On January 12, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo charged that al Qaeda has set up a “new operational headquarters” in Iran, although he provided little tangible evidence. He alleged that Tehran offered the Sunni jihadi movement logistical support, including identification cards and passports, to facilitate terrorist attacks against the West. In exchange, Iran stipulated that "operatives inside abide by the regime’s rules governing al Qaeda’s stay inside the country," Pompeo said in a speech at the National Press Club.
Pompeo acknowledged that Iran did not help al Qaeda carry out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. But hundreds of al Qaeda members and their families fled to Iran after 9/11, where they lived under tight restrictions, he said. In 2015, Pompeo alleged, Tehran allowed al Qaeda more freedom of movement inside Iran.
America’s top diplomat also announced new sanctions on five al Qaeda operatives who were allegedly operating in Iran: Muhammad Abbatay (also known as Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi), Sultan Yusuf Hasan al Arif, Ismail Fuad Rasul Ahmed, Fuad Ahmad Nuri Ali al Shakhan and Niamat Hama Rahim Hama Sharif. Pompeo announced a $7 million reward for information leading to the location or identification of Abbatay, the alleged leader of the al Qaeda cell in Iran.
Between the mid-1990s and 2015, relations between Iran, a predominantly Shiite country, and al Qaeda, a Sunni movement, were tense. In documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in 2011, al Qaeda leaders complained that members in Iran were held as virtual hostages. But Pompeo alleged that Iran and al Qaeda found common cause in their opposition to the United States and its allies in the Middle East. The following are statements by the State Department on the Iran-al Qaeda link.
Statement by Pompeo on Jan. 12, 2021: “Today, I revealed new information about how the Islamic Republic of Iran has given a new operational headquarters to al Qa’ida, the terrorist network with more American blood on its hands than any other. For al Qa’ida, Iran is the new home base. Tehran gives sanctuary to the terror group’s senior leaders as they plan attacks against America and our allies. Indeed, since 2015, Tehran has allowed al Qa’ida figures in the country to freely communicate with other al Qa’ida members and perform many functions that were previously directed from Afghanistan and Pakistan, including authorization for attacks, propaganda, and fundraising.
“In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department identified and sanctioned three senior al Qa’ida operatives residing in Iran and noted that Iran had knowingly permitted these al Qa’ida members, including several of the 9/11 hijackers, to transit its territory on their way to Afghanistan for training and operational planning.
“The Iran-al Qa’ida axis poses a grave threat to the security of nations and to the American homeland itself, and we are taking action.
“Today, I announced the designations of Iran-based al Qa’ida leaders Muhammad Abbatay (also known as Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi), and Sultan Yusuf Hasan al ‘Arif as Specially Designated Global Terrorists under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224. Under the same authority, I also announced the designations of Isma’il Fu’ad Rasul Ahmed, Fuad Ahmad Nuri Ali al Shakhan, and Niamat Hama Rahim Hama Sharif as leaders of the al Qa’ida Kurdish Battalions (AQKB), an al Qa’ida-linked group that operates on the border between Iran and Iraq. As a result of these designations, U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with these individuals and their property and interests in property subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked. In addition, it is a crime to knowingly provide, or attempt or conspire to provide, material support or resources to al Qa’ida.
“The United States is also committed to seeing that al Qa’ida’s senior leadership based in Iran faces justice. The Department of State’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program is announcing a reward for up to $7 million for information leading to the location or identification of Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi, an Iran-based key leader of the al Qa’ida terrorist group.
“The Department is also re-advertising previously announced reward offers on three additional senior al Qa’ida leaders, including two operating in Iran: Sayf al Adel and Yasin al Suri.
“Today, we are drawing attention to the nature of the Iran-al Qa’ida relationship and are taking the actions necessary to crush al Qa’ida and its links to Iran. We urge all nations to do the same – for the good of our nations, and of the free world.
Speech by Pompeo at the National Press Club on Jan. 12, 2021: “Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Wang Xiyue, for that very kind introduction. We’re blessed to have you with us today. As you said, a lot of people worked very hard to get you home. America never gives up. We never give in. We never leave anybody behind. We work, every day, every hour, to bring back every American held hostage in Iran, and all over the world. You can’t put America First if you don’t put Americans first.
“We have many distinguished guests in the room – thank you especially to the Ambassadors from many different countries, distinguished scholars, and members of the Iranian-American community who have joined us – welcome. Thank you to the National Press Club for hosting me. I know many members of this club do dogged reporting to keep Americans informed of world affairs. A free press really is a staple of a healthy democracy. I can’t say I always agree with what you write, but I do read it.
“I want to start with a quick story. Many of you here may recognize the name Abu Muhammad al Masri, also known as Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah. He was al Qaeda’s worldwide #2, and on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for slaughtering members of our State Department family in the Kenya and Tanzania bombings of 1998. More than 200 people, including 12 Americans, lost their lives in those attacks. The New York Times reported in November that al Masri was shot to death on the streets of Tehran. Today, I can confirm publicly to the world for the first time his death on August 7th of last year.
