US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday accused Iran of harboring al-Qaeda, saying the country has become a “home base” for the terror group.
In a speech a week before leaving office, Pompeo confirmed a November New York Times report that al-Qaeda’s second-in-command was killed in Tehran over the last summer. The report said Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who used the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed by Israeli agents at the behest of the US.
Abdullah was wanted for his alleged role in planning the devastating attacks on two US embassies in Africa in 1998 and a 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya.
Iran denied the report of the Israeli assassination and Pompeo didn’t say who was behind the targeted killing in his remarks to the National Press Club.
“Al-Qaeda has a new home base. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a result, Bin Laden’s wicked creation is poised to gain strength and capabilities. We ignore this Iran-al-Qaeda nexus at our own peril,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo said that due to American efforts to stamp out the terror group after 9/11, al-Qaeda looked for a new haven and found one in Iran, which he called “the perfect choice.” According to Pompeo, “a sea change was happening within the Iran-al-Qaeda axis” in 2015, during the finalization of the Iran nuclear deal.
“Iran decided to allow al-Qaeda to establish a new operational headquarters, on the condition that al-Qaeda abides by the regime’s rules governing al-Qaeda’s stay inside of the country, agency and control,” Pompeo said, citing “brand new” information.
He said Iran gives al-Qaeda leaders “greater freedom of movement” under their supervision and that an Iranian ministry and the Revolutionary Guards gave travel documents and ID cards “that enabled al-Qaeda activity.” He alleged al-Qaeda “has centralized its leadership” in Iran.
“Tehran has allowed al-Qaeda to fundraise, to freely communicate with al-Qaeda members around the world, and to perform many other functions” previously directed from other countries,” he said.
“Iran is indeed the new Afghanistan,” Pompeo said, adding that it’s “actually worse” since the US has less intelligence and fewer options to attack them.
He said the Iran-al-Qaeda axis “threatens the progress of the Abraham Accords as well,” referring to the recent US-brokered normalization agreements Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.
“If al-Qaeda can use terror attacks in the region to blackmail nations from joining the warm peace with Israel, then we risk grinding generational momentum for peace in the Middle East to a halt,” he said.
Pompeo also warned the alliance between Iran and al-Qaeda raised the risk of terror attacks around the world, saying Western nations could be targeted and the Syrian civil war could yet be exacerbated by al-Qaeda fighters.
“This is a terror organization buried deep inside a nation-state with advanced capabilities,” he said of Iran’s alleged support for the terror group. “Imagine the threat to America, imagine the threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia.”
He urged more international pressure, calling the alleged alliance a “massive force for evil all over the world.”
US President Donald Trump’s hawkish top diplomat stopped short of urging military action, saying: “If we did have that option, if we chose to do that, there’s a much greater risk in executing it.”
But he announced sanctions on several individuals and a $7 million reward for information on an al-Qaeda member he said was believed to be in Iran identified as either Muhammad Abbatay or Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Pompeo’s allegations and pointed to US ties with Saudi Arabia.
“No one is fooled,” Zarif tweeted. “All 9/11 terrorists came” from Pompeo’s “favorite” Middle East “destinations” he added. “NONE from Iran.”
The Trump administration has waged a years-long campaign against Iran that has included crippling sanctions, withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Donald Trump is set to leave office on January 20.
The announcement will likely further complicate the incoming Biden administration’s stated goal of reengaging with Tehran.
It’s unclear why Iran would harbor al-Qaeda operatives. Iran is a Shiite state, and has fought with al-Qaeda, a Sunni jihadist organization. Experts told The New York Times that Iran may hold al-Qaeda members to prevent attacks in Iran, or to allow them to conduct operations against the US.
Iran cooperates with the Gaza-based Sunni terror groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The US and Iran have engaged in an ongoing exchange in recent weeks as the Trump administration draws to a close and Iran marked the one-year anniversary of Soleimani’s killing.
The back and forth has included threats, military maneuvers, legal action and escalating Iranian violations of the nuclear deal.
Agencies contributed to this report.