Iran long provided shelter and protection to the founder and former commander of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), which rose to power due in large part to Tehran’s support, according to multiple intelligence reports and outside experts.
AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was given protection by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGS) and was provided with resources to rebuild the infrastructure that has enabled ISIL to take over much of Western Iraq, according to these reports.
Iran’s relationship with AQI founder al-Zarqawi has been well documented by U.S. intelligence and complicates the narrative pushed by Obama administration officials in the wake of ISIL’s violent overthrow of several Iraqi cities.
State Department officials have argued in recent weeks that Iran and the United States have a "shared interest" due to Tehran’s ethnic ties to the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Tehran, they say, is ideologically opposed to ISIL because it is a Sunni extremist group once affiliated with al Qaeda.
However, Iran has a long and complicated history of partnering with al Qaeda, particularly in Iraq, and helping to rebuild the terror infrastructure that would eventually allow ISIL to gain strength.
"Depictions of Iran as a source of stability are therefore erroneous and short-sighted, as are assertions that increased Iranian involvement in Iraq will serve American and Iraqi interests," the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) warned in a recent press statement.
Iran over the weekend warned the United States to stay out of Iraq.
Iran’s support for al Qaeda in Iraq began in the months following the 9/11 terror attacks.
When the United States began Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin laden took shelter in lawless areas of Pakistan. However, many other senior leaders, including al-Zarqawi, made their way to Iran, which provided the terrorists protection.
"Zarqawi initially operated under the protection of the IRGC and its elite Quds Brigade," according to a report published by UANI. "According to intelligence officials, the time Zarqawi spent in Iran was crucial for rebuilding his network before relocating to Iraq."
Prior to 9/11, al- Zarqawi ran jihadist training camps in Afghanistan. New recruits were often given passage via Iran on their way to Afghanistan.
Senior al Qaeda officials have spoken of relocating members of the terror group, including al Zarqawi, and their families to Iran following the 9/11 attacks, according to information provided by terrorism analyst Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
"There is evidence that Zarqawi operated from within Iran for a time as well," Joscelyn explained via email. "Both German and Italian authorities discovered evidence that Zarqawi communicated with his followers from Iranian soil."
During the time when U.S. forces were first entering Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi hid in Iran and was given free rein to travel the country, according to leaked German intelligence reports later included in a report by the Claremont Institute.
"After the invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi spent crucial months inside Iran rebuilding his network under the protection of the IRGC, the Iranian regime’s most loyal servants," according to the 2007 Claremont report. "Al-Zarqawi traveled under numerous aliases, but some of these were grafted onto real Iranian passports—a possible indication that the Iranians had procured the documents for him."
Other top al Qaeda leaders also took refuge in Iran, including top security officials and bin Laden’s son.
Al-Zarqawi spent his time in Iran working to rebuild al Qaeda’s operation in Iraq and would later go on to head the organization there before changing the name to ISIL.
With Iran’s IRGC providing logistical support, al-Zarqawi and al Qaeda officials rebuilt safe houses and their financial networks, enabling the group to reassemble the fractured terror network as the United States fought in Afghanistan.
"While the Iranian regime eventually succumbed to U.S. pressure, forcing Zarqawi to leave Iran and arresting many of his personnel, the damage had already been done," UANI notes in its intelligence report. "Zarqawi's network was already rebuilt, even though the Iranian authorities could have prevented such an outcome at any time."
Though Iran is a Shiite-dominated nation and al Qaeda is Sunni, these fractious ethnic divides did not stop the two from working together to foment chaos in the region, according to the Claremont report, which cites German intelligence briefs.
"Al-Zarqawi is known for his rabid anti-Shiite beliefs. In jihadist circles, he was known as one of the most virulent Salafists, who believed that all Shiites were nothing more than heretical dogs," Claremont reported. "Yet his hate did not stop him from accepting Iran’s help, nor did it stop the mullahs from offering it."
Despite these ethnic divides, "the notion that Shiite Iran would help Sunni jihadists was not farfetched, even if it seemed to defy the conventional wisdom in Western capitals," the Israeli intelligence group Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) noted in a recent intelligence brief.
Iran eventually permitted al-Zarqawi to reenter Iraq, where he was integral in al Qaeda’s network there until he was killed by a U.S. strike in 2006.
Iran’s support for AQI continued well after al-Zarqawi’s death.
Current ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who succeeded al-Zarqawi, has benefited from Iran’s support for the organization, which includes fundraising.
Iran was cited in June 2008 for facilitating the passage of grenade launchers and bomb-making material to Iraqi insurgents.
That same year the Justice Department indicted several foreign nationals for directing weapons to Iran, arms that were traced back to deadly attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq.
ISIL’s support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also dovetails with Iran’s interest in the civil war torn country.
According to Israel’s JCPA: "Immediately after ISIS emerged in Syria, sources in the Syrian opposition said, ‘We are familiar with the commanders of ISIS. Once they belonged to Assad’s intelligence, and now they are operating on his behalf under the name of ISIS.’"