WASHINGTON – Al Qaida’s new base of operations is in Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday. He used his final days in office to bring together two of the greatest terrorist threats in the world, but without offering any underlying information as evidence.
His conclusions were quickly tempered and even contradicted by some current and former American officials, who said there was little new evidence to suggest that Iran was any sort of active headquarters, let alone a center where the leaders of Al -Qaida with the support of operations can lead the government in Tehran.
Mr Pompeo, who had been President Trump’s first CIA director for a year, described Iran as “the new Afghanistan” for al-Qaida fighters. He described the relationship between Tehran and the al-Qaida leaders much more sharply than what most counter-terrorism officials see as a very complicated relationship.
“They are partners in terrorism, partners in hate,” Pompeo told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, where he did not answer questions from journalists afterwards.
“Now is the time for America and all free nations to crush the Iran-Al-Qaeda axis,” he said, praising the Trump administration for its progress on that front.
Mr Pompeo took turns talking about Al Qaeda’s “new home base” and a “new operational headquarters” in Tehran, which confused counter-terrorism and said there was no evidence to support his claims. Some said his comments appeared to represent his own analytical conclusions rather than those of the United States intelligence services.
Mr Pompeo cited a “fundamental shift” in post-2015 relations between Sunnis-led al-Qaeda and Shiite Iran when he said the clerical government in Tehran had allowed senior terrorist network activists to centralize within its borders.
He said Iran had given al-Qaeda militants travel documents, ID cards and passports and allowed them to move freely around the country. He also confirmed for the first time a report in the New York Times in November that Al Qaeda’s deputy Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who went from Nom de Guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was murdered in Tehran in August.
Sometime before Mr. al-Masri’s death, the CIA concluded that he and another senior al-Qaeda leader in Iran, Saif al-Adl, are reorganizing al-Qaeda’s global management structure and planning attacks, according to one High-level Foreign Ministry officials who briefed reporters after Mr Pompeo’s speech were given a new priority. The official did not provide a date or approximate timeframe for the CIA assessment, saying only that it happened after 2015 and was sent to the State Department last week.
Other American officials, who spoke about intelligence on condition of anonymity, said the confirmation of al-Masri’s murder was at the core of any new or specific information that Mr Pompeo revealed on Tuesday.
But it gave the Secretary of State another platform to criticize Iran – a mainstay of his policy. This sparked a swift backlash, including from Iranian foreign minister’s Mohammad Javad Zarif, who on Twitter accused Pompeo of “ending his disastrous career pathetically with more bellicose lies”.
Much of Mr Pompeo’s speech, some American officials warned, was an inflated repetition of information that has long been known about relations between al-Qaeda and Iran.
“The relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran is far more complicated than Secretary of State Pompeo’s picture,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counter-terrorism analyst with Soufan Group, a New York-based security consultancy.
Mr Clarke said Mr Pompeo’s characterizations obscured important details about the differences in ideology, goal preferences and other critical factors between Iran and al-Qaeda.
Analysts also pointed out that when Mr Pompeo announced a new start to al-Qaeda in March, the role of al-Qaeda in the argument of why the United States should support a peace deal with the Taliban that would involve the withdrawal of troops Afghanistan demanded, had refused.
“Al Qaeda is a shadow of his former self,” said Mr Pompeo then.
It is true that Iran has consistently and unconvincingly refused to accommodate al-Qaida officials.
Terrorists have suggested that Tehran allow al-Qaeda officials to stay in Iran after the September 11, 2001 attacks to ensure that the group would not conduct any operations in the country. American counter-terrorism officials believe Iran may have allowed them to stay to conduct operations against the United States, a common enemy.
Bahram Ghasemi, a then-spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said in 2018 that some al-Qaeda members had entered Iran because of Iran’s long, permeable border with Afghanistan, but had been arrested and returned to their home countries.
Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden and other members of his family were liberated by Iran in 2011 in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Pakistan. White House officials said last year Hamza bin Laden was killed while fighting terrorism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Mr. al-Masri was one of the few high-ranking members of the organization who survived the American hunt for the 9/11 perpetrators and other attacks. When he and other al-Qaida leaders fled to Iran, they were initially placed under house arrest.
In 2015, Iran announced a treaty with al-Qaeda that released five leaders of the organization, including Mr. al-Masri, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen.
In his speech, Mr. Pompeo said that surviving MPs from Al Qaeda spiritual leader Ayman al-Zawahri “lead normal lives” in Tehran. He said the Iranian government is allowing al-Qaida fighters to communicate with each other, fundraise and carry out other operational functions previously carried out from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He announced new sanctions against two Iran-based al-Qaeda officials – Muhammad Abbatay, also known as Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, and Sultan Yusuf Hasan – and three leaders of a Kurdish branch of al-Qaeda who worked in Iraq – Iran operate on the edge.
Mr Pompeo also announced a $ 7 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Mr al-Maghrebi, Mr Zawahri’s son-in-law. Foreign Ministry officials did not comment on Mr. Zawahri’s whereabouts, including whether he was in Iran.