A few weeks ago the CIA released via The Long War Journal, a publication backed by the Washington-based neocon Foundation for Defense of Democracies an Al-Qaeda document found in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound which allegedly proved that ‘loose cooperation’ had occurred between Iran and Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place.
The claims of cooperation between Iran and Al-Qaeda attracted widespread skepticism, with some suggestions that the document was a fake.
Al-Qaeda is a militant sectarian Salafi/Wahhabi organisation, wholly antithetical to everything Iran’s Shia version of Islam and its Islamic Republic stand for. Al-Qaeda and Iran have accordingly been deadly enemies. with Iran the most implacable enemy of Salafi/Wahhabi terrorist groups throughout the Middle East.
The claim that Iran and Al-Qaeda could have worked together at any point and for any length of time is therefore counter-intuitive, and indeed makes no sense.
By contrast it is known that the US’s intelligence agencies have worked alongside Al-Qaeda – or at least some people who have turned out to be operatives of Al-Qaeda – in several wars, including during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and during the more recent wars in Libya and Syria in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, despite the doubts expressed about the document its existence was widely reported, with claims that it was the ‘smoking gun’ which allegedly proved that collusion between Al-Qaeda and Iran had taken place.
When I first heard about this document I too had my doubts that the claims being made about it could be true, though I thought it extremely unlikely that it was a fake.
I did however wonder what the document actually said – no one seemed to be offering a translation (the original is in Arabic) – and I did also wonder why so much credence was being given to a document produced by Al-Qaeda.
In the event the brilliant investigative journalist Gareth Porter working on behalf of the The American Conservative has now had made a proper translation of the document, and in an article for The American Conservative has revealed that far from the document proving the existence of cooperation between Al-Qaeda and Iran the document actually does the opposite.
What the document shows is that in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 some Al-Qaeda militants did escape to Iran. Some appear to have done so by entering the country illegally, but in a number of cases the Iranian authorities granted some of them visas on very strict conditions that they would not engage in any political activities.
As Gareth Porter points out, this was probably done in part in order to keep a better track of these people and to use them to track down those Al-Qaeda figures – including the dangerous fanatic Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the ultimate founder-figure of ISIS – who had entered Iran illegally and had gone into hiding there.
The ploy worked, and within weeks the Iranian authorities began the process of rounding them all up. It seems that the Iranian authorities had a legitimate legal pretext to do so because some of these people almost immediately breached their visa conditions by trying to stir up Iran’s Baluchi people who are Sunnis.
As Gareth Porter shows the sequel was that Iran then deported most of them to the various Arab countries they had come from including Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which was how Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi – who was actually Jordanian – ended up in Iraq. However Iran decided to jail some of the most dangerous of them and keep them in Iran.
Al-Qaeda retaliated with terrorist attacks, which included the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Yemen. In order to bring these to an end and to obtain the diplomat’s release the Iranian authorities eventually released some or all of the Al-Qaeda figures they were holding.
As Gareth Porter rightly says, this is not a story of cooperation between Iran and Al-Qaeda; it is the opposite.
The document in fact talks with bitter anger and hatred of the Iranians. It says of them
Their religion is lies and keeping quiet. And usually they show what is contrary to what is in their mind…. It is hereditary with them, deep in their character.
This is no more than what one would expect given the pathological sectarianism and hatred of Shiism and Iran that one would expect to find in a member of Al-Qaeda.
The document does say – without of course providing the slightest corroboration – that the Iranians offered some Saudi Al-Qaeda members
…..money and arms, anything they need, and training with Hezbollah in exchange for hitting American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
However it then goes on to say that these Saudi Al-Qaeda members spurned this offer, which it speaks of in contemptuous terms
We don’t need them. Thanks to God, we can do without them, and nothing can come from them but evil…..
In my opinion this all but confirms that the account of the “offer” is a fiction.
The purpose of the document is clearly to make the Iranians look treacherous, so the author has woven into his narrative an account of an “offer” which is intended to contrast Iran’s ‘duplicity’ with Al-Qaeda’s integrity, whilst also emphasising Al-Qaeda’s self-reliance and lack of need of Iranian help.
Here it is important to say that we have not been told the context in which this document was written.
However it looks as if someone within Al-Qaeda – possibly Osama bin Laden himself, or conceivably his rather more cerebral deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri – at about this time (apparently 2007) suggested some sort of approach to Iran.
This however provoked an angry response from the author of the document, who wrote it in order to counter this proposal.
He did so by giving an angry and no doubt heavily embroidered account of Al-Qaeda’s past dealings with Iran so as to show that nothing good could come from any approach to Iran, whose help was anyway not needed.
It is easy to see why a person with that sort of motive might have invented a past offer of help from Iran in order to show that Iran’s help was not needed.
Cut off from most outside contact in his compound in Abbottabad or wherever else at the time he was hiding, Osama bin Laden would have had no means of finding out the truth.
That looks like the most reasonable explanation for the creation of the document based on the account Gareth Porter has provided of it.
It continues to baffle me that so many people forget that information which originates with Al-Qaeda however it is obtained must always come with a strong health warning.
Merely by the act of joining such an organisation its members are engaging in a flight from reality. To assume that anything they say is true – even when they say it to each other – is foolhardy, and is a practice which should be avoided.
Sad to say, when the information is further mediated by a neocon think-tank which has dealings with the CIA then the health warning becomes even greater.
In summary, there are no grounds for saying that any sort of cooperation between Iran and Al-Qaeda has ever taken place.
The Al-Qaeda document found in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad does not provide such grounds. On the contrary it is compelling evidence that no such cooperation has ever taken place.
In making the last point, I feel I must comment on one specific claim Gareth Porter makes in his article.
There was a time when Iran did view Al Qaeda as an ally. It was during and immediately after the war of the mujahedin against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. That, of course, was the period when the CIA was backing bin Laden’s efforts as well. But after the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996— and especially after Taliban troops killed 11 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998—the Iranian view of Al Qaeda changed fundamentally. Since then, Iran has clearly regarded it as an extreme sectarian terrorist organization and its sworn enemy.
This is a misconception. Whilst there is some evidence that some sort of organisation calling itself Al-Qaeda was established by a group of Arab Mujahideen (including Osama bin Laden himself) in Afghanistan in August 1988, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan a few months later, removing the last of their troops in February 1989, so that Al-Qaeda’s role in the war can only have been marginal.
Obviously some of the individuals who eventually became members of Al-Qaeda including Osama bin Laden himself had previously played a much bigger role in the war. However there is very little evidence that they ever had any significant dealings with Iran.
Iran for most of the 1980s was locked in a gruelling war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which ended in August 1988, coincidentally the same month that Al-Qaeda is supposed to have been founded.
This war with Iraq was the all-consuming focus of Iran’s energies whilst it was underway.
Iran was therefore in no position to concern itself with the war in Afghanistan to any great degree, and its role in the war was in fact marginal, being apparently mostly focused on helping Afghanistan’s Shia communities.
As it happens most accounts of the war say that Iran became highly suspicious of the motives of the Arab Mujahideen who were flooding into Afghanistan at a very early point in the war, and refused thereafter to have anything to do with them.
Regardless, no comparison can be validly made between whatever brief contacts Iran might have had during the 1980s with people who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and who eventually became part of Al-Qaeda, and with the much vaster and far better documented dealings that the US and its allies Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt had with these same people during this period.
Putting this aside, Gareth Porter and The American Conservative are to be congratulated on an exemplary piece of investigative journalism.
Unfortunately it will not get anything like the sort of publicity that it deserves. Certainly it will not be given anything like the publicity the original false allegation of cooperation between Al-Qaeda and Iran which was supposedly proved by the Al-Qaeda document was given.
In fact I am sorry to say that I have no doubt that the false claims about the Al-Qaeda document will continue to be made by those who either do not know or do not care that Gareth Porter and The American Conservative have proved them false.
That does not alter the fact that what the Al-Qaeda document shows is that no cooperation between Al-Qaeda and Iran took place.
For that knowledge those of us who care about the truth about such things owe Gareth Porter and The American Conservative our thanks.