Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Strange bedfellows -- Iran and al Qaeda

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 0021 GMT (0821 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, now in custody, had spent time in Iran
  • Peter Bergen says members of bin Laden's inner circle lived for years in Iran
  • He says it was an odd tie since religious differences separate Shiite Iran from Sunnis
  • Bergen: Iran may have wanted to use al Qaeda members as a bargaining chip with U.S.

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad" and a director at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- The appearance Friday in a lower Manhattan courtroom of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and one-time al Qaeda spokesman, to face charges of conspiracy to kill Americans underlines the perhaps surprising fact that members of bin Laden's inner circle have been living in Iran for the past decade or so.

It was Abu Ghaith's decision to leave the comparative safety of his longtime refuge in Iran for Turkey a few weeks ago that led to the chain of events that landed him in Manhattan for trial.

The leading Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, reported that Abu Ghaith was detained in the Turkish capital, Ankara, in early February. Turkey then decided to deport him to his native Kuwait via Jordan, where he was intercepted by FBI agents, who escorted him to New York.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

As is well known, many of bin Laden's family and members of his inner circle fled Afghanistan for Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban in the winter of 2001, but what is less well known is that some also fled to neighboring Iran.

According to U.S. documents and officials, in addition to Abu Ghaith, other of bin Laden's inner circle who ended up in Iran include the formidable military commander of al Qaeda, Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian Special Forces officer who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, as well as Saad bin Laden, one of the al Qaeda's leader older sons who has played some kind of leadership role in the group.

Saad bin Laden spent the first six months of 2002 living in Karachi in southern Pakistan. From there he helped one of his father's wives, Khairiah bin Laden, and several of his father's children to move from Pakistan to Iran.

For years these bin Laden family members all lived in the Iranian capital, Tehran, under some form of house arrest. Their conditions were not unpleasant, with time for visits to swimming pools and shopping trips.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence learned that some al Qaeda operatives were living in the northern Iranian town of Chalus, on the Caspian Sea.

In 2002 a U.S. Navy SEAL operation into Chalus was planned and then rehearsed somewhere along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard Myers, called off the assault because the information about where precisely the al Qaeda members were living in Chalus was not clear.

A year after that operation was called off, according to US and Saudi officials, from his Iranian refuge Saif al-Adel authorized al-Qaeda's branch in Saudi Arabia to launch a series of terrorist attacks in the Saudi kingdom that began in the capital Riyadh in May 2003, a campaign that killed scores of Saudis and expatriates.

Bergen: Trying bin Laden's son-in-law in New York makes sense

On the face of it, the fact that a number of al Qaeda leaders and operatives and bin Laden family members found shelter in Iran is puzzling, as the Shia theocrats in the Iranian regime are hostile to the Sunni ultra zealots in al Qaeda, and vice versa.

For al Qaeda's operatives, life in Iran was more secure than for many of their colleagues in Pakistan who risked capture by Pakistani forces working with the CIA or death by CIA drones.

The Iranian regime likely saw the al Qaeda operatives as useful bargaining chips with the United States in the event of some kind of peace negotiations with the Americans. That peace deal, of course, never happened.

Of course, for Iran the adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" may have also come into play, although there doesn't seem to be evidence that Iran and al Qaeda have ever cooperated on a specific operation.

That said, the 9/11 Commission found that of the 19 hijackers, "8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi "muscle" operatives traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001." Whether this was with any degree of Iranian complicity is still an open question.

The fact that leading members of al Qaeda were based in Iran from 2002 on was known to the U.S. government at the time. (In fact, in early 2003 counterterrorism officials briefed me about this development).

There is something of an irony here. This was during the same time period in which senior administration officials under President George W. Bush were citing the alleged presence of al Qaeda members in Baghdad and a supposedly burgeoning alliance between al Qaeda and Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein as a key reason to go to war against Saddam, Iran's bitter enemy.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded, as had every other official investigation of the matter, that in fact there was no "cooperative relationship" between Saddam and al Qaeda.

In late 2008 al Qaeda operatives kidnapped Heshmatollah Attarzadeh-Niyaki, an Iranian diplomat, in the western Pakistan city of Peshawar.

After holding the diplomat for over a year the militants quietly released him back to Iran in the spring of 2010.

This was part of a deal that allowed some of bin Laden's family and al Qaeda members living under house arrest in Iran to depart, according to a Pakistani official familiar with the deal.

This deal did not, however, mean that relations between the Iranians and al Qaeda suddenly became all hunky dory.

Documents recovered at bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, following the SEAL raid there on May 1, 2011, and since publicly released portray a rather tense relationship between al Qaeda and the Iranian authorities.

In a letter that bin Laden wrote just five days before he died he described a document from his son Saad who had lived in Iran for years "which exposes the truth of the Iranian regime." What bin Laden meant precisely by this is not clear, but taken together with some of the other letters that were found in his Abbottabad compound it is obvious that bin Laden and his men were quite distrustful of the Iranian regime.

A letter to bin Laden from his chief of staff dated 11 June 2009 has a detailed account about a group of "mid level" al Qaeda members who the Iranians had recently released, including three Egyptians, a Yemeni, a Iraqi and a Libyan.

Bin Laden's chief of staff attributed these releases to al Qaeda's kidnapping of the Iranian diplomat in Peshawar, but added that the Iranians "don't want to show that they are negotiating with us or reacting to our pressure. ... We ask God to repel their evil."

In another undated letter from bin Laden to his chief off staff al Qaeda's leader gave a set of detailed instructions about how best to handle his family members living in Iran once they were released.

Bin Laden urged extreme caution "since the Iranians are not to be trusted." Among another precautions, he wrote that his family members "should be warned about the importance of getting rid of everything they received from Iran like baggage or anything even as small as a needle, as there are eavesdropping chips that have been developed to be so small they can be put inside a medical syringe."

In this letter bin Laden mentioned by name a number of his children living in Iran including his sons Ladin, Uthman and Muhammad and his daughter Fatima, who is married to Sulaiman Abu Ghaith who now sits in a Manhattan jail.

In October the U.S. Treasury named as terrorists six al Qaeda members living in Iran who it said are funding terrorist activities in Pakistan and sending fighters and money to Syria to fight the Assad regime there.

Abu Ghaith didn't play an operational role in al Qaeda -- a fact that was underlined in the charges filed against him last week in Manhattan that revolve around his role as a propagandist for the group. So it is the precise nature of al Qaeda's arrangements in Iran and the kind of activities outlined in the recent Treasury designation of the half-dozen al Qaeda members living in Iran that are likely to be of most interest to American investigators.

Given the fact that since 9/11, New York courts have convicted at a rate of 100% in cases that involve members of al Qaeda and associated groups, Abu Ghaith could doubtless cut an attractive plea deal for himself if he gives a full accounting of al Qaeda's murky decade in Iran.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT