Is Iran Supporting Al Qaeda?

It started as a low, largely unnoticed rumble of accusations in some Washington circles, but when suicide bombers fatally struck Western targets in Saudi Arabia last week, the official grumblings began to pick up volume and pitch.

More than a year ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained that Iran — a member of Washington's "axis of evil" and an officially condemned "supporter of terrorists" — was not doing enough to crack down on al Qaeda operatives fleeing from neighboring Afghanistan.

"It certainly would be helpful if they were more cooperative, and they have not been, particularly," Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington on April 2, 2002, in a second straight day of accusations against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But in the months that followed, international attention shifted from Tehran's alleged links to al Qaeda to the hunt for evidence of Saddam Hussein's touted ties with the terrorist network as the Bush administration sought to bolster its case for a war against Iraq.

Days after President Bush declared that the military phase of the battle to topple Saddam's regime was "one victory in a war on terror" however, terrorists struck again. This time, it was a spate of suicide attacks in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, which claimed 34 lives, including eight Americans and nine attackers.

A reconfigured al Qaeda, revamped under the pressure of the U.S. war on terror, was quickly identified as the mastermind and perpetrator of the crime.

And slowly, the accusations of the Iranian government's links with al Qaeda began to mount as the terror alert in the United States was raised to orange or "high" following an FBI warning about imminent attacks.

"There's no question, but that there have been and are today, senior al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy," Rumsfeld told reporters on Wednesday.

But if the accusations were strong on frequency, they were noticeably weak on details, with senior U.S. officials declining to go on record with concrete proof of the Iranian government's supposed support for the shadowy terrorist network.

Former Colonel Becomes 'Military Chief'

But although U.S. officials have declined to go on record with concrete evidence of the Iranian government's complicity in al Qaeda's recent operations, terror experts and intelligence sources have attempted to fill in the gaps in the latest accusations.

And at the heart of the claims, it slowly became clear, was a handsome young former colonel in the Egyptian Army, Saif Al-Adel, who experts claim has risen from the ranks of one of Osama bin Laden's personal guards to al Qaeda's new military chief and the third-most powerful man in the terrorist network's ranks. He is on the U.S. list of 22 most-wanted terrorists.

"Saif Al-Adel is the newly appointed military chief of al Qaeda who took over as military chief when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured [in Pakistan earlier this year]," said Rohan Gunaratna, a former investigator at the U.N. Terrorism Prevention Branch, and author of Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.

"He is operating near the Afghan-Iran border and he is responsible for the attacks in Saudi Arabia," he said.

U.S. intelligence officials and some terror experts say Saif Al-Adel has been living in the eastern border regions of Iran under the protection of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, or Pasdaran, an elite military force under the direct control of the Islamic republic's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

And it was from the Iran-Afghan border region, according to intelligence sources, that Al-Adel oversaw the attacks in Riyadh.

Along with Al-Adel, terror experts say several senior al Qaeda figures — including bin Laden's son, Saad bin Laden — are currently stationed on the Iranian side of the border.

In a report in the Arabic daily Asharq al Awsat today however, the respected London-based quoted an unnamed source close to the Revolutionary Guards as saying al Adel and Saad bin Laden, along with 17 of their men, had left Iran last week for the Baluch areas where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet.

But according to Vince Cannistraro, an ABCNEWS consultant and a former CIA counterterrorism chief, the report appeared to be "Iranian disinformation to deflect diplomatic pressure, where they can say, yes they were here, but they have been kicked out."

Repeated Denials

For its part, Iran, a closed country with no diplomatic relations with the United States for more than 20 years, has repeatedly rejected Washington's claims that it was sheltering al Qaeda members.

Calling al Qaeda a "fundamentalist and violent" organization, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman this week said, that "in [the] case of confronting al Qaeda, Iran will act according to its programs and within the U.N. framework, as it did in extraditing the operatives of the group to their countries of origin."

He was referring to more than 500 infiltrators from Afghanistan that the Iranian government said it detained and deported to their countries of origin earlier this year.

Certainly some experts do not doubt that certain branches of the Iranian government may be genuine in their claims that Tehran does not support al Qaeda.

Tensions between the reformists and conservatives within the Iranian government have been rife in recent times and experts warn that in many cases, Iranian policy is schizophrenic with the right hand not knowing — or choosing not to know — what the left hand is doing.

While President Mohammed Khatami has been the elected reformist leader since 1997, the real power in Iran lies with the hard-line Guardian Council headed by Khamenei, who directly controls the military and intelligence services.

"When the Foreign Ministry people say Iran is not supporting al Qaeda, they probably mean it," said Cannistraro. "The Foreign Ministry people probably wouldn't know because Khatami has no control over the Republican Guards and the intelligence services — they report directly to Khaemini."

