As Al Qaeda exploded into a fresh outburst of terror against the United States and its allies, Iran pitched in by turning loose in Afghanistan the terrorist organization's most talented and charismatic tactician. In mid-September, Tehran opened the door to Saif Al-Adel (Sword of Justice), releasing him from house arrest in Mashhad to cross into the Taliban-al Qaeda sanctuaries of North Waziristan and start directing attacks on US forces in Afghanistan. The Iranians kept him on a firm leash.
Since late 2001 or early 2002, Al-Adel has been living in Iran under loose confinement together with a large group of Al Qaeda leaders who were granted asylum when they fled Afghanistan shortly after the US-led invasion.
President Barack Obama was alerted to the long Iranian tentacle reaching into Afghanistan by CIA director Leon Panetta shortly before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused US intelligence of plotting the 9/11 atrocity in a ranting speech at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 23.
Panetta informed him that in Afghanistan, Saif Al-Adel would be serving under the Al Qods Brigades commander Gen. Qhassem Suleimani, whom Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had instructed to supply the super terrorist with all his logistical, military, intelligence and financial needs.
This piece of intelligence demonstrated inescapably, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and counterterrorism sources, that the rulers of the Islamic Republic had jumped into the Afghan fray with both feet, opening a third front against America synchronously with the subversion of US polices in Iraq and destabilization of Lebanon by another of their surrogates, Hizballah.
By re-activating Al-Adel for its ends, Tehran provided Al Qaeda's forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan with a powerful supreme commander and substantially enhanced its potential for mayhem there (as will be seen below) and further afield too in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, to which his command also extended.
Striking Americans for shared Iran-Al Qaeda interests in Afghanistan
Saif Al Adel, now 60, made his debut on the Islamist terror stage in 1981 as a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad hit team which assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in October of that year during a military parade in Cairo. Prominent in al Qaeda's hard core of the 1980s, he was admitted to Osama bin Laden's close circle during the 1990s, migrating with him from Pakistan to Sudan and back, the while building a reputation as its most outstanding, charismatic and talented tactician.
For twenty years, the Al Adel signature was prominent in the planning and execution of every Islamist terrorist operation, excepting only the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. After Mohammed Atef was killed in 2001, Al Adel was deemed his natural successor as Al Qaeda's chief of staff. His career was curtailed when a large group of high-profile Al Qaeda operatives escaped across the Afghan border to Iran ahead of American pursuit, although he had first distinguished himself in battle against them.
The next nine years he was pretty much mothballed under house arrest in a suburb of Mashhad, with the exception of one known break.
Seven years ago, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources report, Tehran put Saif Al Adel in charge of punishing Saudi rulers for backing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq by a devastating terror campaign to shake the throne.
He put together an operational command staff from the al Qaeda commanders sheltering in Iran and ran training courses at Iranian military facilities for Saudi network members. For nearly two years, Al Adel orchestrated terror strikes against US and other Western targets in the oil kingdom and government institutions, practically holding Riyadh to siege. Car bombs blew up against the Interior Ministry which housed counterterrorism headquarters and penetrated the Saudi General Intelligence compound. His rockets struck the royal palace of King Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz, Saudi monarch at the time. There were many casualties.
It took a secret Saudi-Iranian deal to terminate the violence loose in Saudi Arabia with high benefits advanced to Tehran in terms of expanding Iranian influence through the Persian Gulf and Arab lands. Only then, did Tehran tug the ace terrorist's leash and restore him to house arrest.
Petraeus reports instant, deleterious impact of Afghan battlefield
For his second comeback, the Iranians have granted Al-Adel a far broader mandate. His new mission is different from his Saudi operation in two more significant respects:
One: It is the first time in nine years he was allowed to leave Iran to command a terror project – although Tehran built into his mission a guarantee of his return. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and terrorism experts explain: The Al Qaeda commander knows that if he runs into trouble he has only one safe route of escape, to Iran. Furthermore, once he crossed the border from North Waziristan into eastern Afghanistan and took charge of the war against NATO forces, he became heavily dependent on Iranian agents in the field and supplies of Iranian weapons.
Two: Whereas the Saudi royal family was the Iranian-al Qaeda target six years ago, with the Americans in second place, their primary shared target in November 2010 is United States forces in Afghanistan.
Our Washington sources disclose that straight after Panetta briefed President Obama on the arrival of Al Qaeda's master terrorist in Afghanistan, a steady stream of reports from General David Petraeus, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, began reaching the White House and the Pentagon describing the serious setbacks Al Adel had speedily inflicted on the battlefield in the short time since he took over.
Here are some examples:
1. One of new arrival's first actions in northern Waziristan was to establish ties with Mullah Omar's operational headquarters for Afghanistan and the Taliban Shura Council based in Quetta, capital of Pakistani Baluchistan. The immediate effect was to harden the Taliban hard-liners who had turned their faces against negotiations with the Americans and the Karzai government in Kabul. He also got in touch with the rejectionist leader of the Haqqani network which supplies the Taliban with fighters as well as logistical support.
2. Next, Al Adel built a combined staff for Al Qaeda, Taliban and the Haqqani Network, to jointly engineer a fresh spate of terror attacks on US forces in Afghanistan.
3. In very short order, he had up and running dozens of small bases for training terrorists of all three organizations to harass US troops in compact strike teams of 5-10 men. The bases are managed by Chechen and Uzbek members of the al Qaeda-allied IMU – Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who act as instructors and dispatchers of the squads which plant roadside bombs and stage suicide attacks. These dispatchers must bring the death squads as close as possible to their targets.
Iran also runs direct combat missions against US from Herat
4. The new cells, already known to US commanders as the "Al Adel networks," quickly turned the Paktika Province in the southeast and the Paktia Province in the east into springboards for Taliban strikes in and around Kabul, the capital. The US forces fighting in the two provinces are under constant siege and bombardment.
5. In northwestern Afghanistan, Iran's Al Qods Brigades officers and the intelligence agents handling local terrorist networks have taken over the provinces of Herat, Badghis, Farah and Ghor and opened up a direct front against US and NATO forces, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources report. American military and intelligence sources candidly refer to this region as "under Iranian occupation" and say Tehran's grip there "is even more unyielding than its domination of southern Iraq."
When Al Adel needs more funds or war materiel, he sends his messengers directly to this address inside Afghanistan, providing him with a valuable short cut to supplies. The same Iranian forward headquarters in the northwest is also the venue for Al Qaeda-Al Qods command meetings for coordination.
6. Our military and intelligence sources report that Al Qods is also hard at work building a local Shiite militia of 15,000 armed men run from its Herat headquarters now that the town is an Iranian city to all intents and purposes. This Afghan militia is modeled on the Iraqi Mahdi Army.
When it is ready to go, Iran will have an integrated mechanism for catching US forces fighting in central and southern Afghanistan in a pincer movement – Al Qods and its cohorts striking from the east and Al Adel and his Al Qaeda units closing in from the west.
While working together in smooth tandem in Afghanistan for as long as it suits them both, it always possible that Shiite Iran and Sunni Al Qaeda will fall out at some future stage and go their separate ways – or even vie against each other.
The next article reveals how Al Adel maintains his communications links from North Waziristan with AQAP – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.