August 23, 2022

Iran and al Qaeda: an Unexpected Axis

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by Farhad Rezaei, Senior Research Fellow

Ecumenical Islamist Terror against the West

Iran’s high-order, continuous and intense relationship with terror groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hashd Shaabi, and Houthis is well-known. Less known is the link between Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and al Qaeda, the terror group that carried out the catastrophic 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Studies of the proxies favor a binary approach to the linkage and assume that a relation between the handler and the proxy exists or does not exist. Such assumptions ignore that the relations between state sponsors and terror groups are spectral, ranging from high-end, full cooperation to low-end collaboration limited to specific goals. In the case of Iran, a Shiite state, the common assumption was that the IRGC-QF does not maintain ties to Sunni jihadi groups. Ignoring such low-end ties had overlooked Iran’s connection with al Qaeda and its senior leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri (al Qaeda-Central), Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s (al Qaeda in Iraq), and several other senior commanders of the terror group.

The IRGC-QF connection with al Qaeda was essentially low-order, intermittent, patchy, opportunistic, and born out of a common goal of fighting the United States in the Middle East and beyond. However, the connection was hardly recognized until the discovery of…