US, Iran, and terrorism

Nozhan Etezadosaltaneh
June 29, 2015
Iranian Diplomacy
June 29, 2015
Interview with Alessandro Orsini, Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism at the University of Rome "Tor Vergata" and Research Affiliate at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About the interviewer: Nozhan Etezadosaltaneh is a journalist and a PhD student at the Institute of Cultural and Social Studies of Teheran, US, Iran, and Terrorism
Published in "Iranian Diplomacy" on June the 29th, 2015. Farsi article here


Alessandro Orsini

Alessandro Orsini

Etezadosaltaneh: Recently "The Daily Beast" published documents that show al-Qaeda and Bin Laden had more moderate approach toward Iran than ISIS. Do you think the assessment is accurate and if you agree with that why do you think al-Qaeda had a softer approach toward Iran in comparison with ISIS?

Orsini: I think that Bin Laden had a more moderate approach toward Iran than ISIS for two main reasons. First, for roughly a decade, the United States and Iran were both led by two men with very strong political beliefs. Americans said that Ahmadinejad was an extremist and Iranians said the same about Bush. In that strained ideological context, it is possible that Bin Laden, believing that Iran-United States relations would get worse year after year, thought that Iran would be a good place to make an investment for the future. Both Ahmadinejad's severe criticism of the US international politics and threatening words against Israel could have had an influence on Bin Laden's perspective toward Iran. We ought to remember Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush that was published by "The Washington Post" on the 9th of May, 2006. To Ahmadinejad, the United States of America were responsible for a long list of injustices and atrocities against innocent people. Even if Ahmadinejad condemned the 9/11 attacks, some of his accusations against the US were exactly the same as Bin Laden had brought in his "Letter to America" that came out in November 2002. In 2006, the Bush administration considered Iran to be the world's leading State sponsor of terrorism. Second, some of Bin Laden's relatives and al Qaeda's militants were hidden in Iran. It was another good reason for Bin Laden to be moderate toward Iran.

Etezadosaltaneh: In recent documents we see debate in al Qaeda about opening an office in Iran while we know that many sheikhs in Arab countries supported al Qaeda in the past years. Don't you think the issues are contradicted?

Orsini: I don't see any contradiction here. It is true that al Qaeda received financial support from many sheiks in Arab countries but the governments of those Arab countries enjoyed, for the most part, very good relations with the US. For al Qaeda to open an office in Qatar, to quote a clear example, it is not sufficient being supported by Qatari sheiks. It is needed being supported by the Qatari government.

Etezadosaltaneh: We know that al Qaeda and other Salafist groups as ISIS hate Iranian and particularly Shiite. Is there difference in approach of ISIS and al Qaeda about this issue?

Orsini: The difference is that both Bin Laden and al Zawahiri were openly critical of al Zarqawi's massacre of hundreds of Shiites in their holiest sites. Why? The answer can be found in a letter that al Zawahiri sent al Zarqawi, al Baghdadi's mentor, on the 9th of July, 2005. The then deputy of Bin Laden wrote that he was afraid that the vast majority of Muslim people would condemn the massacre of Shiites and the destruction of their Mosques. Al Zarqawi's militants were responsible for the Ashura massacre of the 2nd of March, 2004, when a series of terrorist explosions killed at least 178 and injured at least 500 Iraqi Shi'a Muslims. I want to make clear that al Zawahiri had no pity for the suffering that Shiites had to carry on. He was interested in not loosing consensus among Sunni Muslim people. He didn't want to loose what he verbatim called a "media battle" for the "hearts and minds" of Muslims. Needless to say, Al Zawahiri praised al Zarqawi for his very important contribution to the Islamic jihad.

Etezadosaltaneh: Do you think Iran and al Qaeda may have common interest now?

Orsini: As for today, I don't think that al Qaeda and Iran share common interests on important issues. Iran supports Bashar al Assad in Syria whereas al Qaeda has been fighting for overthrowing Assad's regime since 2011. Iran supports the Iraqi President al Abadi while al Qaeda aims to overthrow him. Iran supports the Houthi movement in Yemen that is at war with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Iran supports Hezbollah that is fighting against ISIS and al Nusra Front - an al Qaeda affiliate - in the Qalamoun region, a territory located on both the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the porous border.

Etezadosaltaneh: Do you think Iran and al Qaeda may have had common interest in the past?

Orsini: Some prominent al Qaeda's figures lived in Iran. Mushin al Fahdli is believed to have relocated to Iran from Afghanistan in 2009. He then moved to Syria in 2013 after having received orders from al Qaeda to lead the "Khorasan" group. According to the US Department of State, Mushin al Fahdli was an al Qaeda's facilitator and financier in Iran where he was under "house arrest." Bin Laden's son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, moved from Afghanistan to Iran in 2002. Labeled as the "spokesperson" for al Qaeda, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was involved in recruiting militants and editing videos of Bin Laden. I could name other al Qaeda members or people related to Bin Laden that took refuge in Iran, including one of his wives, but I want to be short and to the point. Between al Qaeda and Iran, rather than a romantic relationship, there was a turbulent one. On the 13th of November 2008, al Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Pakistan, Athar Zada, in order to negotiate the release of some of its members. Iran soon became aware that giving refuge to al Qaeda members was not a good deal. Along with these facts, I would also note that both then Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei condemned the 9/11 attacks and the terrorists who carried out the suicide mission. I would also note that, two days after the 9/11 attacks, many Iranians, who gathered for a soccer match, in Tehran, observed a moment of silence. On the evening of September 11, 2001, about ten thousand Iranian people gathered in Madar Square in Tehran in a spontaneous candlelight vigil to express sympathy and support for the American people.

Etezadosaltaneh: Some separatist activities in recent years and radical groups – for example "Jaish al-Adl" in southern of Iran – were related with al Qaeda. Do you think al Qaeda and his related group in Iran are a threat to security and stability in Iran?

Orsini: Al Qaeda's long-term goal is not to defend an existing government but the establishment of a new one, which is the Caliphate. As a result, Al Qaeda and its related groups are always a threat to the security and stability of whatever country, particularly Iran.

Etezadosaltaneh: We see claims about cooperation between Iran and al Qaeda while in the last years Iran and US cooperated against al Qaeda for example in 2001. Moreover, the documents showed that al Zarqawi previous leader of Iraq al Qaeda branch tried to split between Iran and US. With regard to this evidences can we say US and Iran had common interest in fighting against terrorists particularly al Qaeda?

Orsini: I think that both Barak Obama and Rouhani, at least in their intentions, have a broad project in mind that requires more than cooperation against al Qaeda and ISIS. My understanding is that Obama thinks that Iran is an important country and that it is not possible to ignore it forever. Once changed its attitude toward Israel, it will be difficult to stop Iran from taking on a leading role in international politics and it is comprehensible that al Qaeda has no interest in seeing US and Iran moving closer to each other. I think that both Barack Obama and Rouhani agreed that time has come to think about how to shape a new political order in the Middle East. It is not only a problem of cooperation against ISIS and al Qaeda. The stakes are higher, as it is demonstrated by the meeting held in Camp David between Obama and the officials from six Persian Gulf countries on the 14th of May, 2015. Officially, the meeting was aimed to discuss the emerging nuclear deal with Iran but Saudi Arabia and its allies know very well that a change in international politics could come in a relatively short time span. I don't know if Obama's efforts will prove to be a success but he is clearly operating with the intention to enter a new and more peaceful era for the people of the Middle East. On the 5th of April, 2015, in a very interesting interview with "The New York Times" columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama said that talking with Cuba, Burma and Iran is better than going on with endless isolation and sanction against these countries. Political culture matters and can affect international politics.

Etezadosaltaneh: Do you think the cooperation between Iran and US against ISIS and al Qaeda in the region can improve stability and security in Middle East? Do you think that such cooperation would be enough to defeat ISIS?

Orsini: ISIS's military is not an uncontainable force. My judgment is based on many facts. For example, ISIS militants have never shot down any coalition airplane. The Jordanian plane that crashed in Syria on the 24th of December, 2014, was not shot down by ISIS as their militants claimed. According to "The New York Times," between September 2014 and April 2015, there were 4050 air strikes against ISIS. That means that ISIS militants have had 4050 opportunities to throw down coalition airplanes but none of them was damaged in any way. Nobody can foretell the future but I think that, at this moment, ISIS military capabilities are not strong enough to require something more than cooperation between Iran and US in order for them to defeat ISIS.

Etezadosaltaneh: What do you think about the role of US in progress the al Qaeda? Some experts argument that the role of US in support Arab jihadists in Afghanistan against USSR forces and after that attack against Iraq and Afghanistan was the main reason for al Qaeda's growth.

