Fact Sheet: Background on Iran's Ties to Al Qaeda and Role as Instigator of Sectarian Conflict in the Middle East
Iran has a long history of fomenting violent conflict and inflaming sectarian divides throughout the Middle East including in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
Iran has also created and sponsored some of the most proficient and capable sectarian militias and terror groups in the world. Its collaboration with Al-Qaeda and specifically Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, formerly Al Qaeda in Iraq), is also well documented.
Depictions of Iran as a source of stability are therefore erroneous and short-sighted, as are assertions that increased Iranian involvement in Iraq will serve American and Iraqi interests.
What should not be in doubt is Tehran's objective to leverage any chaos to its advantage by consolidating its control in Iraq via its violent and sectarian Shi'a proxies and militias. The objectives of the U.S. and moderate forces in Iraq and the region are starkly different - a stable, secure and politically inclusive Iraq that fights extremism and protects the rights of all its citizens, regardless of faith or ethnicity.
The following resources help explain the Iranian regime's history of cooperation with al-Qaeda and current role in the sectarian conflict in Syria, which has enabled the surprise military advance of ISIS into Northern Iraq.
Background: Al-Qaeda and Iran
- Iran and Al Qaeda seem like unlikely bedfellows given the Sunni-Shi'a divide. This divide, however, has not precluded cooperation between the two in certain conditions, as they have found "common cause in their mutual hatred of America; both can see the virtue in having more anti-U.S. violence, whatever the source."
- The 9/11 Commission Report states that in the early 1990's, "senior Al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in intelligence and security. Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983."
- On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda carried out two simultaneous suicide truck bombings outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 223 people and injuring thousands more. In November 2011, a U.S. district court judge found that Iran was also culpable for the bombings for contributing "material support" to Al Qaeda essential for the execution of the attacks.
- The 9/11 Commission's chapter, "Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to Al Qaeda," documents Iran's facilitation of transit for Al Qaeda members through its territory from 2000-2001. After listing various examples, the report states, "In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers."
- After the U.S. launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks, it is common knowledge that many members of Al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, fled to the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Western Pakistan. What is less known is that key elements of Al-Qaeda's operational structure also escaped to Iran, in some cases with assistance from Iranian authorities. Among these individuals was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the notorious terrorist who went on to establish Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which later altered its name to the more ambitious Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
- Zarqawi initially operated under the protection of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and its elite Quds Brigade. According to intelligence officials, the time Zarqawi spent in Iran was crucial for rebuilding his network before relocating to Iraq. While the Iranian regime eventually succumbed to U.S. pressure and forced Zarqawi to leave Iran, the damage had already been done: Zarqawi's network was already rebuilt, even though the Iranian authorities could have prevented such an outcome at any time.
- On July 28, 2011, "the U.S. for the first time formally accused Iran of forging an alliance with Al Qaeda in a pact that allows the terrorist group to use Iranian soil as a transit point for moving money, arms and fighters to its bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan." In 2012, the U.S. government sanctioned the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for providing money and weapons to AQI and negotiating prisoner releases of AQI operatives.
Background: Iran Unleashes Syria's Sectarian Spillover
- Iran's robust military and economic support to the Syrian regime has been critical in facilitating its campaign of mass murder and keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.
- Further, Iran's involvement in Syria has been instrumental in transforming what was initially a popular uprising into a full-blown sectarian war, which has spilled over into Lebanon and Iraq, and has fostered the growth of radical terrorist groups in the region. This protects Assad as international powers have become increasingly concerned with containing the jihadist threat, instead of removing the Syrian autocrat from power.
- On February 6, 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department charged that "Tehran has allowed senior al Qaeda members operating from Iranian soil to facilitate the movement of Sunni fighters into Syria," indicating that "elements of Iran's government or military were at least tacitly supporting the opposing sides of Syria's civil war."
- Not only does Iran's support for Assad continue unabated, it has actually increased in recent months. According to a February 2014 Reuters report, "As Syria's war nears the start of its fourth year, Iran has stepped up support on the ground for President Bashar al-Assad... helping to keep Assad in power at a time when neither his own forces nor opposition fighters have a decisive edge on the battlefield." Experts agree, "Without Iranian military aide and financial largesse, al-Assad's regime may have fallen long ago."