US to accuse Iran of secret ties to al-Qaeda

US to accuse Iran of secret ties to al-Qaeda

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo will accuse Iran of having secret ties to al-Qaeda in a speech that relies on newly declassified intelligence on Tuesday, according to several people briefed on the plans.

The state department has spent weeks negotiating with US intelligence agencies to declassify some of the information. The disclosures are expected to make negotiating conditions with Iran harder for the incoming Biden administration, according to the people.

“It’s been on the books for a long time,” said one person briefed on the effort, adding that Mr Pompeo was making the move now as part of a “truth-telling” exercise. “It is significant enough to be in the public interest. There are some erroneous narratives that al-Qaeda and Iran hate each other.”

Al-Qaeda’s jihadis and Iran’s theocratic leadership are on the extremes of Muslims’ Sunni-Shia religious divide and the two are on opposing sides in some locations.

But the US has regularly accused the two of teaming up. President Donald Trump said in 2017 that Iran had provided assistance to al-Qaeda and harboured key figures. Mr Pompeo said, when he was CIA director, it was “an open secret” there had been relationships and connections between Iran and al-Qaeda. The newly declassified information is expected to add detail to such allegations.

Experts have long thought that some of the Islamist group’s leadership fled to Iran in the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan that followed the September 11 attacks in 2001, but differ over the extent of subsequent ties.

Iran has long denied allegations it hosts al-Qaeda, but the latest US assessment promises more insight into the alleged relationship.

A US poster seeking the capture of al-Qaeda’s number two Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who used the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri
A US poster seeking the capture of al-Qaeda’s number two Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who used the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri © FBI

The New York Times reported in November that Israeli agents shot dead al-Qaeda’s number two Abu Muhammad al-Masri in Tehran at the behest of the US over the summer. Al-Qaeda did not announce his death and Iran denied the report. The US has not commented.

Egyptian-born Masri, who was a founding member of al-Qaeda and whose real name was Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, had been on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, indicted for his alleged role in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds of people, including a dozen Americans. 

Mr Pompeo, who colleagues say is preparing the ground for a possible run for the presidency in 2024, supported Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Mr Biden plans to re-enter.

In his last days in office, Mr Pompeo has embarked on a flurry of last-minute policy shifts, ranging from dropping guidelines that limit US contact with Taiwanese officials to designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organisation and Cuba as a state sponsor of terror.

Colin Clarke, terrorism expert at The Soufan Center, a global security research institution, said scholars disagreed on the extent of al-Qaeda’s freedom of movement in Iran.

The US had little operational capability in Iran so hiding there had helped preserve the leadership of the group “in some survivable form”, he said, adding that he did not think Iran was working “hand-in-glove” with al-Qaeda. 

The Trump administration has pursued the remnants of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Somalia and Afghanistan. Mr Pompeo has previously said there are fewer than 200 al-Qaeda members left in Afghanistan.

Mr Clarke described the move by Mr Pompeo as a “parting shot” to make it harder for the incoming Biden administration to undertake a thaw with Iran. “It’s true that Iran has harboured [some of] the al-Qaeda remaining leadership, but on balance what’s a bigger threat? A couple of old al-Qaeda guys hanging out in Iran or a nuclear weapon? Clearly, it’s the latter.”

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