So little practical consequence does the relationship between the Iranian government and al-Qaeda have that, had not the recently released “Bin Laden papers” revealed it, hardly anyone would notice it. Both sides are getting from it what reality allows. Some have expressed surprise that any relationship should exist between the center of Shia power and ultra-Sunni al-Qaeda. Yet it exists precisely to the extent of the coincidence between the two sides’ power and interests.
Comparing and contrasting al-Qaeda’s present relationship with Shia Iran and its past relationship with Sunni-led Iraq helps us understand the nature of the relationships that exist between the Muslim world’s governments and terrorist groups in general. Al-Qaeda is a prime example of the fact that these relationships are constantly shifting with circumstances, but that the states are always calling the shots.
The Bin Laden papers dispose summarily of the Sunni/Shia conflict: the Iranians are as much the enemies of unbelieving Westerners as are the Sunni Bin Laden followers. One can only imagine the Iranian side reciprocating. According to al-Qaeda’s headquarters, Iran’s practical importance is as a channel to the outside world—presumably because Sunni Pakistan, al-Qaeda’s headquarters, is not allowing the group to do business through its territory. But Iran’s contribution to AQ does not extend beyond transit of people and money. Some of that sustains AQ affiliates in Syria which are “frenemies” to groups fighting under Iranian leadership. No doubt Iran’s intimate acquaintance with this traffic gives it intelligence as well as the opportunity to “turn” these “frenemies.” It may well demand a cut of the money from the Gulf. Al-Qaeda seems to have little alternative.
Whatever grandiose ideas Bin Laden might have had during the 1980s of using contributions from friends in the Gulf to weld international Islamist recruits into military units to defeat the Muslim world’s bad guys evaporated fast. Unable to survive in the post-Soviet Afghan environment, he moved his band to Saudi Arabia. In 1990, King Fahd laughed when Bin Laden urged him not to call on the Americans to stop Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait because AQ’s troops could do it.
In 1991, when Fahd agreed to station U.S forces in the kingdom, he kicked out Al-Qaeda. Bin Laden went to Sudan, which, at the time was hostile to the Saudis and started taking money from Saddam, who had been hostile to the Saudis. But as Saddam focused exclusively on bloodying Americans so did Bin Laden. In 1996, when the Sudanese expelled him under U.S. pressure, he moved his group to Afghanistan, where he paid rent to the governing Pashtun Taliban by using his troops to fight their Tajik and Uzbek enemies. He also issued a fatwa in which he named America as the evil of evils, citing its mistreatment of Iraq. Saddam was paying the bills. At this time al-Qaeda took in the pre-existing, Iraqi-connected group around Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who organized 9/11. The 2001-2002 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan having led to the Tajik/Uzbek victory over his Pashtun patrons, bin Laden fled into hiding and irrelevance in Pakistan, apparently with limited Iranian patronage.
Why States Use Terrorists
None of this is to say that terrorist groups are puppets, or that they lack their own agendas—just that they are satellites that gravitate around heavier bodies. The orbits provide sustenance, protection, and significance. The groups leave them at their peril. For the states, these satellites are no more than instruments of proxy war, and hence useful only to the extent that they do not provoke direct clashes with other states.
After Egypt’s defeat in the 1956 war against Israel, Gamal Nasser sponsored Yasser Arafat to form a group of irregulars, which he called Fatah, to kill Israelis—but not enough of them to invite full-scale retaliation. Arafat so prospered and expanded in terrorism and picked up so much tangential outside support that he led Fatah out of Egypt’s orbit and attempted to set up his own state. In September 1970 this nearly proved fatal, as Jordan nearly destroyed it. Its remnants took refuge in Lebanon where, in 1982, a similar attempt without state backing also led to near annihilation.
Support—for contrasting reasons—from Syria, Qatar, and Turkey made it possible for some Iraqi radicals to establish what they came to call the Islamic State, which drew some 50,000 combatants from all parts of the world and, in 2014, seized control of what had been western Iraq and eastern Syria. But the moment that Turkey ceased to act as its hinterland, emporium, and sanctuary, and regular forces were arrayed against it, its fate was sealed.
The imperative of major power support applies to small, weak states as well. In our time, tiny Qatar has used its vast wealth to finance the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to take power in Egypt. As well, it has financed a variety of groups in the Syrian civil war opposed to others fighting on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. This use of indirect warfare directly to challenge powerful neighbors led to a blockade this year. Fortunately for Qatar, its foreign policy also includes hosting a U.S. base and corrupting influential Americans. Hence the United States is working to relieve the blockade.
Since indirect warfare can never trump the direct kind, intelligent states and groups are careful not to provoke an all-out war by resting foreign policy on terrorism. After 1991, Saddam Hussein rested his entire foreign policy on indirect warfare. Encouragement of all manner of anti-Westernism in the Muslim world plus support for terrorist groups made him popular with the Arab masses and a scourge to the Americans, who eventually overthrew him.
What Iran Knows
By contrast consider Iran, whose foreign policy is a textbook case of how to combine direct and indirect warfare.
The Iranian revolution of 1978 itself resulted, in part, from the Soviet Union’s indirect war on the West. Iran’s Shah having been America’s ally, the Soviets hosted the Ayatollah Khomeini’s headquarters for the revolution in Baku, Azerbaijan. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization was Khomeini’s Soviet-supplied muscle.
Immediately thereafter the Islamic Republic learned how far it could safely take its semi-direct warfare when the United States reacted to the seizure of its embassy and personnel with pro forma economic sanctions. Since that time, the essence of Iran’s foreign policy has been its Revolutionary Guards’ strengthening and direction of Shia elements throughout the Muslim world to the point that they are not so much independent groups as they are extensions of Iranian power. Lebanon’s Hezbollah is the prime example. Because of it, Lebanon is hardly an independent state anymore. Iran’s hold on Shia Iraq through similar means is not and may never become total. But it moves in that direction.
Nevertheless, the logic of indirect warfare holds. If Hezbollah attacks Israel, the Israelis’ war must be against Lebanon and Iran as well. As Iraq attacks the Kurds with Iranian militias, it involves Iran in that war. Similarly, Iran has identified itself with Qatar and with Yemen’s Houti faction as to invite counteraction, indirect and possibly direct, from Saudi Arabia and its associates. The United States seems willing to absorb any provocation whatever. For now.
The point here is that, for all states, indirect warfare is an all too easy path to overextension. Saddam Hussein provoked too much. Iran is not there—yet.