Al-Qa'ida and Iran: How Do We Deal With the Allegations?

Recent allegations by the Canadian authorities about Al-Qa'ida in Iran has ignited a flurry of commentary. Experience suggests however that the release of limited intelligence of this nature is fraught with dangers for the public trust and risks being counter-productive.

It is all to easy to dismiss some of the more dramatic allegations made against Iran, especially when partial and constrained by the limits of intelligence or the dictates of judicial procedure. The consensus that 'Shia' Iran would not consort with Sunni groups is one assertion that has never held up against the evidence. Think of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, or more strikingly Iran's ambivalent and highly cynical relationship with the Taleban in Afghanistan. The evidence also clearly points to Al-Qa'ida elements fleeing into Iran after 9/11.

Yet at the same time, qualified - if intriguing - allegations, such as those recently made by the Canadian authorities, tend to shed much more heat than light on issues of enormous consequence. The dangers are, that in the absence of further substantiation, such allegations will simply reinforce the cynicism of a public already burnt by the political manipulation of intelligence in the run up to the Iraq War.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, anxious investigators and pundits alike asked a colleague of mine at Columbia University in New York, whether any of the hijackers were 'Shia'. He noted their apparent disappointment when he pointed out that they were categorically Sunni. The situation became somewhat more problematic when the Shia-Hizbullah-Iran link swiftly dissolved under expert scrutiny to become a far more uncomfortable Sunni organisation populated by Egyptians and Saudi Arabians; countries that were ostensibly allies of the United States. How much more convenient it would have been if the greatest act of terrorism on American soil could have been linked to the one Middle Eastern state most obviously antagonistic to the United States. Of course Iran did not play ball, being the one state in the region to offer (extensive) condolences and more strikingly, help, when it came to subsequent assault on Afghanistan.

State sponsored associations with Al-Qa'ida nonetheless moved swiftly on to the equally dubious affiliation with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and no amount of expert scepticism could dispel the fact that the association had been made and became, for a brief period at least, dangerously embedded within sections of the American popular consciousness. With that apparent association now a dim and distant memory, and of no immediate relevance, a new attempt has been made to make an association  with Iran, this time by the Canadian authorities. According to the Canadians, two foreign nationals were arrested on suspicion of wanting to launch a terrorist attack on the country's rail network, and moreover, they had received 'direction and guidance' from Al-Qa'ida elements residing in Iran. There was no evidence, they added of Iranian state involvement.

The distinction is an important one though it will have been lost on the many casual consumers of the news cycle. Unsurprisingly, and despite the important qualification, the Iranian Foreign Minister, and indeed the minister himself, Ali Akbar Salehi, moved quickly to dismiss the assertion, noting somewhat contemptuously that: 'It is really ridiculous to link Al-Qa'ida to Iran. I hope that the Canadian authorities think a bit more rationally and pay attention to the consciousness of the people and world public opinion.'

Feverishly Dated Speculations

As Salehi and other Iranian officials will have correctly surmised, the allegation - irrespective of the qualifications, reservations or indeed stark limitations on the information provided -if unchallenged, would prove a ripe catalyst for a litany of new stories, analysis, speculation and punditry on the validity or otherwise of the association. The detail in many ways will not matter as far as the public consciousness is concerned, it is the link and its repetition on the internet that matters; and in this respect the internet surpasses any previous form of mass media communication in accelerating the dissemination of information, such that speculation can in short order become fact. But Salehi is also aware that public scepticism is sufficiently high that his dismissal is likely to be sympathetically received.

The key problem here is the use and abuse of intelligence, often heavily qualified and restricted because of the need to protect sources, in order to satisfy a public or political need. It is not so much that the intelligence is in essence incorrect but its application, often without the benefit of context, renders it meaningless and at worst dangerous and counter-productive. Often presented with dramatic flair, the quality and nature of the underpinning intelligence is rarely revealed and almost always misunderstood. Let us take two Iranian examples, a decade apart, to show this process at work.

In June 2001, the US authorities issued a well-publicised and detailed indictment against members of Saudi Hizbullah for the destruction of the Al Khobar towers in 1996, in which some nineteen US service personnel were killed. For some years suspicion, and it was argued, intelligence, pointed the finger towards Iran as the chief instigator of the plot. Others have argued of course the perpetrator was an emergent Al-Qa'ida and have been critical of the allegations against Iran. But the indictment was unequivocal, claiming on page one that Saudi Hizbullah was, 'inspired, supported and directed by elements of the Iranian government.'

This bold assertion stated clearly at the head of the document was naturally picked up and repeated by news outlets throughout the world, yet after the tragedy of 9/11 and the failure to make any further links, the indictment, has by all accounts, been quietly dropped, and subsequently even former senior administration officials have come out against the Iranian connection arguing that the evidence was unconvincing.


Fast forward a decade and a similar allegation was made against an Iranian-American second-hand car salesman who apparently admitted to a conspiracy, masterminded by Tehran to blow up the Saudi Ambassador to Washington. The indictment, presented with much dramatic flourish, in this case named the Iranian handler who was supposedly a senior operative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The suspect, Arbabsiar, at first apparently confessed and was providing information to the FBI, then subsequently pleaded not guilty. The whole case begs far more questions than provides answers and we will no doubt have to wait for the trial (currently pending) before the veracity of the charges (and the intelligence that underpin) can be tested but in the public mind an association will have been made not least because (as with the previous indictment), Arbabsiar is accused of seeking to use 'a weapon of mass destruction'.[1]

To the uninitiated, it would be natural to assume that Arbabsiar was seeking to use 'a chemical, biological, radiological [or] nuclear weapons capable of high order destruction or causing mass casualties.' This is the definition adopted by the US Department of Defense in June 2009, (and widely used by other military organisations), but is not applied in US criminal law, which include within that definition, any high explosive - including bombs, grenades, and any gun 'with a barrel larger than one half inch'. [2] 

Unsurprisingly, this definition includes a range of weaponry that the public would not necessarily normally associate with 'WMD'. The fact that it was presented without any such definition provided also suggests that style may yet again be trumping substance.

Learning From Misuses of Intelligence

And now we have the Canadian allegation, constrained by the realities of an impending court case but not sufficiently constrained to prevent a particularly intriguing piece of intelligence to be revealed. As with other such uses of intelligence it begs far more questions - not so much with regard to the presence of Al-Qa'ida elements in Iran, but how exactly they were able to direct and guide an operation overseas without the knowledge of the Iranian authorities. Indeed the carefully crafted qualification provided by the Canadian authorities, that they have no evidence of Iranian state involvement, has already been effectively ignored by at least one commentator.

Of course, perhaps the most egregious misuse of intelligence for political purposes was in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the West has been living with the consequences ever since. The question is not whether there is no smoke without fire - and indeed where the current Iranian regime is concerned, experience suggests we must keep an open mind - but if there is a single lesson from the misuse of intelligence on Iraq, is that neither policy nor criminal prosecution should proceed on the basis of supposition, insinuation and innuendo. In matters of life and death, and war and peace, the highest evidentiary standards are required. The stakes are too serious to demand less.



[1] United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Indictment, Unites States of America - v.-Arbabsiar and  Shakuri, , p. 5

[2] For a fascinating discussion on the problems that have arisen from the diversity of definitions see, W Seth Carus Defining Weapons of Mass Destruction, Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction, NDU, Occasional Paper 8, January 2012. A copy of the paper can be accessed here.


Ali Ansari

Senior Associate Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content