intelligence officials say, others have followed. One former CIA official familiar with the travel identified the men as moneymen and planners, the kind of manpower al-Qaida needs after a series of successful U.S. drone attacks on al-Qaida’s ranks. But a senior counterterrorism official said the U.S. believes anyone who has left Iran recently is likely to be lower-level.
A major concern among U.S. officials is that this movement foreshadows the release of al-Qaida’s “management council,” including some of al-Qaida’s most dangerous figures.
Most recently, the concern focused on Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian-born confidant of Osama bin Laden who is on the FBI’s most wanted list in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In the past year or so, intelligence officials circulated a bulletin saying al-Adel, one of al-Qaida’s founding fathers, was traveling to Damascus, Syria. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for his capture.
The Damascus connection ultimately was disproved but, underscoring the difficulty of monitoring the men, U.S. intelligence officials are divided on whether Saif has been allowed to travel in the region. The senior counterterrorism official said there’s no clear evidence Saif has left Iran.
“Regardless of where he is, we haven’t forgotten about him or stopped looking for him,” said Don Borelli, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s terrorism task force in New York. “He’s a most-wanted terrorist and we intend to find him.”
The roster of al-Qaida figures in Iran is something of a who’s who for the terror group. One is Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, a bin Laden adviser who helped form the modern al-Qaida by merging bin Laden’s operation with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad. Al-Qaida’s longtime chief financial officer, Abu Saeed al-Masri, has been held there. So have bin Laden’s spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and Mustafa Hamid, an al-Qaida trainer with a terrorism pedigree that spans decades.
Several members of bin Laden’s family also have been under house arrest.
All fled into Iran after al-Qaida’s core split up after the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden led some confidants toward the mountainous border with Pakistan. Al-Adel led others into Iran, which has historically allowed al-Qaida members safe passage through the country.
Iran arrested the men in 2003 and has held them as both a bargaining chip with the U.S. and as a buffer against an al-Qaida attack.
Using spy satellites, the U.S. has monitored vehicles in and out of the compound where the al-Qaida operatives have been held. U.S. officials have gleaned some information about the men through intercepted Iranian phone conversations and e-mails. But generally, the U.S. has only limited information about them.
Published in The Messenger 5.13.10