Assassination of Sunni commander reveals complex relationship
The August assassination of a top al-Qaida operative in the heart of Tehran, according to The New York Times carried out by Israeli agents, raised a flurry of questions over the weekend about the presence of a Sunni jihadist leader in the Islamic Republic and the motivations behind making the slaying public.
On Friday, The Times reported that on August 7, two motorcycle-riding Israeli assassins killed Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, al-Qaida’s second in command and heir apparent and the man responsible for the 1998 bombings at two United States embassies in East Africa. The covert operation was carried out at the behest of the US government, the report said.
I assume the US is capable of doing this on its own
Yoram Schweitzer, senior researcher and head of the program on Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a veteran of the Israeli intelligence community, believes Israel’s involvement in the operation was minimal.
“I see the Americans as the ones who probably carried most of this out. If you look at the larger context of recent American activity against al-Qaida’s ‘old guard’ operatives, this incident fits that pattern,” Schweitzer told The Media Line, noting similar US efforts against Masri’s counterparts in Syria.
“I assume the US is capable of doing this on its own,” he says.
Masri, 57, described by Schweitzer as “the most senior operational man in al-Qaida” and the slated successor to the group’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, was reportedly gunned down in his car alongside his daughter Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden.
He was one of several al-Qaida operatives arrested by Iranian authorities after fleeing to Iran from neighboring Afghanistan following the 2001 American invasion. In 2015, Masri was released alongside four other prominent al-Qaida members, all part of the organization’s founding generation, in a prisoner swap Tehran conducted with the group’s Yemen branch, which had abducted an Iranian diplomat.
The permanent residence of the top operative of al-Qaida – a Sunni jihadist group – in the Shi’ite theocracy of Iran, may seem puzzling, as the sides have been known to be bitter foes and at opposing ends of a historical enmity.
They’re not friends, to put it mildly, but like anything with Iran, it’s a matter of interests
Yet the phenomenon is not all that rare or surprising, explains Dr. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran from the INSS.
“The Iranians obviously won’t admit it, because it’s hard to own up to that when you present yourself as the standard-bearer of the fight against radical Sunni Islam,” Zimmt told The Media Line. “But we know this relationship has been going on for years.
“There’s a policy of ambivalence. They’re not friends, to put it mildly, but like anything with Iran, it’s a matter of interests,” he says, mapping out three main areas where the ayatollah regime could benefit from hosting al-Qaida leaders on Iranian soil.
“It gives them the ability to oversee and control the organization’s activity and prevent it from carrying out terror attacks in Iran. When you shelter or hold your opponent’s leaders in some form of house arrest or prison, you obtain leverage to prevent hostile activity against you,” Zimmt says.
Iran has no qualms about cooperating with Sunni groups because it treats terrorism as a business
“Second, you can use them as a bargaining chip to advance prisoner swaps, like they did in 2015. And finally, despite their animosity, Iran and al-Qaida have some mutual enemies, namely the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It’s definitely conceivable Iran is retaining the possibility of executing coordinated attacks,” he continues.
Adds Schweitzer, “Iran has no qualms about cooperating with Sunni groups because it treats terrorism as a business.”
Before Friday’s report, Masri’s August demise was kept secret by al-Qaida, the Israeli and US governments and by Iran, which continued to deny the story over the weekend.
At the time of the shooting, the case was presented by Tehran as an assassination of a Lebanese Hizbullah operative turned history professor who was living in Iran. The authorities then quickly hushed up the incident.
The timing of the Times piece has caused many in the intelligence community to wonder who was sending messages to whom.
“This could be an attempt to influence or pressure [US President-elect Joe] Biden’s new administration, showing him that he’s dealing with a nation not just striving for nuclear capabilities, but also one that harbors al-Qaida men,” Zimmt speculates.
“Or maybe someone is trying to prove to Biden’s people the importance of Israeli-American intelligence cooperation. Though why anyone would think that would be necessary, I honestly don’t know.”
How do the US and Israel have the wherewithal to operate so freely in Tehran? And not for the first time either
As for an Iranian response to the embarrassing incident’s publication, Zimmt sees more pressing issues for the embattled regime.
“They haven’t retaliated yet to the reported Israeli attack on the Natanz [nuclear facility in early July]. That one bothers them much more than this,” he says.
“This probably won’t change any specific plans they might have had, but it should definitely concern them. How do the US and Israel have the wherewithal to operate so freely in Tehran? And not for the first time either.”