Senior al Qaeda Operative ‘Back on the Street’ in Iran
Al Suri’s role as al Qaeda’s point man inside Iran was first exposed by the US Treasury and State Departments in 2011. In December of that year, the US government began offering a $10 million reward for information leading to al Suri’s capture.
After the US government’s revelations, the Iranian government detained al Suri. This led al Qaeda to replace him with another seasoned terrorist, Muhsin al Fadhli, who took over as leader of the Iran-based network.
But now, according to US government officials who spoke with Al Jazeera, al Suri is back in the game and even facilitating al Qaeda’s operations inside Syria.
“As head al Qaeda facilitator in Iran, al Suri is responsible for overseeing al Qaeda efforts to transfer experienced operatives and leaders from Pakistan to Syria, organizing and maintaining routes by which new recruits can travel to Syria via Turkey and assisting in the movement of al Qaeda external operatives to the West,” an unnamed State Department official told Al Jazeera.
A US Treasury Department official confirmed the revelation, according to Al Jazeera. “He’s an al Qaeda operative, Al Nusrah is an al Qaeda affiliate, and we know he’s moving money and extremists into Syria for al Qaeda elements there, so I think you can draw that conclusion,” the Treasury official said.
Al Suri operates under an agreement that was struck between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda years ago. He first began working inside Iran in 2005.
It is not clear why the Iranian government would allow al Suri to act as a facilitator for al Qaeda’s operations inside Syria. Al Qaeda and Iran are on opposite sides of the Syrian war.
Iran is backing Bashar al Assad’s regime, a longtime ally of the mullahs, in the bloody sectarian conflict. Al Qaeda’s two official branches, including the Al Nusrah Front, as well as al Qaeda’s allies, are on the other side, battling Iranian operatives, Assad’s forces and proxies. The emir of Al Nusrah, Abu Muhammad al Julani, has verbally attacked Iran and Shiites in general. Other senior al Qaeda jihadists have called for attacks against Shiite-led governments in response to the Syrian conflict. And an al Qaeda-linked group has claimed responsibility for an attack against the Iranian embassy in Lebanon.
The Iranian regime, however, has mastered duplicity and may have unknown reasons for keeping tabs on al Qaeda’s operations. Al Qaeda has also been willing to work with Iran on multiple occasions since the early 1990s, despite the two sides’ fundamentally different theologies and sometime vehement disagreements.
Al Qaeda’s Iran-based network a “core pipeline”
The US government has repeatedly exposed al Qaeda’s Iran-based network in a series of terrorist designations and other official filings. And in May 2013, the State Department noted that this network was tied to al Qaeda’s operations inside Syria.
In July 2011, the US Treasury Department designated several members of the network, saying it was headed by al Suri and operates “under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.”
Several months later, in December 2011, the State and Treasury Departments announced a $10 million reward for information concerning al Suri’s whereabouts. “Al Suri’s network has served as a financial conduit, collecting funds from donors throughout the Gulf and moving those funds via Iran to al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the Treasury Department’s Assistant Director of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Eytan Fisch, said at the time. “Al Suri’s network also serves as the core pipeline for al Qaeda to funnel operatives and facilitators from the Middle East to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Fisch added.
In February 2012, the Treasury Department designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) as a terrorist sponsoring entity for, among other things, supporting al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq’s operations.
After Yasin al Suri was replaced, at least temporarily, as the head of al Qaeda’s network in Iran, the Treasury Department revealed that his replacement was a Kuwaiti named Muhsin al Fadhli. In an October 2012 terrorist designation, Treasury also said that al Fadhli’s deputy is Adel Radi Saker al Wahabi al Harbi, a Saudi who is on the kingdom’s most-wanted list.
In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2012, the State Department said: “Iran allowed AQ facilitators Muhsin al Fadhli and Adel Radi Saqr al Wahabi al Harbi to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and to Syria.”
The Iran-based network moves al Qaeda “external operatives to the West”
The State Department official quoted by Al Jazeera says that al Suri’s network assists “in the movement of al Qaeda external operatives to the West.” The Long War Journal has documented two cases in recent years in which a terrorist plot in the West has been tied to al Suri’s Iran-based operations.
Some of the al Qaeda terrorists selected to take part in a 2010 plot against European cities used al Suri’s facilitation network to transit to and from northern Pakistan. The plot, which would have involved Mumbai-style attacks, was thwarted, and afterward leaders of the cell were harbored inside Iran for a time.
In April 2013, Canadian authorities arrested two terrorist suspects who were allegedly plotting to derail a train running from the US into Canada. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner James Malizia said that the pair received “support from al Qaeda elements located in Iran” in the form of “direction and guidance.” The al Qaeda operatives who supported the operation are reportedly based in the Iranian city of Zahedan, which is one of the main hubs for al Suri and his operatives.
Egyptian officials have alleged that still another plot, targeting the US Embassy in Cairo and other Western interests, involved al Qaeda’s Iran-based network. The putative May 2013 plot was tied to a terrorist known as Dawood al Assadi, which is one of the aliases used by Muhsin al Fadhli. Egyptian officials also said that members of the terrorist cell responsible for the plot were in contact with Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, a longtime subordinate to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, as well as with other members of Jamal’s network.
Al Qaeda’s Iran-based network continues to operate despite the war in Syria.
And now, according to Al Jazeera’s sources in the US government, the head of that network is operational once again.
Thomas Joscelyn is a columnist for “The Long War Journal”, a Project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
January 31, 2014
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