Seth Jones thinks we need to think about al Qaeda in Iran.
Virtually unnoticed, since late 2001, Iran has held some of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. Several of these operatives, such as Yasin al-Suri, an al Qaeda facilitator, have moved recruits and money from the Middle East to central al Qaeda in Pakistan. Others, such as Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian that served as head of al Qaeda’s security committee, and Abu Muhammad al-Masri, one of the masterminds of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, have provided strategic and operational assistance to central al Qaeda. The Iranian government has held most of them under house arrest, limited their freedom of movement, and closely monitored their activities. Yet the organization’s presence in Iran means that, contrary to optimistic assessments that have become the norm in Washington, al Qaeda’s demise is not imminent.
- “Iran is likely holding al Qaeda leaders on its territory first as an act of defense. So long as Tehran has several leaders under its control, the group will likely refrain from attacking Iran.”
- “If the United States or Israel undertook a bombing campaign against Iran, Tehran could employ al Qaeda in a response. Tehran has long used proxies to pursue its foreign policy interests, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it has a history of reaching out to Sunni groups.”
- “Al Qaeda is probably making similar calculations. To be sure, some revile the Ayatollahs.”
- “The regime might increase its logistical support to al Qaeda by providing money, weapons, housing, travel documents, and transit to operatives — some of which it is already doing. In a worse scenario, Tehran might even allow al Qaeda officials in Iran to go to Pakistan to replenish the group’s depleted leadership there, or else open its borders to additional al Qaeda higher-ups.”
- “In an even more extreme scenario, Iran could support an al Qaeda attack against the United States or one of its allies, although the regime would surely attempt to hide its role in any plotting.”
- “It would be unwise to overestimate the leverage Tehran has over al Qaeda’s leadership. The terrorist organization would almost certainly refuse Iranian direction.”