Follow us on social

Pompeo floats dubious claim that Iran is helping al-Qaida

Pompeo floats dubious claim that Iran is helping al-Qaida

Trump officials are doing all they can to prevent the incoming Biden team's diplomacy with Iran — or worse.

Reporting | Middle East

Mike Pompeo on Tuesday accused Iran of acting as al-Qaida’s “new home base,” the outgoing secretary of state’s latest attempt to advance a dubious claim that could justify a military strike against Iran or sabotage President-elect Joe Biden’s diplomatic efforts.

The administration has tried several times to tie Iran to al-Qaida, a claim that has been called politicized or an outright lie. Pompeo made the latest allegation with less than two weeks left in office, and did not offer any new evidence to back it up.

“It seems clear to me that the timing of the Iran-[al-Qaida] revelations, to the extent you want to label them revelations, is politics,” Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, told Responsible Statecraft in an email. “This appears to be an attempt to hamstring the Biden administration's ability to negotiate with Iran.”

Clarke, who has testified to Congress on terrorism and worked as an analyst for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, says that “al-Qaeda has benefited from its relationship with Iran…but to describe Iran as a ‘new home base’ doesn't seem accurate to me.”

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif called Pompeo’s speech “warmongering lies” in a Twitter post.

Members of al-Qaida were previously known to be living in Iran. Hundreds of militants fled in 2001 from Afghanistan to Iran, where they were detained and closely watched by authorities.

Pompeo claimed on Tuesday that Iran has decided to grant these militants “freedom of movement,” and is even providing the group with “logistical support.” He charged that Iranian authorities made a 2015 deal with al-Qaida, which “has centralized its leadership” in Tehran. 

The secretary of state also confirmed earlier reports that al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was assassinated in the Iranian capital last summer.

Experts were skeptical.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if [al-Qaida] continues to maintain a clandestine presence in Iran,” says Nelly Lahoud, a senior fellow at New America. “I would be very surprised if it is collaborating with Iran to plot terrorist attacks.”

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, noted that the Trump administration “lies all the time” about Iran and is currently engaged in “a campaign to make it harder for Biden…to return to diplomacy with Iran.”

Tuesday’s speech was not the first time the Trump administration has attempted to tie Iran to al-Qaeda.

In 2017, then-CIA director Pompeo released a trove of documents captured from al-Qaida’s late leader Osama bin Laden. He gave an advance copy to the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies which claimed that there “new details concerning al-Qaeda’s  relationship with Iran.”

But Lahoud, who studied the same documents, found just the opposite. She published a study in 2018 showing that al-Qaida “views Iran as a hostile entity,” and points out that members of the group were mistreated and even died in Iranian custody.

U.S. officials gave a series of closed-door briefings on Iran’s alleged connection to al-Qaida in mid-2019, as the Trump administration escalated economic sanctions against Iran and launched a military buildup in the region.

Members of Congress worried that the administration was trying to justify military action against Iran without asking Congress by piggybacking on the war against al-Qaida.

Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst, told the New York Times that national security experts “should be looking at any talk of ties between senior Iranian leaders and Al Qaeda with a real skeptical eye.”

The Trump administration again attempted to tie Iran to al-Qaida and its Afghan allies after assassinating Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. U.S. military intelligence officials pushed back on some of the claims in a report published two months later.

The administration has been less outspoken about other U.S. allies’ relationship with al-Qaida.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have fought alongside al-Qaida — even transferring U.S.-made weapons to al-Qaida’s affiliates — as part of their war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Pompeo added the Houthi movement, which is bitterly opposed to al-Qaida, to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups on Monday.

Turkey has also backed al-Qaida’s affiliates against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. Former special envoy Brett McGurk has referred to the Turkish-protected zone in Idlib as “the largest al-Qaida safe haven since 9/11,” and the group’s senior members were publicly welcomed to the Turkish-occupied region of Afrin as recently as last month.

“Some of the [Turkish-backed Syrian rebel] factions do not even try to hide their sympathy for [al-Qaida], which is why so many people fled during the [October 2019] operation,” Wilson Center fellow Amy Austin Holmes, who visited Syria in September. told Responsible Statecraft in a text message. “I have personally spoken to Yezidis, Syriac Christians, Kurds and Arabs who fled from Ras al-Ayn in October 2019 and are still unable to return to their homes. None of them want to live under extremists.”

The Trump administration has supported both the Turkish-led intervention in Syria and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Still, al-Qaida’s main “center of gravity remains the [Afghanistan-Pakistan] border,” Clarke notes.

“I think we should all be wary of politics influencing intelligence, especially after the 2003 U.S. Iraq invasion,” he added.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ( vasilis asvestas/Shutterstock)|U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers keynote remarks at United Against Nuclear Iran’s 2019 Iran Summit, at the Palace Hotel, in New York City, New York on September 25, 2019. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha]
Reporting | Middle East
Diplomacy Watch: A peace summit without Russia
Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine risks losing the war — and the peace

Diplomacy Watch: How close were Russia and Ukraine to a deal in 2022?


The RAND corporation’s Samuel Charap and Johns Hopkins University professor Sergey Radchenko published a detailed timeline and analysis of the talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators just after the Russian invasion in February 2022 that could have brought the war to an end just weeks after it had begun.

Much of the piece confirms or elucidates parts of the narrative that had previously been reported. In the spring of 2022, the two sides appeared relatively close to a deal, one that, according to the authors, would “have ended the war and provided Ukraine with multilateral security guarantees, paving the way to its permanent neutrality and, down the road, its membership in the EU.”

keep readingShow less
Blinken ignores State recommendation to sanction Israeli units: Report
L-R: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after their meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on Monday, January 30, 2023. DEBBIE HILL/Pool via REUTERS

Blinken ignores State recommendation to sanction Israeli units: Report


State Department leadership is ignoring a recommendation from an internal panel to stop giving weapons to several Israeli military and police units due to credible allegations of serious human rights abuses, according to a major new report from ProPublica.

The alleged violations, which occurred before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, include extrajudicial killings, sexual assault of a detainee, and leaving an elderly Palestinian man to die after handcuffing and gagging him. Secretary of State Antony Blinken received the recommendation in December but has yet to take action to prevent the units involved from receiving American weapons.

keep readingShow less
What will NATO do with its giant Arctic footprint?

US Army Special Forces soldiers assigned to 10th Special Forces Group move out on skis into the Swedish Arctic on 23 February 2022. (NATO)

What will NATO do with its giant Arctic footprint?

Global Crises

As NATO commemorated its 75th anniversary this month, the direction of the alliance’s posture toward the Arctic region has been called into question.

The recent accession of Sweden means that seven of eight of the world’s Arctic nations fall under NATO’s security umbrella, with Russia being the outlier. While some analysts see the addition of Sweden and Finland as an opportunity for NATO to “increase its footprint” and “deter Russia,” the last thing the alliance needs is to scour for another avenue for confrontation with Russia.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis