The kidnap of two Italian intelligence officers in southwestern Afghanistan on Sept 24 is looking more and more to the US and ISAF command like an al Qaeda operation rigged with the help of Iranian military intelligence agents. They are known to be active in Herat Province, where the snatch took place and in Helmand Province, to which the abductors were trying to move the victims.
The Iranians made no attempt to conceal their involvement; they were warning US and other Western forces in Afghanistan that they were fully capable of making as much trouble in the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda as they are in Iraq – should America decide to go for their nuclear, economic and strategic installations.
British and Italian elite commandos did indeed free the two kidnapped Italian soldiers Monday, Sept 24, in a swift operation which left both victims wounded and up to nine of their captors dead. But a few hours later, two Spanish soldiers of the multinational force were killed in a bomb blast in the same western province of Farah, which has been plunged in a recent upsurge of Taliban violence.
Seemingly, the planners of the abduction of the two Italian troops took the rescue in their stride and foresightedly planned their next moves in revenge.
Tehran’s warning to Washington was counterbalanced two days later by a reverse signal, an apparent gesture. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror and Iranian sources, the Revolutionary Guards Special Department for Administering al Qaeda Operatives in Iran threw one of their highest-flyers, Abu Al Walid al Masri (real name Mustafa Hamad), into jail.
Hamad is responsible for liaison between al Qaeda and the Arab world, including Iraq, and runs the machinery for secreting Arab fighters into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Tehran‘s precise relations with al Qaeda are a top state secret
In this case, Tehran was flashing a hint to Washington that it could if it wanted incarcerate any high-ranking al Qaeda operative in its care – even to throwing a spanner into the organization managing the passage of Arab fighters into the two anti-American fronts against Islamist terror, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Our sources report that Hamad was arrested with two of his sons who are married to the daughters of Seif al Adal, another member of al Qaeda’s operations department harbored in Iran. Hamad himself is wed to a sister of al Adal. Therefore, the Iranian authorities came down hard and locked up leading lights of two al Qaeda elite families, key figures in the movement’s operational planning.
The precise ins and outs of Tehran’s relations with the fugitives of the al Qaeda leadership operating out of Iran since they fled the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 are kept very dark. Even Arab intelligence services with a good inside knowledge of Iran have never got to the bottom of these intricate ties. For Iran, this high-value secret is cherished almost as tightly as its military nuclear program, as one senior Gulf intelligence source put it.
This was no metaphor. A secret cocktail of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and military intelligence spiked with al Qaeda must have a lethal punch indeed – and not to be shared.
Iran is known to have given al Qaeda’s 2001 fugitives from Afghanistan comfortable asylum, albeit under the close supervision of a special department the Iranian Revolutionary Guards established for the purpose.
It was claimed that they were never issued with documents regularizing their situation, whether temporary residence papers, traveling documents or passports. On the face of it, al Qaeda operatives are prisoners, unable to move around Iran or travel outside its borders.
However, over the years, DEBKA-net-Weekly’s counter-terror and intelligence sources picked up clues that Iran’s al Qaeda “guests” were very much on the move. In fact Tehran appears to make good use of the al Qaeda operatives it harbors when their strategic interests happen to converge.
This has happened most conspicuously in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Sinai Peninsula.
In 2003, when Tehran sought to prevent the Saudis from rescuing Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime in Iraq and, again in 2004, when Iraq’s Shiites needed help for taking control in Baghdad, the Iranians unleashed Seif al Adal to orchestrate major al Qaeda terrorist attacks in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Free rein for al Qaeda “guests” to strike Tehran’s foes
They targeted the key organs of Saudi government, intelligence headquarters and the protected family housing estates of the American and British experts running Saudi security apparatus and oil industrial installations.
Saudi rulers had to beg the clerical rulers of Tehran to call off their fundamentalist hounds. It is generally assumed by Iran and al Qaeda experts therefore that al Qaeda’s onslaught on the kingdom four years ago was halted in orders from Tehran rather than by an efficient Saudi security service.
Today, Tehran gives al Qaeda free rein to spirit its fighters into Iraq, and even invites them to return for recuperation and medical treatment, before sending them back to fight the Americans. Iran also keeps Al Qaeda well supplied with guns, explosives and the lethal armor-piercing roadside bombs which have maximized US casualties in Iraq.
In the Gulf of Suez and the Sinai Peninsula, Iran’s smuggling networks have since 2006 worked closely with al Qaeda’s operational cells in these Egyptian regions. They serve al Qaeda as underground conduits for smuggling in fighters, weapons and explosives.
Since the IRGC and Iranian intelligence control the smuggling rings in this part of the Middle East, including Iraq, it is assumed by intelligence services that none of these movements could take place without the blessing of the top echelons of Iranian government.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources believe that Tehran’s extended reach into Afghanistan would be doubly perilous for the US, because, as will be seen in the next article in this issue, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda are not the only major terrorist group rampant in that country; they operate alongside the unruly fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e-Islami organization, as well as the Taliban.
The trio joins ranks in fighting the US and NATO and covering each other’s backs, and they all benefit from Tehran’s helping hand.