Al-Qaida papers highlight tense dealings with Iran

Associated Press Modified: May 4, 2012 at 11:31 am •  Published: May 4, 2012
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — In the rigid enemy-or-ally world view of Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants, Iran occupied a spot somewhere in between — a state seen as arrogant, enigmatic and driven by self interest, according to newly released al-Qaida documents.

Yet there is also a sense that al-Qaida recognizes the importance of Iran's role in the region and the need to keep some level of dialogue.

The papers — seized in last year's raid on bin Laden's Pakistan hide-out and posted online Thursday by the U.S. Army's Combating Terrorism Center — portray al-Qaida's relations with Iran as clouded by deep mutual distrust and sharply divergent interests.

A June 2009 al-Qaida memo — possibly to bin Laden — refers to the Iranian government as "criminals" in a no-holds bashing of its opaque and unpredictable policies.

"The criminals did not send us any letter," wrote al-Qaida's top Afghanistan commander, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, about the earlier kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Pakistan that was believed carried out by militants linked to al-Qaida.

"Such behavior is, of course, not unusual for (the Iranians); indeed it is typical of their mindset and methods," continued al-Rahman, who was killed the following year in a CIA drone strike in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. "They do not wish to appear to be negotiating with us or responding to our pressures."

In one narrow sense, al-Qaida and the West share this much: exasperation over Tehran's shifting and often contradictory messages that extend all the way to talks over its nuclear program.

The full extent of the interplay between Iran and al-Qaida remains unclear to Western policymakers. But the newly disclosed documents reinforce the long-held consensus that there is little common ground.

Al-Qaida operatives — and even bin Laden relatives — used Iran as an escape route during the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11. attacks.

Iran was not willing to be an open passageway, however. Dozens of top al-Qaida figures, including one of bin Laden's sons, Omar, were placed under house arrest-style detention. Many were later released, but several high-ranking al-Qaida figures are believed to remain in Iran under close surveillance, including the network's most senior military strategist, Saif al-Adel, one of the alleged masterminds of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

In 2010, another of bin Laden's sons, Khalid, sent a letter to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming that his relatives were mistreated and "beaten and silenced." Al-Qaida's branch in North Africa issued a warning to Iran over the matter. Khalid was among those killed in the U.S. raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan a year ago.

The reasons behind the mutual suspicions cut across many of the region's main flashpoints.

Iran was a major foe of Afghanistan's Taliban, which sheltered al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks and remains its close ally. In 1998, Sunni-led Taliban forces overran Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan and were accused of killing eight Iranian diplomats as well as Afghans with cultural and religious ties to Iran, a Shiite power.

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