Iran, al-Qaeda, and missing information

Late last month, Foreign Affairs magazine ran a rather surprising article from Seth Jones, the RAND political scientist and well-regarded scholar of American military tactics, titled simply “Al-Qaeda in Iran.” Surprising not for what the article reveals, but for what it fails to fully analyze, and what it misses entirely.

For one thing, I have a hard time understanding the first two words of Jones’ piece, that the presence since 2001 of senior al-Qaeda members in Iran has gone “virtually unnoticed.” For one thing, the topic has been common knowledge and conversation fodder among counterterrorism specialists for years, some of whom, like Leah Farrall wrote publicly about Iran’s detention and harboring of al-Qaeda figures and historical fellow-travelers. But as Jones hints (and Josh Foust explicitly lays out), the U.S. government has in recent years taken increasing public action to draw attention to the connection; in the summer of 2009 the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Osama bin Laden’s son Sa’ad, as well as three other suspected al-Qaeda members, stating clearly that Sa’ad and others were believed to be in Iran. And last summer Treasury stepped up the pressure (and rhetoric), designating six al-Qaeda figures for sanctions and publicly accusing Iran of having forged a “secret deal” with al-Qaeda, one that in the words of Treasury official David S. Cohen allowed the terror group to “funnel funds and operatives through [Iranian] territory.”

Digging into the details of the piece, I was disappointed to find that, well, there aren’t very many of them. Jones only names a limited number of people actually believed to be in Iran, including the figures on what he terms al-Qaeda’s “management council” in Iran — Saif al-Adel, Sulayman Abu Ghayth, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani — as well as Yasin al-Suri, who Jones calls an al-Qaeda facilitator. While  al-Suri and Abu al-Khayr aren’t exactly household names, al-Adel, Abu Ghayth, Abu Hafs, and Abu Muhammad are all long-time al-Qaeda figures, and the first three should be known to anyone who has even given a cursory study to al-Qaeda’s history before and after the 9/11 attacks (and again, their suspected presence in Iran has long been noted by specialists and journalists alike).

The second major fault of this piece is that, despite having “culled through hundreds of documents from the Harmony database at West Point; perused hundreds more open-source and declassified documents, such as the U.S. Department of Treasury’s sanctions against al Qaeda leaders in Iran; and interviewed government officials from the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia” Jones doesn’t acknowledge the widespread reports that circulated in 2010 that al-Adel, Abu Ghayth, and Abu Hafs had quietly been allowed to leave Iran. While these reports may not be conclusive, the possible departure of such key leaders from Iran seems to be too important of a data point to simply ignore.

Moreover, last fall Mauritanian news sources suddenly reported that the family of Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, whose real name is Mahfouz Ould Walid, had been repatriated to Mauritania and were being debriefed by Mauritanian officials. Admittedly, there aren’t many people who make it a regular habit to peruse the Mauritanian press. But this information was and is available online, and I personally know a number of lay analysts and former intelligence analysts who not only saw this information, but talked about it publicly on forums like Twitter. It is one thing to allow personnel to travel freely, but another altogether to give up the leverage gained by holding on to an al-Qaeda leader’s family. However, because this information does not make it into Jones’ article, its impact cannot be addressed.

Setting aside these concerns, Jones’ analysis of the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda falls short on other key points. While he argues (and I agree) that “It would be unwise to overestimate the leverage Tehran has over al Qaeda’s leadership” and that al-Qaeda “is no Iranian puppet” Jones argues that in the event of an American or Israeli attack, Iran could step up its material support for al-Qaeda and “could turn to al Qaeda to mount a retaliation to any U.S. or Israeli attack.”

This assertion smacks of contradiction, though no analyst can predict the future hypothetical reaction of Iran and al-Qaeda to a hypothetical U.S. or Israeli strike. But history lends this argument no credence, and Jones gives no evidence to back up his own eventuality. While al-Qaeda’s capabilities are open to debate, the organization has not managed to even link itself to a successful attack against the West since the 2005 London transport bombings. And al-Qaeda core has never managed to stage an attack against Israel — though groups inspired by al-Qaeda have succeeded in a limited fashion, while others paid a heavy price for their allegiance.

Moreover, while some believe al-Adel has played an increasing operational role in al-Qaeda since 2010, major al-Qaeda plots in recent years, including the 2009 New York Subway bomb plot and the 2010 “Dussëldorf Cell” plot in Germany involved senior al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas. As Paul Cruickshank has detailed, al-Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas have played a major role in training foreign fighters and plotting attacks against the West even as drone strikes decimated the group’s leadership, though this may change following the deaths of crucially important figures like Attiyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman. Yet the point remains that al-Qaeda’s leadership in Iran have not been essential players in plots against the West since 9/11, and Jones does not show why this center of gravity would necessarily shift to Iran, even if the Ayatollahs or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad decided that it should.

Despite the time I’ve spent directly critiquing Jones here, my point here is not to attack him, but rather to show the importance of dealing with al-Qaeda’s history, especially since 9/11, in analyzing what the group may do next and how they will continue to operate in a post-bin Laden world. While much of this is classified, there is still a tremendous wealth of information in the open-source, and there is still no substitute for careful unclassified research. And perhaps, from time to time, you should check the Mauritanian papers.

3 Responses to Iran, al-Qaeda, and missing information

  1. Pingback: Prison » Why Conspiracy Theorists Are Being Rebranded As Domestic Terrorists « ~ BLOGGER.GUNNY.G.1984+. ~ (BLOG & EMAIL)

  2. Pingback: Reality Check: Iran and Al Qaeda | The Foreigner – الأجنبي

  3. Buck Field says:

    Ever since Goss’ pressure/hatchet-job at the CIA, reliability of leading US intel reports has dropped below what a reasonable person might, in general, regard as reliable. Bias is always a problem simply because it goes with any cognitive framework, i.e.: the price we pay for progress in a particular direction or progress with a particular focus is that we miss other opportunities.

    Open source analysis like this piece appear to be, ironically, some of the best sources for stakeholders as well as just the interested public.

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