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.

But Iran has denied any link to the Canadian plot. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, insists that there is “no firm evidence” of any Iranian involvement with Al-Qa’ida and points out that Al-Qa’ida has “no compatibility with Iran in both political and ideological fields”. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called the Canadian claim “ridiculous”. He says that this “is the most hilarious thing I’ve heard in my sixty-four years. . . . It is really ridiculous to link al-Qaeda to Iran”. And Alireza Miryousefi, Iran’s spokesman to the United Nations, said “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. Iran also offered her air bases to the U.S. and permitted the U.S to carry out search and rescue missions for downed U.S. planes. The Iranians also gave the U.S. intelligence on Taliban and Al-Qa’ida targets. Iran was also crucial in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and offered her help in rebuilding Afghanistan’s army.

And though the media sources are quick to point out that Al-Qa’ida elements found their way into Iran after the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan, they are less quick to point out that Iran arrested hundreds of the Al-Qa’ida and Taliban fighters who escaped into her borders. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett go further to point out that Iran documented the identity of more than two hundred Al-Qa’ida and Taliban escapees to the United Nations and sent many of them back to their homelands. For many others who couldn’t be sent back to their own countries, Iran offered to try them in Iran. The States then named several more Al-Qa’ida operatives that she demanded Iran search for, arrest and deport.  According to Flynt Leverett and to Hillary Mann Leverett, who was negotiating directly with the Iranians for the White House, Iran captured some and said that the others were either dead or not in Iran. In 2003, Iran offered to trade her Al-Qa’ida prisoners for a small group of MEK commanders in Iraq. The MEK is an Iranian organization that killed hundreds of Iranian leaders and fought alongside Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Until last year, the MEK was on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. The U.S., though, refused the trade.

So those Al-Qa’ida elements were not “allowed into Iran”: they were arrested in Iran, documented and offered for trade or deportation to be tried. Those who remain are under tight control. Porter cites Bush administration officials who, according to ABC News, privately acknowledged in 2008, that they were not worried about Al-Qa’ida operatives in Iran, “because Iran had ‘kept these al Qaeda operatives under control since 2003, limiting their ability to travel and communicate”. He quotes one official as saying that “Al-qaeda officials under Iranian control, were ‘essentially on ice’”. Recently, Iran has expelled a number of Al-Qa’ida members due to tension of Syria: another topic over which Iran and Al-Qa’ida find themselves in conflict.

Recent attempts to demonstrate cooperation between the two have continued to be weak. Last year, the U.S. treasury accused six Al-Qa’ida members in Iran of funding terrorism in Pakistan and sending funds to Syrian rebels. However, many remain skeptical of this latest accusation of a “secret deal” between Al-Qa’ida and Iran. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett say that the accusation is unsubstantiated. Paul Pillar, a former national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia, went further. He told Porter that this “secret deal . . . has never been backed up by any evidence that would justify such a term”. He called the Treasury Department’s accusation “highly misleading”. Pillar added that “recently released bin Laden documents ‘not only do not demonstrate any agreement in which Iran condoned or facilitated operations by Al-Qaeda, they contradict the notion that there was any such agreement’”.

And CNN reports that Saudi officials say that it was Al-Qa’ida leaders in Iran who gave the go ahead for Saudi affiliates of Al-Qa’ida to launch terrorist bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003. However, much of the American intelligence community rejected the Saudi claim, and Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett report that “the Bush administration was eventually reduced to telling the Washington Post that ‘there are suspicions, but no proof’ that Al-Qa’ida figures in Iran ‘may have been involved from afar in planning’ the attacks”. Also wounding the case for recent cooperation between the two are documents found in bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in 2011 that testify to the continued animosity between Al-Qa’ida and Iran. One 2010 e-mail has bin Laden warning against the Iranians, saying that “The Iranians are not to be trusted”.

Many in the media the past few days have tried to explain the cooperation between the two religious, ideological and existential enemies by saying that they share a common hatred of America and her allies in the West. But that justification, too, fails to hold up, because Iran never really has been particularly anti-America. She has been anti-American invasion and anti-American meddling and anti-American threats to her sovereignty and security, but not specifically anti-American. Several Iranian administrations have consistently reached out to America in an attempt to warm relations. President Katami offered America all the help in Afghanistan that was discussed above. Before him, President Rafsanjani helped secure the release of the American hostages being held in Lebanon and helped the States sneak weapons into Bosnia. During Rafsanjani’s presidency, Iran also refused to help Iraq in the first Gulf war, while allowing the U.S. to use Iranian airspace. The current leader of Iran, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, when he was the president under Khomeini, also consistently tried to improve Iran’s relations with America. Most strikingly, in 2003, Khatami and Khamenei offered America a comprehensive plan for improving relations, including Iran’s promise of full transparency to assure the West that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon, helping stabilize a democratic Iraq, accepting a two-state solution and encouraging Hezbollah to become an exclusively political/social organization, and, most importantly here, “decisive action against any terrorists—above all Al-Qa’ida—on Iranian territory”.

So if terrorists in Canada got direction and guidance from Al-Qa’ida operatives, it is highly improbable that those operatives were working under the protection or with the cooperation of Iran. The link drawn by Canadian and American authorities may tell us something about how terrorists are operating, but it tells us nothing about Iran and offers no evidence of the Iraq style attempts to link Iran with terrorists in general or Al-Qa’ida in particular. At best, this revelation of help from Al-Qa’ida in Iran, if true, reveals, as was always known, that there are boundary lines of Iran, along the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the government has only loose control, where individuals may operate outside the protection or sanctions of the government, in ways that tell us much about those individuals, but nothing about the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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