“The Times wrote: ‘That he had been living in Iran was surprising, given that Iran and al Qaeda are bitter enemies.’ Wrong. It wasn’t surprising at all. And they aren’t enemies. Al Masri’s presence inside Iran points to the reason I gathered you all here today. Al Qaeda has a new home base: the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a result, Bin Laden’s wicked creation is poised to gain strength, and capabilities. We ignore this Iran-Al Qaeda axis at our own peril. We must acknowledge it. We must confront it. We must defeat it.
“Now I know this news will come as a surprise to many Americans. We had al Qaeda on the ropes after 9/11, thanks to the sustained efforts of our brave soldiers, intelligence officers, diplomats, NATO partners, and many others whose work tirelessly to protect America. There are far fewer al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan today, than there have been in decades. What a tribute to American resolve, American ingenuity, and raw American military strength. So, al Qaeda searched for a safer haven. The Islamic Republic of Iran was the perfect choice.
“Al Qaeda has in fact carried on a relationship with Tehran for nearly three decades, as the 9/11 Commission clearly established. In the early 90s, al Qaeda operatives traveled to Iran and the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon – the Hezbollah heartland – for explosives training. In the period before 9/11, the Iranian regime told border inspectors not to stamp suspected AQ members’ passports when they entered or left Iran on their way to or from Afghanistan, to help them avoid suspicion when they returned to their home countries.
“While there’s no evidence Iran helped plan or had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, at least eight of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through Iran between October 2000 and February 2001. Indeed, in 2011, a federal judge in New York ruled that Iran had provided support for the 9/11 attacks, based on the role it played its furthering al Qaeda operatives’ plans. After 9/11, hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists and their families fleeing America’s righteous vengeance took refuge in Iran.
“A letter by bin Laden the Navy SEALS found during the Abbottabad raid sums up the relationship since 9/11 quite well: ‘Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication….There is no need to fight with Iran unless you are forced to.’
“In 2013, the Canadian government disrupted an al Qaeda plot against a passenger train that linked Toronto and New York. The Canadian government stated that the plotters received ‘direction and guidance’ from al Qaeda members living in Iran. Iran arrests students, religious minorities, and environmentalists, but not jihadist killers.
“Yet in spite of all the assistance the Khamenei regime gave to al Qaeda, Tehran actually imposed tight restrictions on its operatives inside Iran. The regime very closely monitored al Qaeda members, putting them under virtual house arrest. Bin Laden himself considered al Qaeda members inside the Islamic Republic to be hostages. The U.S. government didn’t believe Iran had authorized al Qaeda to launch terrorist attacks. That’s not our view of the current situation.
“Everything changed in 2015 – the same year that the Obama Administration and the E-3 – France, Germany, and Britain – were finalizing the JCPOA. A sea change was happening within the Iran-al Qaeda axis. Let me give you some info that is brand new to the public today: Iran decided to allow al Qaeda to establish a new operational headquarters, on the condition that al Qaeda operatives inside abide by the regime’s rules governing al Qaeda’s stay inside the country.
“Since 2015, Iran has also given al Qaeda leaders greater freedom of movement inside Iran. The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the IRGC have provided safe havens and logistical support – like travel documents, ID cards, and passports – that enable al Qaeda activity. As a result of this assistance, Al Qaeda has centralized its leadership inside Tehran. Ayman al Zawahiri’s deputies are there today – and they’re living a normal life. Al Qaeda terrorists like Sayf al-Adl and the now-dead Abu Muhammad al Masri have been able to place a new emphasis on plotting attacks.
“Tehran has allowed al Qaeda to fundraise, freely communicate with other al Qaeda members, and perform many other functions that were previously directed from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have time and money. They have a range of Iranian support. They have new tools for terror. The worst state sponsor of terrorism in the world, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is now al Qaeda’s home base. They are partners in terrorism, partners in hate.
“This axis poses a grave threat to the security of nations and to the American homeland itself. I would say Iran is the new Afghanistan – as the key geographic hub for AQ – but it’s actually worse. Unlike in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is festering under the hard shell of the Iranian regime’s protection. America has far less visibility on al Qaeda’s capabilities and activities now than we did on their activities in Tora Bora or the mountainous regions of Pakistan.
“After 9/11, America was able to unleash our firepower against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to the point that we no longer need a large military presence in the country. Today we can use our military force surgically against al Qaeda operatives in Yemen when necessary. We don’t have the same options today with regard to AQ thugs burrowed inside Iran. And if we did have that option, there’s a much greater risk in executing it.
“The Iran-al Qaeda axis threatens the progress of the Abraham Accords, too. If al Qaeda can use terror attacks in the region to blackmail nations from joining the warm peace with Israel, then we risk grinding generational momentum for peace in the Middle East to a halt. We risk limiting the growing number of Mideast nations who all recognize the threat of Iran.
