National Security
4:16 pm
Tue April 23, 2013

Canada Case Raises Concern About Link Between Al-Qaida, Iran

Originally published on Tue April 23, 2013 8:04 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A different terror plot was foiled yesterday in Canada. That's according to the Canadian government. Two men are in custody. They're accused of planning to derail a passenger train with explosives. Canadian authorities say the plot was supported by al-Qaida operatives in Iran. Iran denies that.

Is it credible; is there any formal relationship between Al-Qaida and Iran? It's a question that's been explored at least as far back as the 9/11 Commission.

And for more on it, we turn now to Peter Bergen, who is CNN's national security analyst, and he's written extensively on the relationship between Al-Qaida and Iran. Welcome to the program once again.

PETER BERGEN: Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: The authorities in Canada said the suspects were guided by, and I quote, "Al-Qaida elements living in Iran." What would those elements be?

BERGEN: Well, after the fall of the Taliban in the winter of 2001, quite a number of Al-Qaida leaders and bin Laden's family members went to Iran. And there was sound reason for that. In Pakistan, Al-Qaida's leaders were being arrested on a very frequent basis - in the sort of 2003-2004 period. And thereafter, were being picked off by American drones. And so, Iran was a safe haven for them. They lived they are under some form of house arrest.

Why the Iranians kept them is not very clear. But they were probably some kind of bargaining chips if there was ever some deal with United States. And, you know, we're talking about the military commander of Al-Qaida, an Egyptian called Saif al-Adel, the spokesman for the group, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. And so, there was a number of these guys who were living in Iran.

SIEGEL: But you use the phrase, a kind of house arrest.

BERGEN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: It seems to have been both a refuge and being carefully watched, at the same time.

BERGEN: That's right. They weren't free to leave the country or to move around. According to Saudi officials I've spoken to, they were able to, for instance, order a campaign of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia - the al-Qaida leaders in Iran - a campaign that began in 2003, and ended up killing a fair number of Saudis and Westerners living in Saudi Arabia in the sort of 2003-2006 timeframe.

SIEGEL: The Canadian authorities said there was no evidence that this terror plot had been sponsored by the Iranian government. And the Iranian foreign minister told an Iranian news agency that a link between his country and al-Qaida is, and I quote, "The most hilarious thing I've heard in my 64 years."

And, of course, you know, to a lot of people, they say, well, Iran is the most powerful Shiite Muslim country in the world. Al-Qaida is a Sunni Muslim operation, how seriously should we take the idea of a link?

BERGEN: Well, it's just the fact that a number of Al-Qaida leaders have lived in Iran and bin Laden's family members lived in Iran. I mean, that's just not controversial. What does it mean is the big question. And the arrest of these two guys in Canada, and the arrest last month of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith - whose bin Laden's spokesman, who was living Iran and is also a son-in-law - I mean, these guys can probably shed quite a lot of light on what the actual nature of those links are.

They may be nothing. They might be passive acquiescence that the Iranians just allowed these people to live in their country. Or it could be something more. We just don't know.

SIEGEL: From what you've heard, from what the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said yesterday in their news conference, does what they're alleging, does it sound like an Al-Qaida plot to you?

BERGEN: I mean, who knows? Certainly there was some discussion in the documents recovered in the compound where bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, Pakistan, about derailing trains. But that doesn't necessarily mean that this is an Al-Qaida signature plot, because there haven't been very many examples - I can't think of any, in fact - of where a group has successfully derailed a train.

Certainly they're focused on transportation. There was an Al-Qaida recruit who - a guy called Bryant Neal Vinas, who grew up in Long Island, who was very interested in doing some kind of attack on Long Island railroad a few years after 9/11. So, you know, if they can do planes, trains are obviously easier.

SIEGEL: Well, Peter Bergen, thank you very much for talking with us.

BERGEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Peter Bergen, he's also director of the national security program at the New America Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.