Documents captured by the United States army in an Al-Qaeda safe house in Pakistan expose the ambivalent relations between Al-Qaeda and Iran.

The front cover of the CTC analysis of 17 internal Al-Qaeda communications.
The front cover of the CTC analysis of 17 internal Al-Qaeda communications.


1. On May 3, 2012, a year after Osama bin Laden was killed by an elite navy SEAL team unit, the United States released 17 de-classified documents captured in an Al-Qaeda safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan. They were issued in both the original and in English translation and an analysis in a book entitled Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?, published by the Combating Terrorism Center located at West Point.[1]

2. The 17 letters were part of 6,000 documents found in computers and on hard drives taken from a secret bin Laden compound in Abbottabad. They were written between 2006 and 2011, and include electronic letters and drafts written by bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders.

3. The documents include correspondence from 2009 and 2010 between Osama bin Laden and a senior Al-Qaeda figure (aka Atiah) dealing with the release of Al-Qaeda operatives detained in Iran, and Al-Qaeda's view of Iran in general. The letters clearly reflect Al-Qaeda's grave suspicions of Iran, which it regards as an infidel Shiite country headed by a gang of criminals whose policy towards Al-Qaeda is hypcritical.

4. Shiite Iran and Sunni Al-Qaeda have a traditionally ambivalent relationship, the result of  deep ideological and religious differences. However, the two also collaborate on operational matters to promote common interests. One of Iran's goals in collaborating with Al-Qaeda is to prevent it from operating against Iran; another is to exploit its operational capabilities (and those of the global jihad) in the Middle East and around the globe to attack their mutual enemies, i.e., the United States, Israel and the Jewish people.

5. The letters show that the complex relations between the two have improved since 2009 when Iran released Al-Qaeda operatives and relatives of bin Laden who had been detained several years previously. A practical expression of the improved relations was Iran's permitting an Al-Qaeda network to operate an important route in Iran from Afghanistan and Pakistan to focal points of terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. The network dealt with transferring operatives and funds while the Iranian regime turned a blind eye and perhaps even provided practical support (despite Al-Qaeda's terrorist activities in countries like Syria and Iraq which harm Iranian interests, especially in view of regional upheavals).

6. In conclusion, Iran is important to Al-Qaeda for advancing its logistic activities (transferring operatives and funds)  and as a base for its operational activities, which is why the Al-Qaeda leadership regards the network in Iran as an important asset. That is especially true in view of regional upheavals and Al-Qaeda leadership's desire to strengthen its foothold in the area, and in view of the Al-Qaeda's having been weakened in Pakistan by the targeted killings of many of its senior leaders there (the latest of whom was Abu Yahya al-Libi) and the possibility that the release of detainees would strengthen its ranks.

[1]  For the original letters see