How did Iran, al-Qaeda end up in bed together?

The wild world of intelligence: Were Jerusalem, Tehran both side shows in the latest attack that took out Abu Muhammad al-Masri?

Flag of al-Qaeda (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of al-Qaeda
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sunnis hate Shi’ites, and Shi’ites hate Sunnis – for around 1,400 years.
Never the twain shall meet.
This would seem to be all the truer about the most radical and fanatical Sunnis, al-Qaeda, and their counterpart fanatical Shi’ites, the Iranian regime.
So how on earth can it be that, according to recent reports by The New York Times and Israel’s Channel 12, US and Israeli intelligence cooperated to assassinate al-Qaeda’s No. 2, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, a.k.a. Abu Muhammad al-Masri, on August 7 in the streets of Tehran?
The short answer is that all is fair in love and war – and intelligence. Paradox goes with the territory if any national goal can be covertly achieved.
The longer answer starts with counterterrorism circles, which had placed Masri as living in Iran since 2003. There are some different reports about how freely he could move until 2015, at which time he seemed to gain greater ability.
Publicly, Iran has consistently called al-Qaeda a terrorist organization. It has denied any cooperation in a way that conveys disgust at the idea of associating with such radical Sunnis.
One of the great debates that came out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was whether Iran and al-Qaeda had cooperated in them.
But some things have changed in the debate since 9/11.
After the international community made al-Qaeda enemy No. 1, Iran downplayed any links to the group and emphasized its ideological disagreements with the Sunni organization.
However, in 2010, Gen. David Petraeus, as commander of US Central Command, reported that al-Qaeda “continues to use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates.”
In July 2011, the Obama administration officially said Iran was helping al-Qaeda funnel cash and recruits into Pakistan for its international operations.
A 2018 interview on Iranian state television by Mohammad-Javad Larijani, the secretary of the High Council for Human Rights, has been interpreted in multiple ways. But according to United Against Nuclear Iran, Larijani said: “Our government agreed not to stamp the passports of some of them [members of al-Qaeda] because they were on transit flights for two hours, and they were resuming their flights without having their passports stamped. However, their movements were under the complete supervision of the Iranian intelligence.”
Iran has said Larijani was referencing the views of the US 9/11 Commission.
In July 2018, a group of UN experts determined that “al-Qaeda leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran have grown more prominent, working with A[y]man al-Zawahiri and projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously.”
All of this means that today, no one seriously doubts that, at least on the margins, al-Qaeda and Iran have worked together.
The question is how far beyond the margins.
In terms of 9/11, there is no indication that Iran was behind the attacks. It might even have had no idea about the full horror of what al-Qaeda was planning.
This was a crucial nuance in the 2001-2003 period when the US was deciding who else to go after besides Osama bin Laden.
Facing the possibility of the US declaring war on Iran at the time, some intelligence officials who wanted to avoid war tried to overly clean up Iran’s role so as to avoid any possibility of linking Tehran to bin Laden.
To this day, the question about how involved Iran and al-Qaeda are continues.
Some US intelligence officials in 2019 undercut the Trump administration's attempts to frame the two groups as more strongly aligned. Yet, more proof had surfaced of cooperation between Iran and al-Qaeda.
The officials resisting the linkage argued that the amount of joint operations and al-Qaeda members being harbored in 2019 was much lower than it had been.
Either way, the question still remains: Why would Iran and al-Qaeda do any business together when the Sunnis and Shi’ites are in conflict in almost every part of the Middle East, including in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
Welcome to the world of intelligence.
All that matters in intelligence is that at one specific moment, one particular goal can be achieved by covertly working with whoever can help make that goal happen.
This is why infamously, at different points in history in the distant past of the 1980s, the US helped the initial sparks of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan fight against the USSR and facilitated arms sales to Iran to help covertly pay for a conflict with the contras in Nicaragua.
What goal did Iran achieve by hosting Masri and other al-Qaeda members?
There is a lot of room for speculation, keeping in mind that in intelligence, paradox is just part of the game.
US counterterrorism officials over the weekend told the Times Iran had kept Masri there to help conduct operations against US targets, with the implication of plausible deniability since his attackers would be Sunnis.
In March 2010, al-Qaeda assisted Iran in negotiating the return of an Iranian diplomat who had been held captive by the Taliban in Pakistan for 15 months. That is another esoteric example of how having a few al-Qaeda officials close by could come in handy.
Another reason could be as a “friendly hostage” – sort of a way to guarantee al-Qaeda would not attack Iran.
Why would the US have taken out Masri in August?
Some reports are now suggesting that it was because al-Qaeda was planning attacks on Jews.
But both al-Qaeda and ISIS have executed attacks on Jews many times since 2003 and have also made nefarious bigger promises of attacking Israel, which have not panned out.
In the wild world of intelligence, this latest suggestion could be disinformation to cover the real reason.
Almost no one has talked about Afghanistan in the middle of all of this.
Al-Qaeda’s links to the Taliban are considered the primary point that is holding up the success of the Trump administration’s February framework for a permanent ceasefire in Afghanistan.
What if Masri was considered, along with a few other top al-Qaeda officials who were just killed in Afghanistan in October, to be part of a camp that was destabilizing the deal with the Taliban?
What if the US wanted Israel to take out Masri and blame it on new plans to attack Jews, so that the Taliban would not get too angry with them for gunning down their allies and remain in talks?
Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the UN monitoring team for al-Qaeda, last Friday said al-Qaeda continues to pose a serious threat to the ongoing Afghan peace process over its close ties with the Taliban, and the threat will remain until it is controlled.
Maybe taking out Masri was a shot at “controlling” things.
In that case, Iran and Israel would actually be a sideshow in all of this – appropriate in the world of mirrors that is intelligence.
But Iran has still been forewarned that continuing to harbor al-Qaeda officials is not for free.