Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Al Qaeda, Iran ... and Canada plot?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
April 23, 2013 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two men in Canada accused of terror plot aided by al Qaeda elements in Iran, police say
  • Peter Bergen says case highlights unusual relationship between al Qaeda and Iran
  • He says Iran has sheltered al Qaeda members since U.S. war against Afghanistan
  • Bergen: Investigators will want to probe exact nature of relationship with Iran

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 news that Canadian law enforcement on Monday arrested two men accused of planning to derail a passenger train in the Toronto area has attracted much attention, in part, because the plotters are also charged with "receiving support from al Qaeda elements in Iran."

If these allegations are true, it would appear to be the first time that al Qaeda elements based in Iran have directed some kind of plot in the West.

And it also underlines the perplexing relationship between the Shia theocratic state of Iran, which the Sunni ultra-fundamentalists who make up al Qaeda regard as heretical but with which they have had some kind of a marriage of convenience for many years.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

While there isn't evidence that al Qaeda and the Iranian government have ever cooperated on a terrorist attack, al Qaeda's ties to Iran, surprising perhaps to some, stretch back more than a decade.

As recently as October, the U.S. Treasury named as terrorists six al Qaeda members living in Iran who it alleged were sending fighters and money to Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad's regime and were also funding terrorism in Pakistan.

Al Qaeda's Iranian presence began after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the winter of 2001 when some of Osama bin Laden's family and his top lieutenants fled to neighboring Iran, where they lived under some form of house arrest.

They included Saif al-Adel, the Egyptian military commander of al Qaeda; Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, bin Laden's son-in-law and spokesman; and Saad bin Laden, one of the al Qaeda leader's older sons who has played a leadership role in his father's organization.

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.



Saad helped bin Laden's oldest wife, Khairiah bin Laden, and a number of his father's children to move to Iran in 2002. Bin Laden's sons Ladin, Uthman and Muhammad and his daughter Fatima, who is married to Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, settled in Tehran, the Iranian capital.

According to Saudi officials, it was from al Qaeda's leaders in Iran that al Qaeda's Saudi affiliate received the go-ahead in 2003 for a number of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia that killed scores of Saudis and Westerners and targeted Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure.

Close-up look at disrupted terror plot

In 2008, al Qaeda kidnapped Heshmatollah Attarzadeh-Niyaki, an Iranian diplomat living in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

According to a Pakistani intelligence official familiar with the deal, al Qaeda released the diplomat back to Iran in 2010 as part of a negotiation that allowed some of bin Laden's family and al Qaeda members then living in Iran to leave.

By now, relations between al Qaeda and Iran were tense.

In a letter recovered from the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound where bin Laden was killed by a U.S. Navy SEAL team two years ago, bin Laden urged caution when his family members traveled out of Iran "since the Iranians are not to be trusted."

Bin Laden wrote that his family "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."

Last month Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, bin Laden's son-in-law and one-time al Qaeda spokesman, was brought to a Manhattan courtroom to face charges of conspiracy to kill Americans.

Abu Ghaith left the comparative safety of his longtime refuge in Iran for Turkey earlier this year. Turkey then deported him to his native Kuwait via Jordan, where he was detained by FBI agents who escorted him to New York.

Abu Ghaith and the two suspects just arrested in Canada, 30-year-old Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal and 35-year-old Raed Jaser of Toronto, will obviously be the subject of much interest from U.S. and Canadian intelligence officials.

Those officials will surely be seeking answers to the precise nature of the Iranian government's relationship with al Qaeda over the past decade.

Has it been passive acquiescence or more active complicity?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT