Gallons of ink were poured out this week on Iran’s ties with al Qaeda in the years 2000 and 2001 as depicted in the US Sept. 11 report released on Thursday, July 22. However the Bush administration was preoccupied with an even more urgent problem: a fresh al Qaeda threat emanating once again from Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and Kurdistan reveal that the American military command in Iraq has accumulated a mass of intelligence data in recent weeks pinpointing a horde of 1,000 al Qaeda fighters massing in Marivan, an Iranian town situated in western Kurdistan near the Iranian-Iraqi frontier.
The Islamist terrorists are positioned strategically directly opposite the important Iraqi Kurdish town of Suleimaniyah, Jalal Talabani‘s power base, and northeast of the Iraqi oil town of Kirkuk. US intelligence estimates that the group is made up of Iraqi Ansar al-Islam followers who were pushed out of northern Iraq across the border into Iran, Kurdish renegades who have joined up with al Qaeda as well as followers moved in from al Qaeda bases outside the northern Iranian town of Mashhad.
In June, Iranian contractors were seen building base facilities for the al Qaeda contingent – housing, training installations and underground bunkers for weapons and ammunition, also clearing ground for shooting ranges.
Very little is known about the group’s commander. He is called “Sheikh Jamal,” but there is no information about his real identity and position in the al Qaeda hierarchy. Neither is there anything to indicate whether he or his men are connected in any way with the senior al Qaeda operations man in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.
Zarqawi is known to have been close to Ansar-al-Islam since 1997. For five years, his men trained and lived in Ansar bases in northern Iraqi Kurdistan.
Washington began by sending Tehran several feelers through various intelligence channels, including Iraqi Kurds, with requests to clarify the nature and purpose of the al Qaeda concentration near the Iraqi border. When no reply was forthcoming, the Bush administration changed its tone and posted a blunt warning demanding that Iran immediately dismantle the al Qaeda camp and remove its occupants from the border region else the United States would resort to military action.
This was Washington’s first direct military threat against a terrorist target on Iranian soil since the US invasion of Iraq.
As we write this, Tehran has still made no response, which leaves the Bush administration with a tough decision to be taken over the most appropriate military means for removing the problem
One option is a crushing missile barrage against the Marivan camp on the lines of the blanket action that destroyed Ansar’s Iraqi bases north of Halabje early on in the Iraq War. That strike was so massive that it left hundreds dead and thousands injured. Many of the survivors ran for their lives to Iran as their bases were pulverized.
Another option is aerial attack or combined air-surface missile bombardment. A raid of this kind would raise the strained relations between Washington and Tehran to a dangerously high pitch of tension.
Alternatively, the Americans might go for an undercover action by US and Iraqi Kurdish special forces who would destroy the al Qaeda base by sabotage. This type of operation is difficult and liable to be costly in the lives of assailants. Both Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Talabani and Massoud are likely to hold back from deploying their men in an operation in Iran when so much is going on in Iraq.