Enemy of All States: Why al-Qaeda Just Denounced Iran

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Since September 11, 2001, U.S. analysts and officials have scoured for, and often declared, alliances between al-Qaeda and the governments of the Middle East. Whether it was Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 film alleging Saudi Arabia's protection of Bin Laden, still-held Bush administration claims that the Iraq invasion was justified by Saddam Hussein sponsorship of al-Qaeda, or Iran hawks hunting for evidence of a connection, state sponsorship of al-Qaeda has been frequently declared; far less frequently has it been confirmed.

It's impossible to say for sure what happens inside the shadowy security apparatuses of secretive Middle East regimes, particularly Iran's. But a recent statement from al-Qaeda makes present or future collaboration between the terrorist group and Iran appear significantly less likely. In a video posted to jihadi forums on Monday, Anwar al-Awlaki, an ideological leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and influential figure to allied jihadist groups worldwide, denounced Iran. He urged his followers to place the Iranian regime in the same category as traditional al-Qaeda target, "the American occupation."

Al-Awlaki warned against Iran's military weaponry, saying that it aims at the Sunni Gulf states whose peoples will be the first Iranian targets. "O Sunni scholars, what is your plan to resist the spread of apostasy that is sweeping the region from Iran to Yemen? ... Are your guardians capable of resisting Iran? Iran spends its oil revenues to build its army, and your guardians spend money to protect and guard the American occupation from the blows of the mujahideen."  "The situation today is as it was during the right people in the time of Jesus - the Roman tyrant left no room for opposition, Jews and their rabbis lowered themselves, so Jesus went out of this situation and was followed by only young people," said al-Awlaki who outlined two cases that " need to be resolved otherwise we will fail." The first one is removing the "rulers." "... the Umah can not move forward - one inch - unless they are removed [head of Arab states]."

With Awlaki and AQAP rapidly ascendant -- they are said to be behind to the failed Christmas 2009 "underpants bomber" and recent failed mailbombings -- and Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan/Pakistan-based branch increasingly isolated, Awlaki's statement will likely carry significant weight among worldwide Sunni jihadist groups. The motivation for this denunciation is unclear; although Sunni insurgencies operate in Kurdish and Baloch Iran, their aims and ideologies differ widely from al-Qaeda's. It's very possible that this declaration will not result in any concrete action on the part of al-Qaeda or allied groups. But such open antagonism makes the possibility of Iranian sponsorship, or even tolerance, appear less likely.

Iran hawks and al-Qaeda-watchers have long suspected a possible connection for the understandable reason that the two groups share mutual enemies: the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Awlaki's open renunciation of Iran, which comes despite all the strategic incentives he might find for supporting Iran, underscores just how ideologically incompatible al-Qaeda is with official state sponsorship of nearly any kinda. Al-Qaeda's ideology is so extreme, and its ideological obedience so rigid, that it would be difficult for the group to tolerate, much less ally with, any regime other than the Taliban. The ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim monarchy of Saudi Arabia, after all, was one of their first targets. Even Pakistan, which has actively sponsored al-Qaeda-allied terrorist groups for years, has become a target. As the New America Foundation's Brian Fishman writes in an email, al-Qaeda's objections are fundamentally ideological.

AQ has long criticized Pakistan, but substantially increased its condemnation of the Pakistani government after the 2007 Lal Masjid incident. AQ's early explanations for turning on the Pakistani state were simple: Pakistan was helping the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, therefore it was an apostate state and should be attacked as an extension of the war in Afghanistan. Since that time, however, AQ's condemnation of Pakistan has grown more fundamental. AQ now argues that attacks on Pakistan are religiously required because the Pakistani state is endemically un-Islamic.

Cooperation can come in many forms, and it's not impossible that Iran or another country could indirectly assist al-Qaeda. Syria, for example, spent years allowing al-Qaeda-allied foreign fighters to cross their border into Iraq. But low-level tolerance for short-term tactical interests is not the same thing as a full-fledged alliance. As al-Qaeda's war against Pakistan and its denunciation of Iran demonstrate, the group is actively hostile even to states that might serve their interests. While we in the U.S. might find cause to suspect state sponsorship, al-Qaeda's all-consuming ideology often precludes cooperation with governments of any kind.

Image: Still from Anwar al-Awlaki's 23-minute video, posted on Monday.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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