CIA tracks Al-Qaida moving from Iran

14 May 2010

Recently, some Al Qaida figures who fled into Iran after 9/11 and who have been detained there for years have quietly made their way out, raising the prospect that the country is loosening its grip on the terror group, former and current U.S. intelligence officials say. This movement could indicate that Iran is re-examining its obscure relationship with Al Qaida at a time when the U.S. is stepping up drone attacks in Pakistan and weakening the group’s leadership. Details about Al Qaida’s movements and U.S. efforts to monitor them were outlined to The Associated Press in more than a dozen interviews with current and former intelligence and counterterrorism officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The problem of understanding Al Qaida in Iran

Iran’s Shiite regime is generally hostile to the Sunni terrorist group, but they have an occasional relationship of convenience based on their shared enemy, the U.S.
U.S. intelligence officials have tried wiretapping and satellite imagery to watch the men. The CIA even established a highly classified program to study whether it could track and kill terrorists such as Al Qaida in Iran. Results have been mixed. Monitoring and understanding Al Qaida in Iran remains one of the most difficult jobs in U.S. intelligence. The departures of Al Qaida figures from Iran began in late 2008 as the U.S. stepped up international efforts to sanction Iran for its nuclear program. Saad bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, was allowed to leave the country around that time with about four other Al Qaida figures.

The roster of Al Qaida figures in Iran is something of a who’s who for the terror group. One is Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, a bin Laden adviser who helped form the modern Al Qaida by merging bin Laden’s operation with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad. Al Qaida’s longtime chief financial officer, Abu Saeed al-Masri, has been held there. So have bin Laden’s spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and Mustafa Hamid, an Al Qaida trainer with a terrorism pedigree that spans decades. All fled into Iran after al-Qaida’s core split up after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Bin Laden led some confidants toward the mountainous border with Pakistan. Others were led into Iran, which has historically allowed Al Qaida members safe passage through the country. Iran arrested the men in 2003 and has held them as both a bargaining chip with the U.S. and as a buffer against an Al Qaida attack. Using spy satellites, the U.S. has monitored vehicles in and out of the compound where the Al Qaida operatives have been held. U.S. officials have gleaned some information about the men through intercepted Iranian phone conversations and e-mails. But generally, the U.S. has only limited information about them.

RIGOR: CIA’s counterterrorism program

Late in President George W. Bush’s administration, the CIA began developing a broad and lethal counterterrorism program, RIGOR, that targeted an array of terrorists in different countries. Part of the program examined the possibility of finding and eliminating Al Qaida inside Iran, former intelligence officials said. One aspect was to figure out whether the CIA could slip spies into Iran to locate and possibly kill Al Qaida figures. RIGOR existed on the books for about two years but never progressed any further. CIA Director Leon Panetta canceled RIGOR last year. A U.S. official familiar with the program said a list of specific targets had not yet been identified when the program was nixed.

Saad bin Laden and the others

U.S. officials realized that things in Iran were changing in the waning days of Bush’s administration when Saad bin Laden crossed into Pakistan. The administration took the unusual step of announcing bin Laden’s move and freezing his assets. As many as four others were believed to have been with him. In July, intelligence officials revealed that Saad bin Laden was probably killed in a drone airstrike. Since Saad bin Laden left Iran, other Al Qaida figures have followed. They are suspected to be taking smuggling routes heading toward Saudi Arabia or the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. Last fall, top CIA officers received intelligence reports suggesting the release of several Al Qaida members from Iran, according to a former CIA official. But even when they have known that Al Qaida had traveled, U.S. officials say they have rarely understood the purpose. Some experts believe that anyone from Al Qaida freed to leave Iran must be returning to the battlefield. Others believe that, with Al Qaida families left behind, terrorists may actually be working for Iran, gathering intelligence or passing messages before returning to Iran. Either way, it’s being noticed. Clare Lopez, a former CIA officer and a senior fellow at Center for Security Policy, says it’s not a good sign.

source: The Associated Press

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