At some point before the attacks, bin-Laden had realized that al-Qaeda was going to need a new home. He knew that after the targets in America had been destroyed, the Americans would come gunning for him. They knew where he was: in the mountains of east Afghanistan near the Pakistani city of Peshawar. He needed a new base of operations. Bin Laden chose Iraqi Kurdistan, and dispatched one of his second-tier commanders, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to secure al-Qaeda’s new home. Zarqawi established the necessary infrastructure in Iraq, and obtained permission from the Iranians for al-Qaeda to pass through their country clandestinely. The plan was to cross from Herat, Afghanistan, to Mashhad, Iran; then through Tehran into northeastern Iraq. Since Saddam Hussein was no longer in control of Iraqi Kurdistan, his knowledge and approval were not needed.
Iran Expropriates al-Qaeda
Sometime during November 2001, 19 Arab men, 11 of them high-ranking al-Qaeda members, and their families crossed the border from Herat into Mashhad. One of them was Saad bin Laden. Officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) escorted them to Tehran. Soon afterward, 900 more al-Qaeda fighters and their families made the border crossing. By previous agreement, their passports were not stamped by Iranian border guards. However, they did receive letters of transit signed by an Iranian official, just in case they ever needed to prove they were in Iran legally. The refugees expected to rest in Tehran, and then push on into Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iranians, however, had other plans:
They had realized that, by keeping bin Laden’s top commanders inside Iran, they could expropriate al-Qaeda’s worldwide terror network in one gulp. The beauty of this tactic was that no one, including al-Qaeda cells in 60 countries, would realize that Iran was now running the show.
The Al-Qaeda commanders were not exactly coerced; on the other hand, they were not exactly given a choice. By the end of the year, all 150 of them had been sequestered in Tehran. They were well-treated. They were given land, homes, salaries, and benefits. Schools were provided for their children. Communications and logistics were provided so that they could continue planning attacks. They could even leave Iran to manage preparations in the targeted nations. Their families, however, stayed behind. All in all, life in Tehran proved to be more than bearable. The wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan were soon forgotten. By the end of the year, Iran’s expropriation of al-Qaeda was complete.
However, the story had one more sinister twist: by keeping bin Laden’s top commanders in Iran, the Iranian government had effectively taken them hostage. If America were to realize that Iran had materially supported al-Qaeda in the attacks of September 11th, Iran could trade al-Qaeda in exchange for a pledge that we would not invade Iran.
Iran Expropriates Osama bin Laden
Unlike his commanders, bin Laden had a much wider choice of options for leaving Afghanistan. Apparently, however, he chose to follow his own plan and make the crossing from Herat to Mashhad. (He was last seen in Afghanistan on November 9, 2001.) The Iranians gently enticed him into their silk-lined prison. In bin Laden’s case, staying in Iran made good sense; he needed medical attention. Tehran could provide it; Iraqi Kurdistan could not. To sweeten the deal, Tehran allowed bin Laden to continue as al-Qaeda’s figurehead. Bin Laden got to play the role of Caliph of a resurgent, militant, worldwide Islam; Iran got to conduct worldwide terror without incurring any of the blame.
Iran’s expropriation of bin Laden had the same cynical twist that had been applied to the expropriation of his commanders: he too was now a hostage, and a valuable one. However, this may now be academic: apparently bin Laden’s health has gotten worse. He has been spotted trailing an intravenous tube. He no longer videotapes his pronouncements; they are released in audio form only. And Zawahiri has begun to take on bin Laden’s role as spokesman.
Al-Qaeda as a Branch of the Iranian Government
In this roundabout way, Iran used the attacks of 9/11 to commandeer a proxy army with worldwide reach. In order to manage bin Laden, 150 of his top commanders, and their families, and to keep their presence inside Iran a secret, Iran needed many resources. Al-Qaeda’s top echelon was not going to take kindly to their new prison unless it was a comfortable one. They and their families had many needs. Iran began to build an administrative infrastructure to provide them. Someone was needed to manage it, but that person could not be bin Laden. The clerics solved this problem by appointing a minister to oversee al-Qaeda, while allowing bin Laden direct access to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
By 2003, Iran had transformed al-Qaeda into an official — albeit secret — branch of the Iranian government. From this point forward, whenever al-Qaeda killed, regardless of where the killing took place, Iran was responsible.
Within the international community of nations, if any doubts remained that Iran was firmly in control of al-Qaeda, they were dispelled forever on April 26, 2006. On that day, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei threatened to attack U.S. targets around the world if America attacked Iran. Only by using a clandestine network of Islamic terrorists can Khamenei make good his threat. That network is al-Qaeda.