Late last week, the State Department announced a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, aka Yasin al-Suri -- Yasin the Syrian. Serious students of terrorism and counterterrorism saw this as big news for two reasons.
The first is tactical: Never before has a reward been offered for the capture of a terrorist financier. But the moneymen are vital links in the terrorist chain so targeting them makes sense. Also unusual is the amount: Only Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has been trying to fill Osama bin Laden's shoes at al Qaida's main office, commands a larger bounty ($25 million).
The second reason is strategic: al-Suri is an al Qaida operative who, since 2005, has been living in Iran, working in collaboration with the theocratic regime, according to U.S. officials. "Under an agreement between al Qaida and the Government of Iran, Yasin al-Suri has helped move money and recruits through Iran to al Qaida leaders in neighboring countries in the region," Robert Hartung, State Department assistant director for threat investigations and analysis, told reporters. "He is a dedicated terrorist working in support of al Qaida with the support of the Government of Iran, which the Department of State has designated a state sponsor of terrorism."
Those are stunning words. Within the foreign policy establishment the prevailing orthodoxy has long maintained that Iran's Shia rulers despise the Sunnis of al-Qaida; that the enmity is mutual; and that operational cooperation between them is therefore inconceivable. It also has been a longstanding article of faith that the terrorist groups threatening America are "non-state" actors, groups limited in their capabilities because they do not enjoy the support of national rulers with all the resources those rulers can bring to the table.
Dissenting from that paradigm have been such analysts as Michael Ledeen and Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard.
They have argued that Iran and al Qaida collaborate despite theological and ideological differences; that many, if not most, of the Islamist groups waging war against the West are linked like strands of a spider's web; and that Iran is the "terrorist master."
For U.S. government spokesmen to talk of Iran working hand-in-bloody-glove with Al Qaida is a little like Inquisitors in 1663 saying to Galileo: "OK, Gal, maybe you're right. Maybe the Earth does move around the sun after all."
Ties between Iran and al-Qaida trace back to the early 1990s when Hasan Al-Turabi, the leader of Sudan's National Islamic Front, made it his mission to encourage Sunni-Shia reconciliation. Al-Turabi facilitated a series of meeting between bin Laden, then living in Khartoum, and envoys from Tehran. It did not take long for Iran and al-Qaida to reach an informal agreement: Iran would provide training, intelligence and explosives. Al-Qaida would make good use of these services and products against common enemies.
The 9/11 Commission Report has a section titled: "Assistance from Hezbollah and Iran to Al Qaida." It notes that what began in Sudan continued: "Intelligence indicates the persistence of contacts between Iranian security officials and senior Al-Qaida figures after Bin Laden's return to Afghanistan... Iran made a concerted effort to strengthen relations with Al Qaida after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole ..."
The report also found "strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al Qaida members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers." In May of this year, The New York Times reported that two defectors from Iran's intelligence service "testified that Iranian officials had 'foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks' " and that one of them "claimed that Iran was involved in planning the attacks."
There's more. A year ago, Hayes and Joscelyn wrote: "Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, not only do we have abundant evidence that Iran, the world's foremost state sponsor of terror, supports al Qaida. We also have evidence that Iran actively assists terrorists and insurgents targeting our soldiers and diplomats" in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In an interview last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that if Iranian rulers "proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it." Was he bluffing? Or has there been a fundamental change in how senior members of the Obama administration understand who America's enemies are, how they operate and cooperate? Or is this still an on-going debate within the administration? I suspect we'll find out sometime in the New Year.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at email@example.com