Orsini: It is not easy to answer this question. Anyway, I don't think that the United States was the main cause for al Qaeda's growth. On this issue, some scholars developed interesting analyses but we should also be aware of the fact that there are many ideological manipulations related to this topic. There is a difference between an historical analysis and an ideological one. In the first case, we gather documents in order to reconstruct the causes that brought about a political phenomenon. In the second, we gather documents in a very selective manner in order to damage the public image of a country, a social class or a single person. Those who say that the United States is responsible for the September attacks because it supported Arab jihadists in Afghanistan in 1979 lack historical sense. To explain why, I will mention an analogy. During the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, Saudi Arabia decided to give a huge financial support to Saddam Hussein whose army, once the war against Iran ended, invaded Kuwait. Such an invasion put at risk the existence of the House of Saud who had sent 31 billions of dollars to Saddam to fight against the Iranians. Can we say that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the invasion of Kuwait? Before talking about US support of Arab jihadists fighting against USSR in Afghanistan, we should ask in what historical context such a support was provided. In 1979, nobody could foretell what would happen in 2001, twenty-two years later. In 1979, the problem was fighting the Soviet Union and not al Qaeda that was founded in 1988.

Etezadosaltaneh: Some say that the United States uses al Qaeda against Iran. What is your opinion?

Orsini: We should agree on the meaning of the verb "to use." If it has to be meant in the sense that the United States gave financial or logistic support to al Qaeda in order to damage Iran's interests, I would say no. The United States didn't use al Qaeda against Iran.

Etezadosaltaneh: What are the differences between al Qaeda and Isis?

Orsini: There are many differences. I am going to tell you only eight of them. First of all, al Qaeda preferred to attack enemies on their own soil whereas ISIS prefers to exhort mujahedin to go fight in Syria and Iraq. The 7 July 2005 London Bombing is the kind of terrorist attack that Bin Laden liked the most whereas the battle for Kobani city is al Baghdadi's favorite way of fighting against infidels. Second, al Qaeda maintains that the Caliphate cannot be established by force but through consensus or – to quote al Zawahiri's own words – by "winning hearts and minds" of Muslim people. On the contrary, ISIS states that violence is the only possible path to the construction of the Caliphate. Third, ISIS made important progress in the field of jihadist communication. Videos released by ISIS attract people's attention much more successfully than the typical videos released by al Qaeda. When it comes to violence, images are powerful than words. Bin Laden liked to explain his point of view through a line of reasoning based on a concatenation of causes and effects, where US was the cause and al Qaeda the effect. Al Baghdadi prefers to release images of people being burned alive because he knows that even those who have no interest in international politics hurry to see such a sadist show. It turns out that ISIS's "cinema" is always more crowded than al Qaeda's theatre. Fourth, ISIS can exploit al Qaeda's work of spreading the jihadi ideology throughout the world and can also avoid reiterating al Qaeda's main mistakes. That is because the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was established in October 2006, eighteen years after the foundation of al Qaeda. ISIS can learn from al Qaeda. Fifth, having captured some oilfields, ISIS can rely on economic resources that al Qaeda was never able to acquire. Sixth, Bin Laden - soon after reaching the peak of his international visibility thanks to the September 11 attacks - had to face President George W. Bush who had a political culture that was particularly belligerent. He had no problem in sending ground troops abroad. On the contrary, Obama has a political culture that is averse to war. As long as it is possible, he prefers to avoid the use of American military force. From this point of view, ISIS is luckier than al Qaeda because being subjected to airstrikes that are often imprecise and ineffective is much better than being simultaneously subjected to both airstrikes and an invasion of 100.000 American soldiers along with tanks and warships. Political culture matters also in international politics, and affects counterterrorism measures against ISIS. Seventh, al Baghdadi is twenty years younger than al Zawahiri and also seems to be more charismatic. Eight, ISIS controls a vast territory and aims to establish a social system where the State assumes primary responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, as in matters of health care, education, employment, and social security. Al Qaeda portrayed itself as a vanguard of specialized fighters and operational masterminds like Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, who carried out many of the most high-profile terrorist plots of the past twenty years, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Millennium Plots, and the beheading of Daniel Pearl, or Anwar al-Awlaki another well known operational mastermind who inspired the 2015 Charlie Ebdo shooting in Paris.

Etezadosaltaneh: How do you see the role of Iran in the next years?

Orsini: Much depends on Iran's attitude toward Israel. We cannot expect that Israel will be the first to step forward because it is in a dominant position in the Middle East and has no interest in changing the political landscape of the region. As Hans Morgenthau would say, politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. Iran moves first.