Eleven years ago on September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda turned passenger planes into missiles, and attacked the United States. The attack left a searing image of the deadly consequences of the so-called "global jihad."
While the global jihad has long been regarded as the domain of Sunni extremists there is more to that picture than meets the eye.
Sadly, the US government has yet to address a key factor that not only enabled Al Qaeda to carry out the 9/11 terror attacks, but which also made it possible for Al Qaeda to survive America’s efforts to dismantle its terror network -- support from the government of Iran.
Today it is clear that for the Islamic Republic of Iran, Al Qaeda’s survival is a priority — one which the United States has been remiss in failing to disrupt.
Even with a federal judge’s recent affirmation of evidence that the Islamic Republic of Iran was involved with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 plot, for many US officials Iran’s collusion in the deadliest terrorist attacks ever on America’s homeland remains unclear. This, despite various developments spanning back to the early 1990s pointing to a preponderance of evidence that Iran was a prime candidate for participation in the 9/11 plot.
As authors of the 9/11 Commission Report observed, “The relationship between Al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.” Yet for many years following that terrible day, the notion that Iranian officials would not sanction cooperation with Sunni radicals led officials to avoid a much-needed analysis of just how Iran asserts its foreign policy agenda as a central player in the global jihad.
Obviously, the assumption Shiite Iranian officials viewed Sunni radicals as untouchables flew in the face of Iran’s provision of safe haven to so many top figures from Al Qaeda after 9/11. These terrorists included prominent jihadis like Saif al-Adl, who served as Al Qaeda’s interim leader following Usama bin Laden’s death, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who eventually became America’s top target in Iraq as the leader of Al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise.
As former CIA Persian Gulf military analyst Kenneth M. Pollack explained, Tehran was aware of Al Qaeda’s massive presence inside Iran by 2003 due to — at the very least — the numerous complaints issued by American officials. “Thus, at some level their freedom had to have been intentional,” Pollack wrote in his 2004 book, "The Persian Puzzle." He further assessed that due to fears of American aggression following 9/11, coupled with their desire to head it off by going on the offensive, officials in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) may have seen real value in enabling, or even encouraging, Al Qaeda to attack the United States. Indeed, nearly nine years later, in February 2012 Treasury designated Iran’s MOIS for its support of Al Qaeda and its Iraqi franchise.
While Pollack’s analysis of motives underlining this relationship today seems more reasonable than ever before, for Iran the overarching prerogative for maintaining relations with Al Qaeda is likely far more strategic than tactical in orientation. Even if, that is, members of Al Qaeda’s “management council” — established in Iran after 9/11 at the behest of bin Laden — were given the freedom to coordinate major international terrorist attacks like the May 2003 attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca. And regardless, that is, of whether Al Qaeda’s interests may be surmised with the principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as bin Laden’s former bodyguard Nasser al-Bahri put it in a July 2012 television interview.
Put simply, nearly a decade before the Treasury Department announced it was conducting investigations centered on a “secret deal” between the government of Iran and Al Qaeda, it was Iran that delivered the security blanket Al Qaeda needed to survive in the aftermath of America’s response to the terror attacks and maintain its very operability.
Still, the regime is doing more than just thwarting Washington’s efforts to tackle what American officials perceive as the most immediate threat to US interests. It is also doing more than shoring up a mere tactical resource. It is keeping alive the embodiment of a preeminent strategic threat to the West and its allies in Iran’s neighborhood — preserving a vital spring of inspiration that nourishes the “vanguards” of the global jihad, and conceivably may do so for generations to come.
When Americans talk about football, it’s often said that the best defense is a good offense. Despite Washington’s interest in leading what it once termed the “global War on Terror,” this maxim has not been applied to American efforts to address the glaring issue that is Iran’s role in the global jihad being waged against the US and its allies.
Arguably, when it comes to Iran’s role as a major player in the global jihad, in which Americans commonly view Al Qaeda as playing a similar role to that of quarterback, our country has yet to begin playing what could reasonably be described as a defensive game. Instead, policies that may be summed up with the words "ignore," "avoid" and "suppress" have stymied meaningful and much-needed focus on the lethal threat nexus that is Iran and the global jihad. Perhaps as a result, Iran is only mentioned once in the Obama administration’s current National Counterterrorism Strategy, and ostensibly as an afterthought.
Regrettably, analysis of Iran’s support for Al Qaeda in the post-9/11 era remains too simple. And despite the fact that two of Al Qaeda’s most powerful members, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-Adl, each have longstanding ties to top Iranian officials, it seems that the importance of this axis remains completely underestimated by Western governments -- to this day.
Indeed, although President Obama says he is at war with Al Qaeda, he has essentially made it a policy not to address the chief issue that is keeping Al Qaeda alive: Iran’s support.
In 2009, the CIA — ostensibly with input from the administration — actually shuttered a Bush-era pilot program focused on monitoring and even targeting top Al Qaeda officials in Iran.Perhaps this was the president’s way of giving the regime room it needed to "unclench" its fist?
All the while empowering Al Qaeda to create more distractions from the fact Iran is at war with the US and Israel.
Clearly, apart from data Treasury can act on without leading a military assault, the Obama administration is disinterested in actionable intelligence on Al Qaeda’s activities in its one true safe haven: Iran. And this disinterest does more than just imperil our nation’s security. It is also an undeserved and outright insult to the nearly 3,000 Americans who died eleven years ago and to their loved ones when a pawn in Iran’s war with the West attacked America on September 11, 2001.
Michael S. Smith II is a principal and co-founder of Kronos Advisory, counter-terrorism adviser to members of the United States Congress, and a senior analyst with Wikistrat Ltd. Follow him on Twitter@MichaelSSmithII.