Al Qaeda operatives based in Iran worked on chemical and biological weapons, according to a letter written to Osama bin Laden that is described in a new book by a top former U.S. intelligence official.
The letter was captured by a U.S. military sensitive site exploitation team during the raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad headquarters in May 2011. It is described in Field of Fight, out Tuesday from Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Michael Ledeen of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“One letter to bin Laden reveals that al Qaeda was working on chemical and biological weapons in Iran,” Flynn writes.
Flynn's claim, if true, significantly advances what we know about al Qaeda's activity in Iran. The book was cleared by the intelligence community's classification review process. And U.S. intelligence sources familiar with the bin Laden documents tell us the disclosure on al Qaeda's WMD work is accurate.
Flynn notes that only a small subset of bin Laden's files have been released to the public. The “Defense Intelligence Agency's numerous summaries and analyses of the files remain classified,” too, Flynn writes. “But even the public peek gives us considerable insight into the capabilities of this very dangerous global organization.”
It's not just al Qaeda.
“There's a lot of information on Iran in the files and computer discs captured at the Pakistan hideout of Osama bin Laden,” Flynn writes in the introduction. The authors note that the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda “has always been strained” and “[s]ometimes bin Laden himself would erupt angrily at the Iranians.” Previously released documents and other evidence show that al Qaeda kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in order to force a hostage exchange and bin Laden was very concerned about the Iranians' ability to track his family members.
And yet the book makes clear that Flynn believes there is much more to the al Qaeda-Iran relationship than the public has been told. And that's not an accident. Obama administration “censors have been busy,” Flynn writes, blocking the release of the bin Laden documents to the public and, in some cases, to analysts inside the U.S. intelligence community. “Some of it—a tiny fraction—has been declassified and released, but the bulk of it is still under official seal. Those of us who have read bin Laden's material know how important it is…”
Not surprisingly, Obama administration officials bristle at Flynn's characterization of their lack of transparency and lack of urgency on jihadists and their state sponsors. “Mike Flynn, in true Kremlin form, has been peddling these baseless conspiracy theories for years. Anyone who thinks Iran was or is in bed with al Qaeda doesn't know much about either,” an Obama administration official told THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
It's an odd line of attack, given the fact that the Obama administration has repeatedly accused Iran of directly aiding al Qaeda. The Treasury and State Departments publicly accused the Iranian regime of allowing al Qaeda to operate inside Iran in: July 2011, December 2011, February 2012,July 2012, October 2012, May 2013, January 2014, February 2014, April 2014, and August 2014. In addition, in congressional testimony in February 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the relationship as a “marriage of convenience.”
Asked about the administration's own repeated statements pointing to the Iranian regime's deal with al Qaeda, the administration official who dismissed Flynn's claim as a “baseless conspiracy” theory declined to comment further.
The Flynn/Ledeen claim about al Qaeda's WMD work in Iran comes with an interesting wrinkle. The authors preface their disclosure of al Qaeda's work on “chemical and biological weapons in Iran” by suggesting that the revelation was included in documents already public.
But the only document released to date that seems to touch on the subject is a March 28, 2007, letter to an al Qaeda operative known as “Hafiz Sultan.” The letter, which discussed the possibility of Iran-based al Qaeda operatives using chlorine gas on Kurdish leaders and includes a likely reference to Atiyah 'Abd-al-Rahman, was released by the administration via the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in May 2012. President Obama's Treasury Department has claimed that Rahman was appointed by Osama bin Laden “to serve as al Qaeda's emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.” It is not, however, addressed to bin Laden and it does not include a reference to biological weapons.
And while the U.S. Treasury and State Department have repeatedly sanctioned al Qaeda's operatives inside Iran and offered rewards for information on their activities, as noted, statements from Treasury and the State Department do not mention al Qaeda's “chemical and biological weapons” work inside Iran.
The takeaway: It does not appear that the al Qaeda document referenced by Flynn has been released by the U.S. government.
Flynn and others who have seen the documents say there are more explosive revelations in the bin Laden files kept from the public. Those already released give us a hint. One document, released in 2015, is a letter presumably written by Osama bin Laden to the “Honorable brother Karim.” The recipient of the October 18, 2007, missive, “Karim,” was likely an al Qaeda veteran known Abu Ayyub al Masri, who led al Qaeda in the Iraq (AQI) at the time.
Bin Laden chastised the AQI leader for threatening to attack Iran. The al Qaeda master offered a number of reasons why this didn't make sense. “You did not consult with us on that serious issue that affects the general welfare of all of us,” bin Laden wrote. “We expected you would consult with us for these important matters, for as you are aware, Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages.”
That language from bin Laden sounds a lot like the language the Obama administration used in July 2011, when a statement from the U.S. Treasury noted that the network in Iran “serves as the core pipeline through which Al Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia.”
David Cohen, who was then a top Treasury official and is now the number two official at the CIA, told us back then: “There is an agreement between the Iranian government and al Qaeda to allow this network to operate. There's no dispute in the intelligence community on this.”
Why, then, is the Obama administration attempting to dismiss the cooperative relationship between Iran and al Qaeda as a “baseless conspiracy?” Good question.
And it's one that releasing the rest of the documents could help answer.
Note: Flynn's co-author Michael Ledeen is a colleague of Thomas Joscelyn at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.