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The idea that Iran and Al Qaida don’t get along, and other myths

By Fariborz Saremi

In the long history of terrorist violence sponsored by Iran, its wide range of proxies and partners is often overlooked.


The IRGC, and its Hizbullah client, are the two organizations normally discussed. Yet beyond these, Iran has worked closely with PIJ and Hamas in the Middle East and in Sudan with Al Qaida, al-jamaa al-Islamiyya, the Abu Nidal Organization, and others operating in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Pakistan.

One of the myths of modern Islamist terrorism is that Sunni and Shia do not get along; but when it comes to common enemies or objectives, they work quite frequently.

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In the early 1980s Sudan had become the second country in the world after Iran, to be ruled by extremist Islamists. Its spiritual leader was Hassan al-Turabi. The government itself was controlled by General Omar al-Bashir who led a military coup in 1989 and has been President since 1993.

Iran hastened to offer oil and development aid to the new regime in Khartoum, ostensibly without demanding anything in return. In October 1990, diplomatic relations between Sudan and Iran were raised to the ambassadorial level, Ali-Akbar Mohtashemi-Pour was named Iran’s ambassador to Sudan. On Oct. 18,1991, an international conference in support of the Palestinians opened in Teheran, with over four hundred delegates from sixty countries attending. One of them was Dr. al-Turabi who was treated with great deal of respect. Upon his return to Sudan he worked assiduously to boost the operational capabilities of the Islamic guerrilla and terror movements based there, with Iranian aid.

Sudan very quickly became a satellite of the clerics and the IRGC and according to a U.S. congressional report, a distribution center for Iranian weapons for extremist Islamic Organizations. The government of al-Turabi and al-Bashir provided a refuge for members of a wide variety of groups: the Abu Nidal, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Algerian FIS Movement, the Tunisian Al-Nahda and the Al Qaida Network. The IRGC provided their training, under the supervision of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, VEVAK.

Ayman al-Zawahiri visited Teheran in 1991 and cooperated with Iran over a variety of operations against the Mubarak government in Egypt. Even Bin Laden responded favourably to al-Zawahiri’s effort to establish links with Iran. Bin Laden sent some of his senior aides to train in Iran and with the Hizbullah in Lebanon. Imad Moughniyeh came to Khartoum to meet him, and told him about the enormous effect of the suicide attacks against the Americans and the French in the early 1980s in Lebanon. From this point on Moughniyeh became a major connection point between Iran and Al Qaida.

According to German intelligence, Zarqawi was a key figure in the “reorganized Al Qaida, as well as one of the major coordinators of Iranian-sponsored terrorism in Europe”. His group, al Tawhid, arranged false documentation for more than one hundred Al Qaida fighters who escaped from Afghanistan to Iran during the war, provided them with funds, passports, safe haven, and then organized their movement from Teheran to other areas such as Europe. Iran is a major center for Al Qaida, and the German intelligence identified a dozen camps around Teheran where Al Qaida terrorists were taken care of by the IRGC. Zarqawi was a Palestinian with a Jordanian passport, and he supervised terrorist training camps near Herat and Kabul, thus confirming the ongoing role of Iran/Al Qaida in organizing and running terrorist operations. In winter 2001, after the fall of the Taliban,Saif al-Adel one of the top leaders of Al Qaida crossed to Iran and contacted his friends in Teheran. He soon became one of the leaders of an Iran-based Sunni Cadre Teheran organized in order to convince the jihadists that Teheran was earnest about supporting the Jihad against the U.S. and its allies. In 2002 at Iran’s behest, Saif al-Adel took over the revival of jihadist terrorism in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. He established a forward headquarters in the Iranian Baluchistan where some 500 Arab Mujahedin were being trained by the IRGC for future operations in Iraq,Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The Campaign began with series of bombings in Riyadh in May 2003. Using satellite phones from his headquarters in Iran Saif-al-Adel directly supervised the progress of the bombing campaign.

By 2003,Saif-al-Adel had become one of Zawahiri’s closest confidants and strategic advisors. In the next few years Saif-al-Adel remained in Iran and worked with both the Iran based jihadist leaders and with the Al-Quds force of the IRGC.He concentrated on the organizing of highly professional command cadres which would be able to evade and endure the improved capabilities of the local intelligence and security forces.

The well-known turmoil of the Balkans in the 1990s ethnic cleansing against Muslims, civil war, the intervention of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and the perceived indifference of the West led the leader of the Bosnian Muslims Alija Izetbegovic to appeal to Muslim states for assistance. Iran responded happily, and helped circumvent an embargo that was preventing Bosnia from legally arming itself. According to British intelligence reports, some two hundred advisers from the Al-Quds operational unit were in Bosnia during that time, and from 1,000 to 3,000 volunteers including some from Hizbullah came to help the Muslims. During that time in Bosnia, Iran’s relationship with Al Qaida expanded. To this day, Bosnia is an ideal location for the activities of the IRGC,VEVAK and the Al Qaida Network. The country is a magnet for International Crime, including drug trade, trafficking in humans, smuggling of all varieties and money laundering.

The NATO is aware of the extent of the Iranian penetration in the region and in 2006 produced an intelligence report on the organization, operations, and goals of the Iranian secret services, their activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992-2006. It is known that Al-Quds operational unit of the IRGC gives intelligence- logistic support to the European operations of Al Qaida. Officers of al-Quds are known to be also located in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. Particularly interesting is the fact that several officials of the Embassy of Iran in Zagreb, are on the list of officers of the intelligence arms of al-Quds. Several western intelligence agencies consider the Iranian Embassy in Zagreb to be one of the main communication centers of al-Quds. From B-H and Croatia the Al-Quds operational wing of the IRGC is in close contact with the European operations of Al Qaida.

Dr. Fariborz Saremi is a commentator on TV and radio (German ARD/NDR TV,SAT 1,N24, Voice of America and Radio Israel) on Middle East issues and a contributer to, and Defense & Foreign Affairs.

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