At a time when the Middle East is gripped by the bitter rivalry between the traditions of Sunni and Shiite Islam, the revelation that a devoted Sunni terrorist like Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was liaising with the Shiite ayatollahs of Iran to plan attacks against the West is somewhat surprising.
The links between bin Laden and Iran have been revealed by the CIA’s decision to release nearly half a million files that were found on a computer belonging to the Al Qaeda mastermind. The computer was one of those seized during the daring raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan lair in Abbottabad in May 2011 by a team of US Navy Seals.
Apart from assassinating the mastermind of the September 11 attacks in 2001, the American special forces were also ordered to retrieve as much information as possible about bin Laden’s global terror network.
Al Qaeda under bin Laden had a reputation for meticulous record-keeping, and teams of CIA analysts were, therefore, able to retrieve a treasure trove of information when the captured computers were flown from bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan to Langley.
Consequently, they were able to make some remarkable discoveries about the extent and nature of bin Laden’s terror operation, of which one of the more startling revelations is the secret channel bin Laden maintained with Tehran from his Pakistani base.
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Among the files retrieved is a 19-page document purportedly written by a senior member of the Al Qaeda hierarchy that details an arrangement between Iran and members of bin Laden’s terror network to strike American interests in “Saudi Arabia and the Gulf”.
According to the document, which was written by a senior Al Qaeda terrorist who is said to be “well-connected”, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards helped to maintain the secret channel between Tehran and Abbottabad by making the travel arrangements and providing visas. But the author says that at some point, the relationship soured after Al Qaeda committed an act that the Iranians deemed a violation of the terms of the agreement, which resulted in a number of Al Qaeda operatives being detained by the Revolutionary Guards.
On one level, the revelation about bin Laden’s links with Iran is surprising because wherever you look around the Middle East today, it appears that Shiite Iran and its supporters are locked in a deadly battle against the Sunni world. In Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran is seeking to assert itself at the expense of the Sunnis, whether it is waging war against ISIL fighters in Syria or excluding the powerful Sunni tribes in Iraq from the seat of power in Bahgdad.
And yet, on another level, there have always been concerns that Tehran is actively working with extremist Sunni groups that are deemed to share similar objectives. It is a case of the old Arabic saying, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
For example, Gulf security officials have long been alarmed by the support Tehran has been providing to some of the more extreme Sunni groups fighting in Syria. Senior Gulf intelligence officials have told me that they have identified a number of Iranian bank accounts that have direct ties to Syrian-based terror groups.
This arrangement is similar to the one Iran has established with Hamas in Gaza. Although Hamas is a Sunni extremist organisation with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, this has not prevented Iran and radical Shiite allies in the region, like Hizbollah, from actively supporting and arming the Palestinian movement on the grounds that they all share the same goal: attacking the state of Israel.
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Speculation about Iran’s links with Al Qaeda have surfaced previously, with reports that a number of senior al-Qaeda officials were given sanctuary in Iran following the US-led coalition’s initial military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, including three of bin Laden’s sons. They were eventually released, and some of them are believed to have travelled to Yemen where they were involved in setting up the terrorist off-shoot Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Other evidence of Iran’s collaboration with Sunni terror groups relates to the support the Revolutionary Guards have given the Taliban during their fight against US coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The CIA’s revelations about Iran’s collusion with the organisation responsible for carrying out the worst terrorist attack on American soil will be deeply embarrassing for Tehran at a time when the Trump administration has already signalled it intends to take a tough line with the ayatollahs over their continued support for global terrorism.
During a recent conference hosted by the American think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which had exclusive access to the CIA files prior to their public release this week, the CIA director Mike Pompeo said Iran and Al Qaeda has a long history of building both “secret and open” ties.
The revelations could also prove embarrassing for Qatar at a time when the sheikhdom is under intense scrutiny for its support for Islamist terror groups and its ties with Iran. One of the main charges against Qatar is that it supports the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist group which promotes a similar hardline ideology to Al Qaeda. At the same time Qatar has formed a close alliance with Iran.
Washington would certainly take a dim view if any evidence emerged to suggest Qatar was helping Shiite Iran to link up with extremist Sunni groups in the Middle East.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor