Yemen is emerging as a major front in the War on Terror, with Director of National Intelligence describing the country as a “jihadist battleground.” With the Yemeni government already battling Shiite militants in the north, the Al-Qaeda surge in the country threatens to cause full-scale violence that may engulf all of Yemen. There is growing evidence that a major cause for Al-Qaeda’s growing success in Yemen is the result of Iranian intervention.
The attack on the U.S. embassy September 17, 2009, which involved two car bombs and the use of rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles by armed attackers disguised as local law enforcement, brought world attention to the escalating situation in Yemen. The attack, which killed 19 people, “indicates a marked increase in jihadist capabilities in Yemen,” Stratfor concluded.
The terrorist attack may have been the first achievement of the Iran-Al-Qaeda alliance in Yemen. The Telegraph reported on November 28, 2008, two months after the bombing, that a letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda, to Saad Bin Laden, the eldest son of Osama Bin Laden had been intercepted. Saad found safe harbor on Iranian territory since at least 2002 and only left the country for Pakistan in September, according to then-Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell.
In the letter, Zawahiri thanks the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps for their “monetary and infrastructure assistance” that enabled the group to commit recent operations in Yemen, apparently in reference to the attack on the U.S. embassy. “Iran's Revolutionary Guards have provided important support in helping al-Qaeda to turn Yemen into a major centre of operations,” the Telegraph quoted a “senior Western security official” as saying.
A “senior U.S. intelligence official” confirmed to the Long War Journal that Saad Bin Laden acts as a liaison between Zawahiri and Iran, and even elaborated on the communication between the two parties. “Zawahiri was concerned that the al Qaeda-manned militia fighting on the side of the government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels might threaten Iran’s interests in Yemen," LWJ quoted the source as saying. Iran has been widely accused of supporting the Zaydi Shiites who are fighting the Yemeni government.
Arab press outlets first wrote about the Iran connection in August. The Saudi Al-Watan reported that a senior Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, Naif Muhammad al-Kahtani, also known as Abu Haman, was receiving Iranian financing to support attacks in the country as well as Saudi Arabia. On January 20, the Yemen Observer reported that Al-Iman University in San’a was being used by Iran and Qatar to train volunteers who wanted to fight the Israelis in the Gaza Strip. Emir Al-Thani of Qatar, ostensibly a U.S. ally and natural enemy of Iran due to their Arab ethnicity, met with President Ahmadinejad this month and said that the Islamic world needed a superpower like Iran.
The Reform Party of Syria, a U.S.-based group of dissidents, claimed on September 15 that they received intelligence from Palestinian sources in Syria that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were using the remants of Abu Nidal’s terrorist group, called the Revolutionary Council, in Syria to develop a terrorist network in Eb, Yemen “where training is underway.” Although Abu Nidal himself was assassinated in Baghdad in 2002, almost certainly at the hands of the Iraqi regime that was harboring him, the rest of his group departed Iraq for Syria.
Iran is clearly supporting Al-Qaeda’s activities in Yemen logistically, allowing members of the terrorist organization on Iranian soil to run a ratline into the Gulf. The government of Saudi Arabia in early February released a list of their 85 most wanted terrorists, 35 of which are believed to be in Iran or were last seen there, according to ASharq Awsat. The paper reported that the Saudis believed that the Al-Qaeda figures based in Iran were linking up with operatives in Yemen.
The best example of this ratline’s operation is the case of Said Ali al-Shihri, an Al-Qaeda operative who once was held at Guantanamo Bay and then transferred to Saudi custody in 2007. After graduating from the Saudi terrorist “rehabilitation” program, he met with “extremists” in Iran, where he assisted with their travel to Afghanistan. From Iran, he traveled to Yemen and became the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch there, later appearing on a videotape to announce his appointment.
Iran’s assistance to both Al-Qaeda in Yemen as well as the Shiite Zaydi rebels is an important case study in Iran’s ability to play both sides. In Iraq, the Iranian regime similarly supported both sides, backing both the Shiite militia and Sunni insurgents. As the battle in Yemen heats up, the U.S. must recognize that the country isn’t simply a front in the struggle against Al-Qaeda, but a new front in Iran’s offensive against Western interests in the region.