August 13, 2022

Is Iran Grooming Al Qaeda as its New Proxy in Afghanistan?

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by Farhad Rezaei, Senior Research Fellow

If Iran can turn Al Qaeda Central into one of its proxies, efforts to destabilize Afghanistan would follow.

On August 1, 2022, an American drone strike in Kabul killed Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of Al Qaeda Central. News stories noted that Zawahiri went into hiding in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan after Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002. This narrative omits the fact that Zawahiri spent a considerable time in Iran, where his heir apparent, Saif al Adel, still lives. Having harbored Zawahiri and Adel, the Islamist regime in Tehran stands to increase its influence among the broadly dispersed units of the terror group, which still subscribe to Osama bin Laden’s vision of waging war on the West.

Iran’s connection with Al Qaeda dates to bin Laden’s arrival in Sudan in 1991, where the Saudi terror entrepreneur set up camps to house and train Arab jihadists returning from the Soviet-Afghan war. Although bin Laden was a Sunni Salafist, Ahmed Vahidi, the then head of Quds Force (QF), the foreign operations division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was keen to enlist him to fight against Saudi Arabia and the West. The IRGC-QF helped run training camps in Sudan, where Egyptian jihadists affiliated with Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) had a strong presence. Lebanese Hezbollah was also involved in training bin Laden’s group in a dedicated camp in the Beqaa Valley. Vahidi was rewarded when in 1993, Al Qaeda fighters participated in the battle of Mogadishu against the American-led peace force. After suffering casualties, the Clinton administration withdrew, ending active American involvement in Africa.