Might al-Zawahiri’s al-Qa’ida come to view future nuclear power Iran as THE perfect sanctuary?

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Ayman al-Zawahiri, Core al-Qa'ida's new boss

This post was co-generated with Michael S. Smith II of the strategic advisory firm Kronos

As al-Qa’ida leaders the world over signal their intent to stay the course — challenging assumptions that the integrity of their network has been perhaps irreversibly jeopardized by the death of bin Laden — national security managers must remain focused on denying its core leaders a safe base of operations. Meanwhile, due to growing ties between al-Qa’ida’s regional network and defense officials in Iran, the strategic dimension of the West’s counter-terrorism efforts is likely to grow significantly in the years ahead. Unless Washington is prepared to confront Iran directly on this issue, al-Qa’ida may logically seek to achieve an untouchable strategic sanctuary within a nuclearized Iran.

In a late July audio statement disseminated through the Internet, Amir Abu-Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, senior leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), swore allegiance to Core al-Qa’ida’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. This declaration of fealty arrived as many terrorism experts in the West cast doubts on the leadership capabilities of al-Qa’ida HQ, and speculation mounted about an impending collapse of the core group tasked with advancing the global jihad launched by now deceased Osama bin Laden.

Earlier in July, another example that defied assessments that the conflict-oriented Egyptian might fail to rally bin Laden’s admirers emerged when the spokesman of the Somalia-based al-Qa’ida-linked group al-Shabaab pledged support to “our brother” al-Zawahiri. These pledges of support from key al-Qa’ida affiliates indicate Core al-Qa’ida is indeed capable of shoring up the international organizational framework established under bin Laden’s rule, a conglomeration of regional “franchises” that, while operating with varying degrees of ostensible autonomy, almost always postured deference to al-Qa’ida’s founding leader.

Still, for some observers, these messages indicate desperate times are forcing the al-Qa’ida network, boxed in by the precision of U.S. strikes on its membership, to focus more on propaganda campaigns than attack operations. According to this analysis, AQ is on the run, unable to hit us, and struggling to cast aside doubts about the severity of threats posed by its network without bin Laden’s leadership.

While this may all be true, the simple reality for the opposition is that these terrorists are wanted dead or alive by several major world powers, leaving them few options but to stay the course. As such, we should not overlook the fact that Core al-Qa’ida has established one of the world’s most recognized brands. Yes, non-extremist movements are shaping today’s political events in the Arab world, but for years to come the al-Qa’ida brand will likely remain quite seductive for militant extremist elements within Sunni Islam – not to mention prospective new converts to radical Islam in the West. And although U.S. officials regard groups like AQAP and al-Shabaab to be highly competent in the field of recruitment — probably even able to stand on their own without al-Zawahiri’s imprimatur, these al-Qa’ida affiliates will likely regard the hard-core bona fides that come with linkages to the core group to be a very attractive feature in the eyes of their recruitment target audiences.

Given this enduring reality, Western counter-terrorism officials should keep their sights focused on opportunities to deny al-Qa’ida’s leadership a base of operations versus tailoring counter-terrorism strategies around hopes that bin Laden’s death will cause al-Qa’ida to splinter, dissolve, and the jihadi threat will thus disappear. While al-Qa’ida’s future may be more uncertain than ever before, one thing seems clear enough: Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Core al-Qa’ida officials require a new and safer base from which to manage the organization’s affairs — a space the U.S. has found it difficult to penetrate.

Iran could very likely become this base.

For nearly two decades, top Iranian officials, including Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi and various generals from within the ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, have lent support to al-Zawahiri, his family, and his associates. It was not a matter of coincidence rooted in proximity that many members of bin Laden’s own family moved from Afghanistan to Iran following the 9/11 attacks.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a status report on the efforts to fulfill recommendations contained in the 9/11 Commission Report. Iran doesn’t appear anywhere in this document, suggesting that our national intelligence community still assumes that Shia Iran will not work with Sunni al-Qa’ida. Moreover, this report, published soon after CIA’s program for monitoring the activities of al-Qa’ida members inside Iran was shuttered, no doubt signalled to both Tehran and al-Qa’ida that America is politically unprepared to address the partnership that exists between them – and might prefer to ignore it on the whole.

More recently, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned several al-Qa’ida-linked operatives who have allegedly brokered a “secret deal” with Iran to secure transit of people and resources through Iranian territory. Discussing the Treasury Department’s revelations with reporters, a senior Obama Administration official noted the Treasury Department has exposed “a key funding facilitation network for Al Qaeda and a key aspect for Iranian support for international terrorism,” adding that “this network is operating through Iranian territory with the knowledge and at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities.”

Evidence of the Iran-AQ nexus was available to policy makers and national security managers even before 2007, when American generals began dialing up discussions about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps elite and clandestine Qods Force’s role as a key supporter of Shia and Sunni terrorist groups conducting anti-U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, authors of the 9/11 Commission Report highlighted a CIA report titled, “Old School Ties,” as a strong source of information about relationships between Iranian and al-Qa’ida officials.

But despite decades worth of evidence that Iran is a leading sponsor of Islamist terrorists who target American interests, the U.S. has done little more than impose economic sanctions on its government and various Iranian officials, while pursuing expensive covert ops that do not represent a sufficient deterrent. Yes, Iran has so far been cautious about the types of support it offers al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, but Iranian officials have very little cause for concern that any support will be met with any meaningful reprisals from the “Great Satan.”

Sources in South Asia indicate that Tehran, which for years has provided safe haven to numerous high-profile al-Qa’ida members, has again offered Core al-Qa’ida leaders like Saif al-Adl safe haven inside Iran’s borders. And there is ample reason to believe al-Zawahiri may wish to move al-Qa’ida’s headquarters to Iran, where many members of his family reside. If he does, the explosive question policy makers must be prepared to raise is:  Can we really defeat al-Qa’ida without conducting operations that may spark a conflict with Iran?

Osama Bin Laden may have calculated that he would remain safe from America by hiding deep inside Pakistan, where he imagined Washington would not dare conduct an operation such as the one that delivered SEAL Team 6 to his door on May 2. In assessing their options, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Saif al-Adl and others are surely contemplating matters in a similar light. And, unless Washington decides to place efforts to interdict Tehran’s support for Islamist terrorism in a higher priority bracket, al-Qa’ida’s new leader has many reasons to believe Iran will be a much safer bet than the one made by his late boss.  If the pattern of past US responses hold true, officials in Tehran may just come to a similar conclusion.

Fast forward to 2015, Israel’s latest estimate of when Iran could feasibly weaponize a nuclear capacity.  No, there’s no good argument that says Iran goes through all this immense effort simply to hand the bomb over to al-Qa’ida.  But look at it from al-Qa’ida’s perspective: once Iran has the bomb, it becomes untouchable in terms of a US military invasion.  If you’re planning for al-Qa’ida’s longterm survival, that’s a fairly attractive package.