“And most importantly – countries must recognize that this unholy collusion is dramatically increasing the risk of terrorist attacks against their people. As Iran permits al Qaeda to communicate freely with exponents of hate abroad, countries like France become even more vulnerable to al Qaeda attacks like the despicable Charlie Hebdo massacre. As Iran provides al Qaeda with travel documents like passports, countries like Germany are ripe to be the site of the re-creation of something like the Hamburg cell, so instrumental in the 9/11 attacks.
“As Iran permits al Qaeda leaders to travel freely to Syria, one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises will rage on. Impoverished Syrians will keep being lured into becoming jihadists. If Iran permits al Qaeda leaders to send and receive money from al Shabaab, Western nations risk a new terror state like pre-9/11 Afghanistan sprouting up in Somalia. We risk losing control of strategic waterways.
“And imagine the destruction that al Qaeda could carry out if the Iranian regime decided to devote sizeable state funds in service of al Qaeda’s goals. Imagine the vulnerability we’d have if Iran gave al Qaeda access to its satellite networks, for instance. There’s ample precedent for all of this if you consider the regime’s support of Hizballah, the Houthis, Shia militias in Iraq, and Sunni terror groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
“Imagine the threat to America. To Israel. To Saudi Arabia. Imagine the potential to completely upend fragile places with an established al Qaeda presence like Libya, Yemen, and the Maghreb, or increase turmoil in places like Bangladesh, where AQ cells have carried out attacks. Imagine that al Qaeda starts carrying out attacks at Iran’s behest – even if imperfectly controlled. Who is to say that isn’t the next form of blackmail to pressure countries back into a nuclear deal? You don’t have to be a former CIA director to see the Iran-al Qaeda axis as a massive force for evil all over the world.
“The time is now for America and all free nations to crush the Iran-al Qaeda axis. Let’s not tolerate Iran giving al Qaeda a second wind. Let’s not downplay the danger of Sunni-Shia cooperation in terror. Let’s not lie to the American people about Iranian ‘moderation’ and pretend appeasement will work. Thirty years of cooperation shows us that Iran and al Qaeda’s divergent theology is no match for its convergent hatred. That’s reality.
“Here’s reality, too. Nations have an obligation to sanction entities designated as associated with al Qaeda under UN Security Council Resolution 1267. We’ve exercised American leadership by sanctioning the MOIS and the IRGC. We urge the UN and all other nations to do the same.
“And today I’m announcing the following actions: Today I’m announcing sanctions on Iran-based al Qaeda leaders Muhammad Abbatay -- also known as Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi – and Sultan Yusuf Hasan al Arif. I’m also announcing the designations of three leaders of the al Qaeda Kurdish Battalions, an al Qaeda-linked group that operates on the border between Iran and Iraq. And in a related action, I’m announcing a reward for up to $7 million under the State Department’s Rewards for Justice for information leading to the location or identification of al Maghrebi.
“In closing, let’s go back to 1983. It was the fall of my sophomore year at the U.S. Military Academy. I remember picking up the newspaper to read that a truck packed with explosives had slammed into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American warriors. My life wouldn’t be the same after that. As a young soldier, that attack got me thinking about big questions of national security. About America’s role in the Middle East and the world.
“For those of you who don’t remember, the terrorists who killed our fellow Americans were part of an early incarnation of Hezbollah, with support from the Islamic Republic of Iran. I’ve never forgotten that. After four years leading the CIA and the State Department, I’m more clear eyed-than ever about the threat of terrorism.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has given a new operational headquarters to the terrorist network with more American blood on its hands than any other – people who are plotting fresh atrocities from Tehran as we speak. We cannot ignore this truth. Just as we have done with other horrible regimes, like the one in China, the Trump Administration sees the world as it is – not as we wish it to be.
“We see the true nature of the Iranian regime and refuse to indulge it. We speak the truth about the nature of the Iran-al Qaeda relationship, and take action to crush it. And we urge all nations to do the same – for the good of our nation, and of the free world. The free world’s battle against terrorism will go on. May America always lead in the fight. Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.
Rewards for Justice notice posted on Jan. 12, 2021: “Up to $7 Million Reward: Muhammad Abbatay, better known as Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi, is an Iran-based key leader of al Qa’ida. Al Maghrebi, is the longtime director of al Qa’ida’s media arm, al Sahab, and is the son-in-law and senior advisor to al Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“Documents recovered from the 2011 military operation against former al Qa’ida leader Usama bin Ladin indicate al Maghrebi has been a rising star in al Qa’ida for many years. Al-Maghrebi has served as al Qa’ida’s general manager in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2012. Following years of international counterterrorism pressure, he relocated to Iran, where he has continued to oversee al Qa’ida activities worldwide. As head of al Qa’ida’s External Communications Office, al-Maghrebi coordinates activities with al Qa’ida affiliates.