Is There Really An Iran-Al-Qa’ida Link In The Canadian Train Terror Plot?

On April 22, Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal and Raed Jaser of Toronto were charged with plotting a terrorist attack that was intended to derail a VIA passenger train travelling between Toronto and New York. Esseghaier is thought to be from Tunisia and Jaser is thought to be from the United Arab Emirate. Both were living legally in Canada. Canada’s RCMP, in coordination with Toronto and Montreal police and the FBI, undertook Project Smooth and have been tracking the two terror suspects since September of last year. The RCMP is calling the plot the first known Al-Qa’ida planned attack in Canada. They are also alleging that the Al-Qa’ida members Esseghaier and Jaser were receiving “direction and guidance” from were in Iran.

Previous attempts to link Iran to recent terror attacks have attempted to more directly implicate the Islamic Republic by connecting them either to Iran’s Quds forces or to agents, like Hezbollah, acting as Iranian proxies. The current attempt to link Iran to terrorism is less direct, linking the Canadian terrorists to Al-Qa’ida in Iran, but not directly to the Iranian government, since the RCMP says it has no evidence that the planned attacks were state sponsored by Tehran. However, in casting aspersions at Iran’s willingness to host terrorists, this charge joins the recent attempts to link Iran to terror attacks in America, Georgia, India and Bulgaria. All of those previous attempts have been shown to be flawed. Is it possible that this one is real? That Shi'a Iran and salafist Sunni Al-Qa'ida really cooperate or even tolerate each other?

The charge is that Iran allowed Al-Qa’ida operatives to make their way into Iran when they were fleeing Afghanistan after the U.S. led invasion. Once in Iran, bin-Laden is said to have ordered Al-Qa’ida in Iran to establish a management council to provide strategic support to Al-Qa’ida’s leaders in Pakistan. The claim, it seems, is that some element of these Al-Qa’ida operatives in Iran were in communication with the Canadian terrorists, offering them direction and guidance. One U.S. counterterrorism official has said that the evidence they have seen is very solid.

"Times New Roman";color:black”>“Iran's position against this group is very clear and well known. (Al Qaeda) has no possibility to do any activity inside Iran or conduct any operation abroad from Iran's territory. . . . We reject strongly and categorically any connection to this story.”

A number of sources and analysts quoted in the media over the past couple of days have said that Al-Qa’ida and Iran, though ideologically incompatible, have tolerated each other when it suits them. David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence says, in not very convincing words, that “We believe that Iran continues to allow al-Qaida to operate a network that moves al-Qaida money and fighters through Iran to support al-Qaida actions in South Asia”. Seth Jones of the RAND corporation, who is cited in multiple places, says that the management council of Al-Qa’ida in Iran remains under house arrest and that “Tehran appears to have drawn several red lines for the council. Refrain from plotting terrorist attacks from Iranian soil, abstain from targeting the Iranian government and keep a low profile”. However, he says that “As long as it did so, the Iranian government would permit al-Qaeda operatives some freedom to fundraise, communicate with al-Qaida central in Pakistan and other officials and funnel foreign fighters through Iran”.

I had the opportunity to ask investigative historian Gareth Porter about this agreement between Iran and Al-Qa’ida. He said that there is not the slightest evidence for, and plenty of evidence to contradict, Cohen’s and Jones’ claim of a deal.  And, despite the “beliefs” of the State Department, former U.S. State Department special agent Scott Stewart says that any link between Al-Qa’ida, Iran and a Canadian terror plot would be highly unusual. Stewart was also bothered by the fact that the flag on Esseghaier’s LinkedIn page is one that is used, not by Al-Qa’ida in Iran, but by Al-Qa’ida in Iraq, and he cast doubt that Al-Qa’ida in Iran was really even a thing.

History, too, is against the Canadian-US claim. Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban have been viewed with hostility by Iran from their inceptions. From the beginning, Iran has seen the Taliban as a Saudi and Pakistani cultivated Sunni force intended, in part, as an anti-Shi’a Iranian force that could pressure Iran from one side while Iraq squeezed her from the other. Iran has seen the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida as, in their essence, existential enemies of Iran.

After 9/11, Iran sided against the Taliban and with the United States. The Northern Alliance, who provided many of the anti-Taliban fighters once the Americans and her allies invaded Afghanistan, was, at least in part, put together by Iran, who placed it in the hands of the Americans.