'Multiple Foreign Policies'

Many experts say the branches of the Iranian government headed by Khatami have adopted a largely pragmatic approach to the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although the two countries have had no diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, U.S. and Iranian officials have been engaged in talks on a variety of issues in Geneva since the war in Afghanistan began.

But the hardliners within the Iranian government are widely believed to be opposed to a dialogue or any cooperation with Washington.

"It's well known that Iran has multiple foreign policies," said Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University. "There are a number of groups or elements of the Revolutionary Guards or the security services that may have different objectives than the government [headed by Khatami]. And often these elements are well connected in Iran's power framework. There is a history of the Iranian security services operating essentially on their own."

And while noting that the Bush administration has offered no evidence and very little detail on the Iranian government's alleged ties to al Qaeda, Sick stressed that in the absence of any confirmation, he could only offer "hypotheses to explain what could be going on."

One such explanation, said Sick, could be the corruption rampant in the drug-infested region along the Iran-Afghan border.

"Given the fact that it's a porous border used by drug dealers, it's easy to see people being brought in [to Iran] and protected in exchange for money," said Sick.

Pugnacious in Public, Pragmatic in Private

Historically, Iran has had an acrimonious relationship with the Taliban regime, al Qaeda's former landlord, with which it almost went to war in 1998.

While Iran still offers an almost ritualistic display of anti-Americanism on its streets, experts say Tehran has quietly, if intermittently, cooperated with Washington's war on terror in Afghanistan by attempting to monitor its northeastern border. And before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, some experts say Iran tacitly supported U.S. operations against the militant Ansar al Islam group in northeastern Iraq by stepping up security operations along its western border.

By most accounts, Tehran's claims that it has detained and deported suspected al Qaeda members crossing the Afghan border seem to be accurate.

In a report published earlier this month, the Philadelphia Inquirer, quoting unnamed U.S. officials, said a subordinate of Al-Adel, Abu Bakr — whose real name is Ali Abd al Rahman al Faqasi al Ghamdi — may have been turned over to the Saudi government by the Iranians after he escaped the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001.

In a massive embarrassment for the Saudi authorities, however, U.S. officials told the paper that al Ghamdi may have been released in Saudi Arabia.

If accurate, it was a slipup that has come to haunt the Saudi authorities in recent days. According to U.S. intelligence officials, it was al Ghamdi, a Saudi native, who received Al-Adel's directive to go ahead with the Riyadh attack.

Bridging Ideological Divides

But whether the new al Qaeda top brass is ensconced in Iran under the protection of the Iranian authorities is a far more complex issue.

"Certainly terrorist groups can use a country," said Gunaratna. "But that doesn't show governmental complicity. The issue is being investigated," he added. "At this point, there is no concrete proof."

A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment on the Iranian government's alleged links to al Qaeda, or on any connections between al Qaeda operatives in Iran and the Saudi attacks. "I have nothing to say about this," said CIA spokesman Tom Crispell.

The implication of the latest accusations that the Iranian government is supporting al Qaeda mark a stark difference from Washington's official position on Pakistan, a country that also shares a porous border with Afghanistan stretching over difficult terrain.

Despite its pre-9/11 track record as the major international supporter of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, the Pakistani government's assertion that the presence of al Qaeda members in the country was due to the difficulty in administering its border regions — not state complicity — has been accepted by the Bush administration.

But while the Islamic Republic of Iran — which sees itself as a protector of the world's Shiite Muslims — has had a rancorous relationship with the hard-line Sunni Taliban, some experts say various Iranian military and paramilitary groups have a past history of working with al Qaeda.

"Iran has been a supporter of al Qaeda from 1993 to 1996, during which time al Qaeda was based in Sudan," said Gunaratna. "The Iranian security services and MOIS [ Ministry of Information and Security] supported a number of terrorist camps during the period al Qaeda was based in Khartoum."

But after 1996, when al Qaeda moved its headquarters and training camps to Afghanistan, Gunaratna said the "links became weaker as the Taliban and Iran were unfriendly."

In overcoming traditional Shiite-Sunni divides, Gunaratna said bin Laden's ability to forge relations between Shia and Sunni terrorist groups indicated what he called the terror mastermind's "goal-oriented rather than rule-oriented doctrine."

Iran has also been able to bridge Shiite-Sunni divisions, noted Cannistraro, citing Iranian support for Sunni Muslim-dominated groups involved in the Palestinian struggle, including Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Gunaratna warns that we could well see new alliances taking over the old or even old alliances being rejuvenated. "What we're seeing is the U.S. intervention in Iraq took the attention away from the anti-terrorism campaign, during which period, al Qaeda has found the time and space to rebuild and regroup."