Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Pompeo: Al Qaeda ‘Has a New Home Base’ in Iran

U.S. intelligence officials do not support the claims Pompeo made Tuesday.
Mike Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that al Qaeda “has a new home base” inside Iran and he confirmed the killing of al Qaeda’s No 2. leader.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Pompeo said the terrorist group has “burrowed deep inside” Iran and “threatens the progress of the Abraham Accords.”

“Al-Qaida has a new home base: it is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said Pompeo. “As a result, bin Laden’s wicked creation is poised to gain strength and capabilities. We ignore this Iran-al-Qaida nexus at our own peril.”

He continued, arguing that the U.S. “must” use military force against al Qaeda operatives in Yemen “when necessary.” Pompeo makes no mention of seeking Congressional authorization. Congress has repeatedly passed legislation that would block U.S. weapons from being used by the Saudis against Yemen. Trump has repeatedly vetoed the bills.

Pompeo confirmed the killing of al Qaeda’s Abu Muhammad al-Masri, the alleged mastermind of the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, last year on August 7.

“Al-Masri’s presence inside Iran points to the reason that we’re here today.  It’s what I want to talk about in these remarks,” said Pompeo. 

Al-Qaeda has had a well-documented relationship with Iran spanning nearly three decades. US intelligence officials and prosecutors have long said that the Islamic Republic had formed loose ties with Al-Qaeda since at least 1991. In 2017, the CIA released a trove of documents seized during the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden which “conclusively proved” his cozy relationship with Iran, experts say. Iranian “intelligence officials had covertly helped provide the al Qaeda attackers with passage and gave them refuge in the Islamic Republic,” the Free Beacon reported.

However, U.S. intelligence officials do not support the claims Pompeo made Tuesday. Their analysis suggests Al Qaeda and Teheran have more often been at loggerheads than active cooperators. Shi’ite Iran and Sunni al Qaeda are not natural partners, as they are sectarian foes.

“Ask yourself, if such conclusive evidence of an Iran-Al Qaeda alliance really existed, why would he wait till his last week in office to reveal it?” said Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Mindful of Pompeo’s 4-year effort to crush Iran, he would’ve revealed this at the outset to justify maximum pressure. He didn’t. A more plausible explanation is that Pompeo is changing facts to fit with his obsession with conflict with Iran. As the chances of conflict are slipping out of his hands courtesy of Trump’s failed coup, Pompeo shifts his focus to prevent Biden from undoing Pompeo’s mess.”

In an interview with Reuters, a former senior U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge of the issue said the Iranians were never friendly with al Qaeda before or after the Sept. 11 attacks and “any claims of current cooperation should be viewed warily.”

Pompeo is “still crassly campaigning for a future Christian Zionist vote, [and he] repeats the familiar anti-Iran propaganda line that Iran is allied with al Qaeda — a line rejected by honest intel analysts and that I’ve debunked repeatedly over the years,” writes national security journalist Gareth Porter.

President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and reimposed heavy financial sanctions that had previously been lifted under the deal. His administration began following a policy of “maximum pressure” to deter Iran’s “malign activity,” which set off a heated escalation in the Persian Gulf.

Ships were mysteriously sabotaged with explosives; others were seized and held by Iran for weeks at a time. Cruise missiles reportedly launched from Iran took down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in September 2019. Then President Trump ordered American drone strikes to kill Gen. Soleimani, and Iran responded with ballistic missile strikes on two bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq.

Throughout this series of increasingly aggressive measures, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted that the Trump administration was keeping the U.S. safe and that there was “a bigger strategy” at play.

“President Trump and those of us in his national security team are re-establishing deterrence—real deterrence—against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

In his speech Tuesday, Pompeo did not explain how it is possible that the Trump “maximum pressure” strategy has worked, and there are a concerning number of al Qaeda in Iran. 

Pompeo just keeps turning up the heat; and in response, Iran announced last week it will begin enriching uranium at 20 percent. They’ve also seized another oil tanker.

Despite the lack of results, Pompeo is doubling down on the Trump administration’s favorite foreign policy tool: sanctions. The U.S. is sanctioning Iran-based al-Qaeda leaders and three leaders of al-Qaeda Kurdish battalions. Pompeo offered a reward of up to nearly $7 million for information leading to location or identification of Iran based al Qaeda leader Muhammad Abbatay — also known as Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, Reuters reported. 

The United States also imposed counter terrorism sanctions on five people it claimed were tied to Iran, designating them as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT), according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s website.

The “thing to watch now is how the Iran hysteria industry cranks out pieces pretending Pompeo actually offered important new information, and whether this is in turn taken seriously by any real journalists,” tweeted Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

Pompeo fired back on Twitter: “The foreign policy blob constantly looks for a moderate inside the Iranian regime who will ‘normalize relations.’ The reality is you have a better chance finding a unicorn.”

He also tweeted: “The Trump Administration recognizes the Iranian regime is a group of radical ideologues who have been chanting ‘Death to America’ since 1979.”

Pompeo faces a difficult challenge here. How can he convince people that Iran is an extremely bad, very dangerous country, when his arguments are about Iran’s long history stretching back to 1979, including their aid to 9/11 hijackers? Decades have elapsed since these incidences without active war between the countries, and that undermine his argument that Iran is an urgent risk to the welfare and safety of Americans.

Lawmakers and advisers to President-elect Joe Biden have expressed concern that in the waning hours of Trump’s administration, he will make a drastic decision that will make it impossible to negotiate with Iran or rejoin the Iran nuclear deal when Biden takes office. 

“The real goal here is to frustrate the diplomacy Americans voted for,” writes Duss.  “Bottom line is this: If Pompeo had valid intel that Iran had upgraded its relationship with Al Qaeda to the sort of operational level he’s claiming, you can be quite sure he wouldn’t have waited until a week before he leaves office to roll it out.”