National Public Radio recently broadcast a piece, see here, asserting that Seif al-Adel, a likely candidate to head or be deputy leader of al-Qaida, owes his life to the Islamic Republic of Iran. This story is part of a small wave of “news reports” (for another example, see here) claiming extensive ties between Tehran and senior al Qaida figures. According to NPR,
“Rick Nelson, who tracks al-Qa’ida for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says if al-Adel does eventually become al-Qa’ida‘s new leader, he owes it all to Iran. ‘Being in Iran for a long period of time, through most of the U.S. war against al-Qa’ida, preserved his life in many ways,’ Nelson says. ‘And now it has put him in position to possibly take over the organization.’ In other words, because al-Adel was in Iran, the U.S. couldn’t target him for the past nine years.”
NPR also reports that, “according to U.S. officials familiar with the case”, in 2010 Tehran swapped Seif al-Adel for an Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped by al-Qa’ida in Pakistan two years previously—thereby putting him back on the street and, perhaps, in line to succeed Osama bin Laden.
The poor quality of the mainstream media’s reporting on Iran’s connections to al-Qa’ida is deeply reminiscent of its profoundly flawed reporting about Iraqi ties to al-Qa’ida in the lead-up to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Today, mainstream reporting on Tehran’s posture toward al-Qa’ida reflects a distorted but by-now deeply ingrained view of what happened during U.S.-Iranian official talks about al-Qa’ida and Afghanistan from 2001-2003—talks in which Hillary was directly involved.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, perhaps as many as 300 Taliban and al-Qa’ida members fled Afghanistan for Iran. By comparison, several thousand Taliban and al-Qa’ida members fled Afghanistan for Pakistan. But, in contrast to Pakistan, Iran apprehended more than 200 such individuals, documenting this to the United Nations in February 2002, including by providing copies of each person’s passport. Moreover, Iran repatriated a large percentage of these individuals to their countries of origin—to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.
But Iran informed us directly that it could not repatriate all of the individuals it detained. For example, the Islamic Republic had no diplomatic relations with Egypt—where Seif al-Adel is from—and Iranian diplomats told Hillary and her colleagues that Tehran was not able to repatriate al-Qa’ida operatives of Egyptian origin to Egypt.
They also said that Osama bin Ladin’s son, Saad, had tried to enter Iran and that Iranian security forces had turned him away. However, these Iranian diplomats expressed concern that, if Saad bin Ladin managed to penetrate the porous Iranian-Afghan border and enter Iranian territory—as he apparently did in 2003, after the Bush Administration had unilaterally cut off the talks with Iran regarding Afghanistan and al-Qa’ida—Tehran would encounter difficulty repatriating him to Saudi Arabia, which had already made clear it would not take either Saad bin Ladin or his father.
Instead of working to establish a framework within which Tehran could have made al-Qa’ida operatives detained in Iran available to U.S. interrogators—as our Iranian interlocutors requested—the Bush Administration insisted that Iran detain and deport all the al-Qa’ida figures we believed might be in Iran, without any assistance from or reciprocal understandings with the United States. (From the Bush Administration’s perspective, this was meant to be a “test” of Iranian intentions.)
Later, in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration told the Iranians that the mojahedin-e khalq (MEK), an Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group that the United States had for years identified as a foreign terrorist organization, would be targeted as an extension of Saddam’s military apparatus. However, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the Pentagon instead granted the MEK special protected status, raising concerns in Tehran that Washington wanted to use the MEK as part of a campaign to bring down the Islamic Republic. At that point, the Iranians began to view the al-Qa’ida operatives in its custody as a potential bargaining chip to use with Washington regarding the MEK.
In response to the Bush Administration’s unconditional demands that Tehran turn over al-Qa’ida operatives we believed to be on Iranian soil, the Iranians offered a deal: to exchange the remaining al-Qa’ida figures they had detained for MEK cadres in Iraq. To facilitate such an exchange, the Iranians offered to release all low- and mid-level MEK figures, to allow the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to monitor the treatment of any high-level MEK figures detained in Iran (which would have established the precedent of having the ICRC in Iran’s prisons), and to forego application of the death penalty to any high-level MEK figures found guilty of crimes by Iranian courts.
In the end, it was the Bush Administration, not Iran, that rebuffed a deal which would have given us access to important al-Qa’ida operatives—including, possibly, Seif al-Adel. We do not know whether the story that the Islamic Republic ultimately cut a deal with al-Qa’ida to trade Seif al-Adel for a kidnapped Iranian diplomat is true. However, if it is true, it strongly suggests that Tehran was absolutely on the level when it offered to swap al-Qa’ida detainees for MEK figures in Iraq. But Washington was too swept up in its own imperial hubris to make the deal. And that’s the real reason Seif al-Adel may become the next Osama bin Laden.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett