Al Qaeda and Iran shared an "antagonistic" relationship that was "not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations" over the freeing of fighters and Osama bin Laden's family members, an analysis of 17 newly released documents seized from the terrorist leader's compound says.
The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point selected, translated and analyzed the documents in a report released Thursday entitled "Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?" The declassified documents include private letters in which bin Ladin worries about "Muslims' suffering at the hands of his jihadi 'brothers'" but also contain insights into al Qaeda's complicated relationship with Iran.
The CTC analysis notes that the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda "is one of the least understood aspects" about the terrorist group's history. But the declassified documents indicate that "relations between al Qaeda and Iran appear to have been highly antagonistic," revolving around "indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of jihadis and their families, including members of bin Laden’s family, detained by Iran."
"The detention of prominent al-Qa'ida members seems to have sparked a campaign of threats, taking hostages and indirect negotiations between al-Qa'ida and Iran that have been drawn out for years and may still be ongoing," the report said.
That conclusion contrasts with recent reports saying that since bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS a year ago, Iran has been strengthening its ties with the remnants of al Qaeda in order to team up against the United States. It also paints a more complicated picture than the one suggested by the 9/11 Commission, which said the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 passed through Iran beforehand.
Many al Qaeda fighters fled to Iran after the U.S. invaded neighboring Afghanistan in October 2001, establishing links to supporters there but not with the Iranian government. The CTC report quotes Sayf al-'Adl, one of al Qaeda's top leaders, as saying that many families headed to Iran "presumably expecting to be left alone, but before long Iranian authorities, pressured by the U.S. government in his view, began a campaign of arresting people and deporting them to their home countries."
The documents include a June 2009 letter written by an al Qaeda official known as Atiyya that was addressed to “our venerable shaykh,” possibly bin Laden. It reports on the Iranians' release of "a group of brothers." Atiyya adds that he has information from a third party that women and children in bin Laden's family would also be released, “perhaps even within a week.”
"It is significant to note that the Iranians do not appear to have made direct contact with al Qaeda, at least not in the initial stage," the CTC report said. It goes on to quote a frustrated Atiyya: "The criminals did not send us any letter, nor did they send us a message through any of the brothers [they released]! Such behavior is of course not unusual for them; indeed, it is typical of their mindset and method. They do not wish to appear to be negotiating with us or responding to our pressures, as if to suggest that their actions are purely one-sided and based on their own initiative.”
As it turned out, bin Laden's family was not released "within a week." The report notes "a seemingly authentic letter" written by bin Laden’s son Khalid -- who was killed in the same raid as his father -- addressed to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in January 2010. It tells of numerous requests to release bin Laden's relatives that Khalid says were ignored by the Iranian government.
Khalid's sister Iman had escaped to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, forcing the Iranian government to admit bin Laden's family was in Iran. His brother Sa'd also “managed to escape by himself and he related to us the truths of what was happening, that they had repeatedly asked to leave Iran but they were beaten and suppressed,” Atiyya wrote.
The report says the Iranians promised to release bin Laden's family in exchange for the release of a kidnapped Iranian official but the regime kept one of his daughters and her husband instead. In the second half of 2010, bin Laden asked Atiyya to contact the Iranians to tell them to keep their promise that if al Qaeda released "their captive, they would release my family, which includes my daughter Fatima who [should naturally stay in the company of] her husband. It is not fair to separate women from their husbands; it is therefore necessary that they release her and her husband along with his [second wife] Umm Hafs.”
Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation," said the hostile tone in bin Laden's correspondence isn't surprising.
"This has always been a liaison of convenience," she said. "It was very much tactical, something that was done as protection for Iran against al Qaeda so it wouldn’t get attacked and so it would have ammunition to use in reserve against the United States." Indeed, she notes, Iran helped the U.S. after 9/11, only turning against it after President George W. Bush declared the regime part of an "axis of evil."
"Those of us who followed this issue closely have always been skeptical of the claim of close Iran-Al-Qaeda cooperation," Slavin said.
Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, agreed. "All along, it was improbable there was any serious cooperation given the history and the deep differences. To me, it was shocking that anyone took these claims seriously," he said.
"To experts, the new documents show the obvious, but it may be a revelation who continue to assume there was a link."