Al-Qaeda has used its protected status in Iran to fund and support new operations, and to escape U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Ted Cruz and Michael McCaul
USA TODAY, March 3, 2017 -When news from Iran flashes across television screens in the United States, Americans have grown accustomed to seeing belligerence, including ballistic missile tests, harassment of U.S. forces, the kidnapping of our sailors and the unlawful imprisonment of U.S. citizens.
These are not the actions of a rational or friendly regime. They are the actions of autocratic thugs.
The Obama administration appeased Iran for eight years. Now the Trump Administration is ensuring America finally — and rightfully — stands up against Iranian hostility.
We believe they should also start pushing back against the regime’s disturbing and unabashed support for our terrorist enemies.
Iran is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror, and we are alarmed by their increasing assistance to a “who’s who” list of Islamist militant groups.
Earlier this year, we introduced a bill to direct the State Department to determine whether the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the regime’s military, meets the criteria to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
The Trump administration should do exactly that. The IRGC is responsible for exporting the Islamic Republic’s radical ideology and subsidizing terror across the globe.
But the threat goes far beyond the IRGC. The mullahs in Tehran are well-known as the chief patrons of Hezbollah, which has killed scores of Americans from Beirut to Baghdad, and for their financial and military support of Hamas, which has launched thousands of rockets into Israel. Both have been designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department.
Yet Iran’s long-standing support for al-Qaeda is what always seems to fly under the radar — and it’s a relationship that should cause particular concern in the West. Consider the 9/11 Commission Report, which described “strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11,” including future 9/11 hijackers.
Once the United States invaded Afghanistan, some of al-Qaeda’s top leaders fled to Iran, including high-ranking members, such as Abu Khayr al-Masri and Saif al-Adel, both wanted by the FBI for their involvement in the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Eastern Africa. Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza, who has followed in his father’s footsteps, also relocated there.
Iran has refused to bring these operatives to justice, and in the meantime has deliberately allowed Iranian territory to be used as a facilitation pipeline for al-Qaeda fighters and funding.
In fact, despite allegedly putting al-Qaeda operatives under “house arrest,” Iran has let them return to the battlefield. Take al-Masri, for instance, who was allowed to leave Iran for Syria, where he has been operating as al-Qaeda’s second-in-command until being killed this week in a drone strike.
What’s more, the intelligence trove obtained from Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011 reportedly revealed a close, symbiotic relationship between the regime and al-Qaeda, which the reclusive terror leader personally deemed essential to al-Qaeda’s overall survival.
"Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication," he wrote to subordinates in Iraq, warning them not to threaten attacks in Iran.
Sadly, the Obama administration sought to downplay these ties, likely to minimize public backlash against the White House’s misguided nuclear deal. And Obama’s aides helped fuel a false conventional wisdom inside the D.C. Beltway that Iran, a Shiite theocracy, would not really cooperate with al-Qaeda, a Sunni organization.
The past two decades of evidence, however, present a starkly different reality. The Treasury and State departments have for years publicly called out Iran’s safe harboring of al-Qaeda operatives.
The terror group has used its protected status in Iran to fund and support new operations, and to escape U.S. counterterrorism efforts so it can rebuild the leadership cadre decimated by targeted drone strikes. When the Treasury Department sanctioned three Iran-based al-Qaeda leaders this past July, it noted they were “part of a new generation of al-Qaeda operatives.”
The takeaway here is obvious: the murderous radicals who planned 9/11 are replenishing their ranks, and they are doing so with the support and protection of one of America’s biggest foes. We cannot allow that to happen.
The U.S. military, diplomatic corps, and intelligence community must redouble their efforts to aggressively target the al-Qaeda facilitation networks operating in Iran, work to shut them down, and bring those responsible to justice.
We are encouraged that Trump and his team have already been clear-eyed about the Iranian threat, and now they should also focus on the Iran-led axis of terror, including by designating the IRGC as a terror group.
Moreover, any engagement with Iran, such as further negotiations on the Obama-era nuclear deal, must address Tehran’s harboring of al-Qaeda members. And we must pressure our allies to do the same.
We will never appease Iranian leaders into moderating their extremism. But we can protect our country — and our interests — by standing up to them.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, serves on the Committee on Armed Services.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.