A little-noticed map published in the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community in early 2019 identified Iran as a place where al-Qaeda “affiliates, elements, or networks” operate.
The Iran-al-Qaeda relationship commanded the attention of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global body devoted to setting standards to combat illicit finance, which discussed whether Iran has ceased its financial support for terrorism at a plenary session commencing in Paris on February 17.
In October 2018, FATF stated that Iran had failed to address nine of the ten items on its action plan, including ratifying and implementing two United Nations conventions, fully criminalizing terrorist financing with no exemptions, identifying and freezing terrorist assets in line with the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions, and ensuring an adequate and enforceable customer due diligence regime.
US Assistant Treasury Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea, who is serving a one-year term as chair of FATF, had said after the October meeting, “We expect that [Iran] will have adopted all of these measures by February. If by February 2019 Iran has not yet done so, then we will take further steps.”
Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda began in the early 1990s, when their leaders, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, met in Sudan and reached an “informal agreement to cooperate.” Iran then provided al-Qaeda with the training, material and inspiration for attacks, including the bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Together, these attacks killed 224 of people, including 12 Americans.
Senior al-Qaeda operatives have also coordinated attacks from inside Iran, where leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran’s praetorians, have provided them with travel documents and safe haven. In Iran, Osama bin Laden’s son, Sa’ad bin Laden, allegedly planned attacks in Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in 2002-2003 that together killed more than 50 people, including 20 Europeans.
Such cooperation continues today. The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism has noted, beginning in 2012 during the Obama administration and continuing through the most recent report, that “Iran has allowed [al-Qaeda] facilitators to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009, enabling [al-Qaeda] to move funds and fighters to South Asia and Syria.”
Likewise, in July 2018, the United Nations Security Council released a report highlighting al-Qaeda’s role in Iran. Based on intelligence from UN member states, the report concludes that al-Qaeda leaders in Iran “have grown more prominent, working with [current al-Qaeda leader] Aiman al-Zawahiri and projecting his authority more effectively than he could previously.”
“Member States,” the UN wrote, “report that Aiman al-Zawahiri, partly through the agency of senior Al-Qaida leadership figures based in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Abu Muhammad Al-Masri and Sayf Al-Adl, has been able to exert influence on the situation in north-western Syrian Arab Republic.”
FATF member states must be concerned not only with Iran’s laws regarding terror finance, but also its aiding and abetting of terrorist activities. FATF should keep Iran on its blacklist and reinstate countermeasures against Tehran to stymie Iran’s terrorist activities and protect the global financial system.