What’s with the old al Qaeda guys leaving Iran?

Last summer when writing an assessment of the state of al Qaeda, I concluded with a few thoughts on things to look for in the future.  One of the questions I’ve had for some time is what happened to the old al Qaeda guys that sought refuge in Iran – a wild card scenario I did not want to forget about in 2012:

“The Iran wild card: For many years, rumors of Iranian involvement and maybe conflict with al-Qaeda have persisted. Some senior al-Qaeda leaders, most notably Saif al-Adel, have allegedly been in a strange state of house arrest or operational support in Iran. Iran has always been a sly state sponsor of terrorist groups, both Sunni and Shia. If tensions were to arise between Iran and Israel or the U.S., would Iran seek to sustain al-Qaeda as a proxy? Analysts deliberating this issue may provide invaluable insights in the near future. “

Recently, some movement of al Qaeda folks out of Iran has surfaced in open source media.  The most important figure to allegedly take refuge in Iran was Saif al-Adel – the interim head of al Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death and a highly capable, former Egyptian military officer who has been an instrumental military commander for al Qaeda over the years.  Vahid Brown provided an amazing story at Jihadica detailing how Adel was possibly exchanged in a prisoner swap between Iran and al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2009.  If true, the movement of Adel back into Pakistan would be extremely valuable to an al Qaeda in short supply of veteran leadership.

More recently, Asharq al-Awsat reported that Bin Laden’s son-in-law and one time al Qaeda spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, had arrived from Turkey after leaving Iran.  The report notes:

“Sources close to the Bin Laden family informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Suleiman is a Kuwaiti national and the husband of Fatima Bin Laden, who is currently present in Saudi Arabia. The source added that Suleiman had intended to seek political asylum in Turkey…..The source confirmed that Suleiman is the “final remnant” of the branch of the Bin Laden family that was being held under house arrest by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).”

Suleiman was last seen at an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan before heading to Iran.MAN IDENTIFIED AS AL QAEDA SPOKESMAN ABU GHAITH APPEARS IN NEWLY RELEASED VIDEO.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith was quoted as saying, “The actions by these young men who destroyed the United States and launched the storm of planes against it have done a good deed. They transferred the battle into the US heartland. Let the United States know that with God’s permission, the battle will continue to be waged on its territory until it leaves our lands, stops its support for the Jews, and lifts the unjust embargo on the Iraqi people who have lost more than one million children.”

Just this past week, the always insightful @abususu tweeted that Suleiman had in fact arrived in Kuwait – according to jihadi forums.

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So what does all this mean?

  • Well it seems my Iran wild card fears of summer 2012 may not be worthy of much attention.  If Suleiman was in fact the last al Qaeda member held by the IRGC, then, atleast on the surface, it would appear that Iran is not intending to use al Qaeda, a Sunni extremist group, as a strategic proxy against the West and Israel in the way that it backs other Sunni groups like Hamas.
  • I wonder if the release of Suleiman and other al Qaeda members has some connection to the emerging proxy battle brewing between the IRGC and al Qaeda linked al Nusra Front in Syria?  I’m guessing there is no way to know but the recent movement of Suleiman is quite curious.  Stays in Iran for more than a decade and suddenly decides to leave?  What’s up?


  1. Suleiman Abu Ghaith was arrested in Turkey’s capital, at the same day american embassy was attacked. Although there might be some thoughts on co-relation between these two incident, nothing have been proved and the attack was a work of leftist turkish terrorist organization called DHKPC.

    Even though Suleiman Abu Ghaith was an important figure in AQ organization, he was not seen around for almost a decade and he was believed to be under custody of iran and out of the game for such a long time. Regardless his absence, he is still one of the inner circle guy in AQ and media coverage was quite few in terms of his significance.

    Abu Ghaith is under costudy of turkish state since 29 January, but the media realized that right after the attack in the American Embassy in Ankara. The story is as following:

    Abu Ghaith was brought to Turkey with an Iranian national and resided in a hotel in turkish capital, Ankara. Then he was left at the hotel -as far as I remember it was Sheraton Hotel- by the iranian national at the hotel room. After a while, he went out to find a place to eat something. The hotel is in close proximity to the Ankara’s fancy, luxurious neighborhood Tunalı Hilmi Avenue and there he was arrested by Turkish Intelligence Agency after a long surveillance and a co-operation with CIA.

    The person -iranian national- was not found. He was gone long before Ghaith’s arrest. The thing is, the intelligence reached CIA before Ghaith’s departure from Iran and it was surveilled after he entered Turkish border and operation was conducted after his arrival to the Capital. He was interrogated by Turkish officials and as he was not involved any crime or attack in turkey, he was released but as he did enter country illegally with a fake passport, according to Turkish proceedings, he had to be extradited to the country where he departure. But he had also no more any citizenship after his country, Kuwait, denationalized him, he was stuck in Turkey. Turkey can’t send him back to Iran or his home country Kuwait. Because of that, he had to be released according to Turkish law and Turkey can’t give him to USA because of its internal regulation proceedings about none-nationals and extradition rules.

    Now, we should focus on the reasons behind his departure from Iran, apparently by Iranian Intelligence. As we can see the picture, this guy is like a bomb left on the lap of Turkey. She can’t give him back to Iran or Kuwait and it’s also not possible to give him USA and according to law, he had to be released. So, that makes situation so hard for Turkey. Iran knew it, that would cause a trouble between Turkey and USA and they gave the intelligence first to the USA of Ghaith departure. So, that Turkey can’t hide the operation from USA that could make problem with USA.

    Another point is, Iran knew that Turkey tolerates Syrian Opposition and even support it with political, diplomatic and humanitarian mean. Probably, to some extent, with military support. Turkey also tolerates foreign fighters passing through its long borders with Syria. It’s not hard to assume that, some AQ elements are among those fighters and they are jihadists. USA also warned Turkey about this elements and Iran wanted to make it even harder for Turkey by letting one of the AQ inner circle guy in the hands of Turkey. With this, Iran leaves Turkey in a trap. If Turkey gives Abu Ghaith to USA, then jihadists may target Turkey and Turkey will not tolerate Syrian Opposition which is so much involved by AQ and jihadists elements. That would empower Iran’s and its ally Assad’s hand against opposition. So, it’s not that easy to give Abu Ghaith to USA, not just because of some legal provisions, but also for this background of the situation.

    If Turkey does not give Abu Ghaith to USA, then Turkey would be in a situation that it supports international terrorism and since Turkey has some tense relations with Israel and with USA about Syrian policies, that move is strategically great achievement by Iran. Iran is always good with playing among other actors in the region and its operational capabilities are quite superior than Turkey and the other countries in the region. Even sometimes, better than many Western countries. We should not forget how Iran have made gains in America’s Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    I guess, that’s all I can cover for now. Sorry, I couldn’t summarize it briefly. But I hope it works out this way..

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