By Yoram Schweitzer
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's statement last week, ahead of the departure of the Trump administration, that Iran has become al-Qaeda's new headquarters, implies that al-Qaeda may be the joker of Iran's deck of terror instruments vis-a-vis its cluster of rivals, and specifically against Israel, for its revenge for the alleged Israeli attacks in Tehran in August and November of last year.
There was no dramatic novelty in Pompeo’s description of the ongoing relationships between Iran and al-Qaeda. The relationship goes back to the early 1990s when Iran and Hezbollah trained al-Qaeda personnel in specific bombing techniques and suicide terror tactics that were later used in al-Qaeda attacks against the US in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and in East Africa in 1998.
Iran has already served as a safe haven for senior al-Qaeda figures, including Bin Laden's family, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Senior members of the organization have been living in Iran ever since, and some of them were even permitted to leave and come back. Their current presence in Iran was evidenced by the assassination of Abdullah Ahmad Abdullah on August 7, 2020, in Tehran. Seif al-Adel, who is eligible to be Ayman Zawahiri's successor, if he survives and is elected by al Qaeda’s Shura council, also lived, and probably is still living, in Iran.
The intriguing question is whether al-Qaeda will be the joker in Iran's deck of cards for use against its rivals, mainly but not exclusively Israel, as Iran promised.to attack in retaliation for the assassination of its chief nuclear scientist.
As is very well known, Iran has at its disposal a number of proxies. Some are under its direct command and are willing to serve their common interests. Included in this list are Hezbollah, Iraqi and Yemeni militias, and even Palestinian Islamic Jihad; however, these groups also have their own agendas and constraints, independent of their loyalty to the interests of Iran.
In this context. one has to realize that al-Qaeda is fundamentally a religious adversary to Shiite Iran due to its Sunni Islamic belief. Yet, the constraints and hard conditions that reality imposed on al-Qaeda have forced it to take refuge within Iranian territory. Thus it is obvious that this alliance of these strange two bedfellows is based on a fundamental mutual suspicion. Indeed, Iran and al-Qaeda can certainly find a common denominator to harm mutual ad hoc adversaries if needed, and they would be willing to unite capabilities to seek revenge in order to gain mutual benefits.
Knowing that sending its own agents from the Revolutionary Guards to directly carry out an international terror attack can be too risky and provocative and may have a boomerang effect, Iran might choose whoever provides Tehran with deniability. For this purpose, al-Qaeda may be its best option. In spite of that, it seems that Iran would probably prefer to have more trusted and more controlled emissaries for a nuanced yet firm retaliation, but it depends on the nature of its reprisal. Whatever path Iran chooses, it will probably keep al-Qaeda in its grip as much as it can, either to use it for further terror or to prevent al-Qaeda from turning against it, as the group's basic doctrine dictates.
Yoram Schweitzer is head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies