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Al-Qa’ida and the Shiites

Thursday 15 January 2015

In the 1998 Embassy Bombings Court Case in the U.S. one of the key witnesses was the former al-Qa’ida member Jamal al-Fadl. Al-Fadl, a Sudanese, who had defrauded money from al-Qa’ida feared for his live and turned himself over to the U.S. He became an informant and crown witness, as such he got a new identity and was resettled with family.

Al-Fadl turned out to be one of the first members of al-Qa’ida and had insights that were unknown to most until then. One of al-Fadl’s most interesting parts in his testimony before the judge were the links between the Shiite Iranian regime and the Sunni al-Qa’ida. It turned out that in the first half of the 1990s in Sudan there was a lot of contact between the Iranians and al-Qa’ida. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps had established contacts early on, followed a few years later by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry (MOIS). Also in the same timeframe Majid Kamal, Iran’s ambassador in Lebanon was transferred to Khartoum.

There was a problem though, as al-Qa’ida’s fighters (who were being transformed at the time into the Islamic Army) were Sunnis and Iran was a revolutionary Shiite country. As Iran was willing to share knowledge and funds, the leadership of al-Qa’ida seemed to have been in favor of ‘mutual beneficial’ contacts but the ranks needed to be convinced.

Sheikh Sa’id Noumani

In al-Fadl’s testimony we read that then Sudanese strongman Hasan al-Turabi was the important mediator. Al-Qa’ida was represented by its leader Usama bin Ladin while Iran was represented by the personal representative of the Supreme Leader for the Horn of Africa Sheikh Sa’id Noumani (a Shiite Kurd). Together the three were able to agree on a compromise opening the way for al-Qa’ida to accept help in money, goods and advanced training.

Sayf al-Adl in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley

The training was partly taken care of by the IRGC in Iran but mostly was delegated to Hizballah’s external operations head Imad Mughniyah. After a deal was reached a first group of al-Qa’ida fighters, including Sayf al-Adl, went to the Beqaa Valley to receive advanced explosives training.

Although not part of al-Qa’ida at the moment, Ayman al-Zawahiri and his Egyptian Islamic Jihad had also settled in the surroundings of Khartoum. Then leader of the IRGC Quds Force, Ahmed Vahidi who later became Iran’s minister of defense, often visited Sudan and became more than acquainted with al-Zawahiri. The two were said to have become friends and it is known that al-Zawahiri had a residence in Tehran. Iran’s point man for contacts with Afghan veterans over the years has been al-Zawahiri.

Iran was very helpful in relocating many leaders of Egyptian jihadi organization. Many lived for a long time in Iran. After 9/11 key members of the al-Qa’ida leadership left Afghanistan and, instead of settling in Pakistan, went to Iran. Two of al-Qa’ida’s most important operational commanders Sayf al-Adl and Ahmed Abdullah Ahmed a.k.a. Abu Muhammad al-Masri came to Iran where they were able first to operate freely and later were placed under house arrest.

When the Coalition invaded Iraq al-Qa’ida and its loosely connected organizations like Jund al-Sham and Ansar al-Islam started to plot to fight the Western troops in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi became the leading operational jihadi leader in Iraq and after months of negotiations he gave his bayat (allegiance) to Bin Ladin and al-Qa’ida in late 2004 and changed the name of his organization to Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, (TQJBR). Soon thereafter Zarqawi ordered his troops to start attacking the Shiite holy shrines in Iraq. On 19 December 2004 TQJBR claimed the car bomb attacks in the Shiite holy cities Najaf and nearby Karbala, killing at least 60 people. The attacks on Shiite Muslims became problematic not only for Iran but also for al-Qa’ida. It is not known if Iran asked its point man al-Zawahiri to write a letter to Zarqawi or if it was an initiative by al-Zawahiri himself. In July 2005 Ayman al-Zawahiri dispatched a courier with a letter to Zarqawi.

The courier was intercepted and ended up in Guantanamo. In the letter al-Zawahiri uses two whole pages to explain why Zarqawi should stop with attacking the Shiite population in Iraq. It is not only bad publicity to attack the shrine of one of the first four Caliphs, but also unexplainable to most of the Muslim population, and as such is bad public relations. Also Zawahiri is clear that in the future there will be a clash between Sunni and Shia, but that is for the future. Zawahiri tries to convince Zarqawi to leave the attacks on ordinary Shiites and keep his eye on the prize, the American troops in Iraq.

Over the years al-Zawahiri has been very mild about Iran and has always been seen as Iran’s man within the Afghan veteran’s community, but the situation in Syria has certainly changed al-Qa’ida’s fighters in Syria perception of Shiites as they are actively engaged in attacking Hizballah units in Syria and Lebanon, and also attack embedded Iran IRGC Quds Force units in Syria.

Reading many accounts of Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan Unit fighters it is clear that they have taken on Hizballah and Iran in Syria and that many of the al-Qa’ida’s fighters in Syria want to take care of Hizballah first and then "march to Jerusalem" to destroy Israel (like al-Zawahiri states in his above mentioned letter to Zarqawi).

Although Zawahiri was always cautious in not escalating the fighting against the Iranian regime or it’s surrogates like Hizballah, the activity on the ground has taken over reality and Jabhat al-Nusra is taking on the Shiites. As leaders like Sayf al-Adl and Abu Mohammed al-Masri are still under control of the IRGC Quds Force the Iranians might still have some sway over the al-Qa’ida leadership while the lower ranks of al-Qa’ida are exchanging fire with Shiite militias in Syria on a daily basis.

In the near future al-Qa’ida might take on Hizballah in its own backyard in full force and they will increase the price for Iran’s IRGC Quds Force in Syria.

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