The last Islamic State redoubts have been falling in quick succession in recent weeks, with the U.S.-backed coalition taking the caliphate’s self-declared capital of Raqqa last month, and then Syrian forces reclaiming the strategic oil city of Deir al-Zour. But while the group’s experiment in a statehood built on rape, slavery, and execution nears its end, an older terror front has been quietly reconstituting itself. Against all odds, and despite the most costly counter-terrorism campaign ever waged by the West, al-Qaeda has flourished—its comeback assisted by a remarkable pact with Iran.
President Trump recently pointed to this relationship to justify de-certifying the Iran nuclear deal. Facing overwhelming European opposition to that move, CIA director Mike Pompeo suggested the al-Qaeda-Iran pact had been an “open secret” during the Obama administration, which had failed to act. Then last week, the CIA declassified a new trove of documents from the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This document dump, which will take years to sort through and analyze, appeared to confirm the relationship—detailing among other things how Hamza, Osama bin Laden’s son, sheltered in Iran and even got married there; and how, according to one 19-page document, negotiations between al-Qaeda and the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran touched on funding and arming the Sunni terror outfit so it could strike at American targets.
In the days since, several commentators, including in these pages, have dismissed these purported connections as exaggerated, pushed by the White House and its allies to justify the administration’s hostile posture toward Iran. But important new evidence, including interviews with senior al-Qaeda members and Osama bin Laden’s family, gathered by the authors over the past five years, tells a surprising history of the post-9/11 epoch, and it’s one that severely undercuts the conventional view.
Our research reveals that al-Qaeda and covert agents acting for the Iranian deep state first attempted to broker an unlikely agreement more than two decades back, after Saddam Hussein flat-out rejected al-Qaeda’s request for military assistance. The pact then flourished under the George W. Bush administration, when a back-channel from the White House to Tehran, running from 2001 to 2003, discussed it frequently. Former State Department and White House officials in on these talks maintain that the vice president’s office suggested the White House do nothing, worrying that the administration would undermine the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq—which was being underwritten by claims he sponsored al-Qaeda and concealed weapons of mass destruction. Finally, according to these same sources, the vice president’s office also told U.S. envoys working on Iran and Afghanistan that once regime change had succeeded in Iraq, Tehran was next.
A starting point for al-Qaeda’s struggle to mend itself after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan came on November 12, 2001, when Osama bin Laden decided to head to his cave complex in Tora Bora. According to family members, bin Laden told his wives at the farewell that he wanted a different life for the children. “Please discourage them from joining this jihad,” he told his third wife Seham, a Saudi schoolteacher, in a conversation some of his children overheard and described to us. As bin Laden took off for the caves, and most of his family was smuggled into Pakistan, one of al-Qaeda’s most important officials headed for Iran. On December 19, 2001, Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed, a whip-thin Islamic scholar from Mauritania, boarded a bus in Quetta, in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, heading for Taftan, the official border crossing into Iran. He told the story to us over many lengthy meetings, explaining how he travelled on counterfeit documents as “Dr. Abdullah,” a “medic, treating refugees from the Afghan war,” carrying a suitcase filled with U.S. dollars, in a bus with a wanted poster for bin Laden pasted to the windscreen.
At Osama bin Laden’s side for a decade prior to 2001, Mahfouz had become a pivotal figure on al-Qaeda’s leadership council and the head of its sharia (legal) committee. When he began his journey to Taftan, he was on the UN Security Council’s sanctions list, and was wanted by the FBI for questioning about his involvement in managing the logistics for the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa. The CIA had raided his home in Sudan in 1998, investigating the Mauritanian’s role in counterfeiting and money laundering, as well as his attempt to consolidate bin Laden’s assets in Khartoum to send to Afghanistan. He had fled only moments before the raid, and he’d been on the run ever since. Mahfouz hoped, as his bus headed for the Iranian border, to persuade Iranian agents to offer a more permanent sanctuary to al-Qaeda’s leaders and bin Laden’s family.
Geography, politics, and history lay behind a seemingly bizarre decision by an outlawed Sunni outfit to attempt to partner with a recalcitrant Shia power. Iran shared a common border with Baluchistan in Pakistan, close to where many fighters and bin Laden family members were hiding. Mahfouz had also been to the Persian Gulf before, sent there by bin Laden in 1995 to win military support for al-Qaeda. Mahfouz had first visited Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had rejected his request; however, in Iran, the Quds Force—a covert unit within the Revolutionary Guards responsible for clandestine foreign policy—was open to it, by Mahfouz’s account. On the table was an offer of advanced military training, with al-Qaeda fighters invited in 1995 to attend a camp run by Hezbollah and sponsored by the Iranian Quds force in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Trainers there were researching how to manufacture “shaped charges”—powerful IEDs that could pierce armor plating, and would later cause havoc among U.S. forces in Iraq.
There is no evidence that this 1995 pact came to anything. But a door was opened, and on December 20, 2001 when Mahfouz reached the Taftan border crossing and made a dash into Iran, he was greeted on the Iranian side by agents from the Ansar ul-Mahdi Corps, an elite cell within the Quds Force; he eventually won an audience in Tehran with its commander, General Qassem Soleimani. However, Iran was not yet fully committed to cooperating. According to senior U.S officials then working on South Asia and Afghanistan for the State Department and the White House, Iran’s Foreign Ministry, fearful that the U.S. would turn its military attentions to Iran after it finished the invasion of Iraq for which it was then building international support, reached out to the Americans.
At international conferences in Germany, Geneva, and Tokyo between December 2001 and April 2003, convened to tackle reconstruction in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Iranian officials proposed to their U.S. counterparts certain incentives in exchange for normalizing relations. Early on, the Quds force was gambling that other al-Qaeda leaders would follow Mahfouz and seek shelter in Iran, and on that basis Iranian officials proposed potentially offering them to the Americans as their end of the deal. U.S. officials involved in these talks recalled that the Bush administration flat-out declined, the president lumping Iran in with the so-called “axis of evil” powers in his State of the Union address in January 2002.
According to Mahfouz and many others in al-Qaeda, in addition to members of Osama’s family and former U.S. government officials, the Quds Force now green-lit the sanctuary plan. The Mauritanian contacted the remnants of al-Qaeda’s council in Baluchistan, Pakistan. The first to be sent over were al-Qaeda wives and daughters, along with hundreds of low-level volunteers who were escorted to Tehran. The women were put up at the four-star Howeyzeh Hotel on Taleqani Street. Husbands and unmarried fighters stayed across the road at the Amir Hotel. From there, the Quds Force gave them false travel documents that disguised them as Iraqi Shia refugees and flew them out to other countries, where they either settled or went on to join other conflicts.
The next wave came early in the summer of 2002, when high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders arrived in Iran intending to stay and galvanize the outfit. They were marshaled by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug who would form al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner to ISIS. The first to come was Saif al-Adel. A former colonel in the Egyptian Special Forces, he traveled under the pseudonym Ibrahim. He was accompanied by fellow Egyptian and al-Qaeda council member Abu Mohammed al-Masri—whose papers identified him as Daoud Shirizi—a former professional soccer player who was also wanted by the FBI for involvement in the 1998 embassy attacks. Joining them was Abu Musab al-Suri, one of the most important strategic voices in the movement. Immediately, a re-formed al-Qaeda military council planned its first attack from within Iran, according to Mahfouz, striking three residential compounds in Saudi Arabia, killing more than 35 people (including nine Americans) in 2003.
The Mauritanian, certain the pact was holding, now called for bin Laden’s family. One of the wives and many of the children, Hamza included, arrived in Iran in mid-2002, initially settling in a fortified farmhouse, east of Zabol, an Iranian border town mainly inhabited by Arab nationals, where Arabic was the lingua franca. Hamza, unable to get used to his new life, wrote to bin Laden. “Oh father! Where is the escape and when will we have a home? Oh father! I see spheres of danger everywhere I look,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter we saw. By mid-2003, the Quds Force had gathered Hamza, his half brothers and sisters, their mothers, and the al-Qaeda military and religious councils in Iran and escorted them to a heavily guarded training center in one of the former Shah’s palaces in northern Tehran. Only Zarqawi and the fighters from Zarqar, his hometown, did not come. The Quds Force had offered them funding and weapons, transporting them, via Kurdistan, to Baghdad, where they began targeting U.S. troops.
But even at that point, the future was not at all certain for al-Qaeda’s clerical and military leaders in Iran, nor for bin Laden’s family. The Quds Force continued offering to hand over all of them to the U.S at discreet meetings in Switzerland that took place up until April 2003. The White House continued to decline.
By 2006, the outfit had rebounded, and bin Laden’s family decided to try to reach him, wherever he was hiding in Pakistan, against the wishes of the Iranians. Hamza suggested he go first but was vetoed as too fragile, and emotional. At 19, he “would never survive on his own,” his mother told him, according to Mahfouz and half siblings of Hamza we interviewed. Hamza’s wife, Asma, had just given birth to a daughter. Instead, Hamza’s half-brother Saad, who was autistic, made a disastrous attempt, becoming marooned in Waziristan, Pakistan, where he was killed in a drone strike in 2009. Next to try was Iman, the daughter of Osama bin Laden and Najwa, his first wife. Iman, we learned, was tired of listening to the men debate. While she was on an escorted visit to a Tehran supermarket, she slipped her Quds Force guard, grabbed Iranian clothes and a plastic children’s doll and, disguising herself as a nursing mother, ran. Having decided that finding her father was too dangerous, she eventually fled to Syria, where her mother was living.
Finally, in 2010, the Quds Force, which had come under pressure from al-Qaeda to allow all of bin Laden’s family to leave Tehran, permitted Hamza and his mother to quit the base in Tehran. It had not been a straightforward negotiation—al-Qaeda in Pakistan resorted to kidnapping an Iranian diplomat there to force Tehran to make up its mind in the outfit’s favor. Hamza and his mother had requested that the Quds Force guide them to Qatar, where Hamza intended to study. Instead the Quds Force insisted they cross into Pakistan. Hamza’s mother eventually arrived at Abbottabad in February 2011, while Hamza hid in the Pakistani tribal areas, from where he wrote to his father again. He and his “pious wife” Maryam now had two children, the second “a son who I gave your name,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter we saw. Finally, in April 2011, after many weeks of deliberations, Hamza was cleared by al-Qaeda’s military chief in Waziristan to begin a journey to Abbottabad, just days before the SEAL team raided. He wrote to his mother first, worrying: “Dear Mother, explain what I can take. … You know how important books are to me. Can I take them or not?” A few days later came her curt reply: “It is preferable to travel light.”
Hamza would remain with his father for a little over 12 hours. Bin Laden, spooked, forced him to leave, only for the SEAL team to arrive shortly afterward. A contingent of al-Qaeda’s clerical and military leaders remained in Iran until April 2012, when Mahfouz also slipped away from his Quds Force guard, and eventually flew home to Mauritania. Most of the outfit’s military council, a core group of five led by the Egyptian Saif al Adel, remained in Iran until 2015. Then the Quds Force transported some to Syria to join the fight against the Islamic State. Leading this cell was Abu al-Khayr al-Masri and Abu Mohammed al-Masri—the latter Hamza’s father-in-law, described by the U.S. intelligence community as the “most experienced and capable operational planner not in U.S. or allied custody.” With them came Jordanian fighters with connections to Zarqar, including one of Zarqawi’s most important deputies—the plan being for this group to contact ISIS fighters and leaders, encouraging a split.
Finally, in August 2015, with al-Qaeda needing a propaganda victory amid the ascent of ISIS, Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri found a job for Hamza, who made the first of what are now seven audio statements. A 26-year-old who had still never fired a gun was used as a billboard, al-Qaeda clerics and members of his family say. Zawahiri, though, remained in charge, hiding in Pakistan, while military operations were led by Saif al Adel, who the Quds Force moved into a safe house in District 9, Tehran. Saif was now alone. In 2016, his pregnant wife, Asma, had been allowed to leave for Doha, where she stayed with bin Laden family members deported from Pakistan. Shortly after landing, she lost her baby and filed for divorce, unable to countenance the prospect of another epoch of jihad—which was precisely what al-Qaeda was planning.
Only 400 strong when the Twin Towers fell, damaged by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and then later overshadowed by ISIS, al-Qaeda now, with its leadership split between Iran, Pakistan, and Syria, has quietly rebuilt itself to the point of being able to call on tens of thousands of foot soldiers. Melding with anti-Assad forces, reducing its volubility, and toning down the barbarity associated with it during the Zarqawi years, a reformed al-Qaeda found in Hezbollah and the Quds Force a model for how it might now evolve.