United Nations Says Iran Is Harboring Al Qaeda’s New Leader

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei / REUTERS
February 17, 2023

Iran is harboring al Qaeda’s new leader Saif al-Adel, according to intelligence collected by the United Nations.

U.N. member states overwhelmingly agreed that al-Adel is now the "uncontested leader" of the international terror group and is running operations from inside Iran, according to a report published Thursday by the U.N. Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.

Al Qaeda has not formally announced al-Adel’s ascension, primarily due to his presence in Iran, which has historically been at odds with the terror group due to religious differences. The group’s former leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed in a U.S. strike last year.

"Member States’ predominant view is that [al-Adel] is now the de facto leader of al Qaeda, representing continuity for now," according to the report. "But his leadership cannot be declared because of … the fact of [al-Adel’s] presence in the Islamic Republic of Iran."

The report signals that despite religious divisions between Iran’s hardline clerical regime and al Qaeda, there is a growing desire among both entities to team up on the terrorism front. Al-Adel has deep ties to the Iranian regime and took refuge inside the country in the early 2000s, along with several other top al Qaeda members. He is believed to have orchestrated al Qaeda’s terror operations from his perch in Iran, including attacks on Americans.

"Religious differences between al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic are not likely to hinder ongoing ‘operational coordination’ between al Qaeda and Tehran’s security forces," according to an analysis published Friday by United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI), a watchdog group that closely tracks Tehran’s terrorism enterprise. "They share enmities toward the West, an interest in evicting the U.S. from the Middle East, and an aim of committing terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies and partners in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia."

Iran’s decision to harbor al-Adel violates a U.N. Security Council resolution barring countries from providing safe haven to any members of al Qaeda. The State Department also assesses that al-Adel is al Qaeda’s "new de facto leader" and that he is "based in Iran." The State Department has a $10 million bounty on al-Adel as part of its Rewards for Justice program.

U.N. member nations predominantly agreed that al-Adel’s presence in Iran is "a key factor" in al Qaeda’s decision not to formally announce his leadership role, according to the Security Council report. "His location raises questions that have a bearing on al Qaeda’s ambitions to assert leadership of a global movement in the face of challenges from" ISIS, a rival terror group still active in the region.

Iran on Thursday denied al-Adel is in the country, claiming that al Qaeda was "dismantled after the death of Osama Bin Laden," according to a statement published by the country’s permanent mission to the U.N.

"Linking Al-Qaeda to Iran is patently absurd and baseless," Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian tweeted on Thursday.

Jason Brodsky, UANI policy director, said Iran's alignment with al Qaeda highlights the dangers posed by any sanctions relief the Biden administration might provide Tehran as part of its efforts to secure a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal. This alliance also "raises tough questions for U.S. allies—who unlike Washington—have not imposed sanctions on Iran for its relationship to Al Qaeda," Brodsky said. "That needs to change, and I urge the Biden administration to make it a priority."

Analysts with UANI say Iran and al Qaeda have been building trust over the past two decades.

"Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, for example, have a successful track record of extending protection to key members of al Qaeda's operational structure, including Hamza bin Laden, Saad bin Laden, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," according to the watchdog group. "As a result, Iran will continue to be an effective operational headquarters for the terror group."

Published under: Al Qaeda , Iran , Terrorism