Pompeo Confirms Death of Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 in Iran in August
(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Michael Pompeo argued that the Iranian government has provided far more support to al-Qaeda than Americans realize, citing what he said was new evidence of a burgeoning alliance and publicly confirming for the first time that the group’s No. 2 was killed in Tehran last year.
Pompeo didn’t say who was responsible for the Aug. 7 assassination of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, also known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, though the New York Times reported in November that Israeli agents carried out the job at the behest of the U.S. He was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list and had been indicted over U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
The top U.S. diplomat disclosed Abdullah’s death at the start of a speech that was intended to ratchet up even more pressure on Iran as the Trump administration winds down, and to make it harder for the incoming Biden administration to re-enter a nuclear deal with the country’s leaders.
“Al-Qaeda has a new home base: It is the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo, who has only days remaining on the job, said on Tuesday. “We ignore this Iran-al Qaeda nexus at our own peril.”
Pompeo said he was publicly disclosing other information for the first time to show that the U.S. now believes Iran, which once closely monitored al-Qaeda operatives in the country, is giving them more freedom of movement and allowing the group to establish an operational headquarters. He said that’s given it added time and resources to fund-raise and plot new attacks.
“Al-Qaeda now has time, because they’re inside Iran, they have money,” Pompeo said. “They now have new tools for terror.”
Pompeo’s claim of an alliance between Iran and al-Qaeda is overblown, said Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran and former Middle East adviser on the National Security Council, and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He said the speech appeared to be another case of Pompeo intending to limit President-elect Joe Biden’s policy options as he’s done by designating Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism and Yemen’s Houthi rebel group as a terrorist organization.
“It’s vastly exaggerated,” Riedel said of Pompeo’s evidence. “Al-Qaeda is as vigorously anti-Shia as it is anti-American, and fighting Shiism is a cornerstone of the al-Qaeda ideology.”
Iran has always denied any official links with al-Qaeda, whose Sunni extremism it sees as a direct threat to the country’s Shiite strain of Islam. Although Tehran has often fought the group -- most notably during Afghanistan’s civil war, the U.S.’s toppling of the Taliban and, more recently, in its conflict with Islamic State -- it’s also widely believed to have engaged with the group pragmatically to shore up anti-U.S. resistance in the Middle East.
A 2004 U.S. report on the 9/11 attacks said investigators had uncovered evidence of cooperation between al-Qaeda and Iran, usually through Lebanon-based Hezbollah, and that some of the key operatives had traveled through the Islamic Republic.
Pompeo had to walk a fine line in his characterization of al-Qaeda as finding succor with Iran. The Trump administration has repeatedly said the group is almost destroyed, a point that Acting Department of Defense Secretary Christopher Miller made in a memo to staff in November. That contrasted with Pompeo’s claim that the group is “poised to gain strength” thanks to Iran.
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