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).”
“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.
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?