In February 2009, the Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry issued a list of its 85 most wanted terrorists, and revealed that 35 of them were either present in Iran, or had passed through the country. Information also revealed that al-Qaeda inducted its latest recruits in Iran in September 2008, which means that its attraction has not waned, and that the Iranian branch of al-Qaeda is still operational.
A regional source informed Asharq Al-Awsat that "we are certain that some al-Qaeda activists and leadership figures are present in Iran, but we do not know how the two sides [al-Qaeda and Iran] are dealing with each other. Yet it is definite that al-Qaeda's followers in Iran are under control."
According to the source, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, statements issued by Eman [Bin Laden], daughter of Osama Bin Laden, who escaped from her Iranian minders and sought shelter in the Saudi embassy in Tehran, provides considerable evidence that al-Qaeda has a presence on Iranian soil.
Giving an account of how al-Qaeda used Iran as a center for its operations, the regional source confirmed that the "honeymoon period" between the two sides began with the war in Afghanistan. This saw al-Qaeda members on Afghan soil fleeing to the country for three destinations; some fled to Tora Bora, whilst others infiltrated Pakistan, and others traveled to Iran.
The source stressed to Asharq Al-Awsat that "it is certain that Iran has had dealings with al-Qaeda members and leaders who took refuge in the country, fleeing from the US military that was striking Afghanistan." The source indicated that the Iranians seem to have imposed their authority upon the al-Qaeda members who entered the country, yet they have not prevented these al-Qaeda elements from performing their assigned roles.
The regional source raised a number of questions that may help in uncovering the truth behind the relations between al-Qaeda and Iran, asking "did Iran host al-Qaeda in order to secure a truce and avoid becoming a future target? Or did Tehran exploit al-Qaeda in order to achieve its goals in certain countries with whom it differs politically and ideologically?" The source stressed that these two questions about the nature of the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran are still being raised in political circles today.
The source hinted that al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen, the majority of whose members are Saudi and Yemeni nationals, was formed as a result of orders issued by the organization's leadership in Iran. Asharq Al-Awsat also received information from exclusive sources that al-Qaeda elements in Iran, who are on Saudi Arabia's list of 85 most wanted terrorists, are planning to strike Saudi or Jordanian interests. This same information claimed that some of these al-Qaeda members are intending to return to Saudi Arabia to carry out these operations themselves, whilst others are seeking to join new terrorist groups that are being set up in Yemen.
Perhaps the most prominent Saudi national who is a member of al-Qaeda in Iran is Saleh al-Qaraawi, who has now assumed a leadership position in al-Qaeda, both locally and internationally. Al-Qaraawi, who is in his late twenties, is a major al-Qaeda figure who plays a key role with regards to providing al-Qaeda members with facilities and financial aid, he is also believed to provide forged documents and be responsible for arranging the travel of wanted al-Qaeda members. Al-Qaraawi also reportedly had links with Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, and is said to have provided the former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader with financing and recruits.
Saleh al-Qaraawi, who also uses the alias "Nejm" [meaning "star" in Arabic] has come to prominence as a key al-Qaeda coordinator from within Iran. During his stay in Iran, al-Qaraawi also married the daughter of Mohamed Khalil al-Hakim, one of al-Qaeda's field commanders.
Saleh al-Qaraawi has utilized 14 different aliases and assumed names in his travels, and also received intensive training on the use of electronics in explosive devices whilst in Iran. He is utilizing Iran as a base for his operations, and plays the key role of middleman between the al-Qaeda leadership and rank and file members. In addition to this, al-Qaraawi is believed to be seeking to expand al-Qaeda's operations in Iraq and Lebanon.
On the local level, al-Qaraawi, who has been present in Iran since September 2006, allegedly helped a fugitive who escaped from Riyadh's Al-Malaz Prison, as well as other fugitives in Al-Jouf (northern Saudi Arabia), to escape to Iraq. He has also been active in coordinating the influx of terrorists into Lebanon, who receive training there before heading back to Saudi Arabia to carry out terrorist operations.
The Saudi nationals who joined the al-Qaeda leadership in Iraq passed through a number of different countries before arriving there; including Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Syria. Many of those on the Saudi Interior Ministry's list of 85 most wanted terrorists are believed to be hiding out in the Pakistan – Afghanistan – Iran triangle, such as Adel Felaih al-Anzi, who is believed to have links with al-Qaeda coordinators in Iran.
Information also revealed that Abdullah al-Ayed, a wanted al-Qaeda operative currently living in Iran, is believed to have been involved in the assassination of a senior Saudi security officer. Al-Ayed is believed to have traveled to Iran via the UAE, utilizing fake travel documents, and he has been active in issuing provocative fatwas labeling others as infidels. Al-Ayed is also believed to have provided financial support to al-Qaeda members, as well as facilitated the recruitment of al-Qaeda cadres.
As for Mohamed Abul-Khair, he is a Saudi national who has utilized 11 different aliases and assumed names in his travels between various international terrorist hotspots. Abul-Khair is said to be one of the most prominent terrorists on the Saudi Interior Ministry's list of 85 most wanted terrorist. He is believed to have been one of Osama Bin Laden's personal bodyguards, in addition to being the former al-Qaeda chief's sons-in-law. Information also reveals that Abul-Khair had ties with Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who stands accused of being a "key facilitator for the September 11 attacks" and who is currently being detained by the US in Guantanamo Bay.
Abul-Khair's aliases include "Abu Mahjan", "Abu Abdullah", "Abdul-Hamid", "Mohannad", "Al-Jeddawi", "Abdullah al-Makki", "Lutfi", "Lataf", "Mohannad al-Jeddawi", and "Abdullah al-Halbi." He served as a middleman between the al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda members in Iran from the mid-1990s to 2000. Abul-Khair is currently believed to be hiding out in the Pakistan – Afghanistan – Iran triangle.
A number of the names included on the Saudi Interior Ministry's list of 85 most wanted terrorist had direct links with Osama Bin Laden, such as Tulaihan Mutlaq al-Mutairi. Al-Mutairi is believed to have pledged allegiance to former al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden and received training in weaponry, explosives, urban warfare, and communication, amongst other skills, with the aim of training new al-Qaeda recruits.
Another Saudi national believed to be hiding out in Iran is Ahmed al-Shadawi AKA Abu-Hanzalah al-Makki. Al-Shadawi is believed to have left Saudi Arabia for the UAE on 24 February 2008. He is accused of having ties with leading al-Qaeda figures like Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah AKA Abu Mariam, who is an Egyptian national wanted by the US for his part in the 1998 African Embassy bombings, and who is believed to be hiding out in Iran. Al-Shadawi later joined al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, receiving training in the use of arms.
As for Adel al-Jafari, he is a recent al-Qaeda recruit who arrived in Iran via Qatar on 18 September 2008. He is believed to have links with a number of dangerous individuals, including suicide bombers in Iran.
Information also reveals that Azzam al-Subhi, another wanted Saudi national that is currently hiding out in Iran, has links with Saif al-Adel, who according to some media reports has been appointed the interim leader of al-Qaeda, amongst other senior al-Qaeda figures. Another Saudi national, Ali al-Amr, is also believed to be present in Iran. Al-Amr was reportedly recruited as an al-Qaeda envoy to Iran, and is considered by many to be one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda elements in Iran. There have been reports that al-Amr had expressed a desire to carry out a suicide attack, yet al-Qaeda denied this request, preferring that al-Amr continue to coordinate contact between al-Qaeda's different elements.