By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda's relationship with Iran's government has been fractious at best and openly antagonistic at worst, according to documents confiscated from Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan and made public on Thursday.
In the years since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, high-ranking al Qaeda leaders, lower level militants and members of bin Laden's family were held in custody by Iranian authorities, though U.S. officials say precise conditions of their confinement are unclear.
On occasion, Iranian authorities promised to release, and may have actually released, al Qaeda figures and family members. But at other times, the documents suggest, Iran and al Qaeda were engaged in what could almost be characterized as tit-for-tat hostage taking.
"The documents suggest that the relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran was antagonistic, dominated by indirect negotiations over the release of jihadis and their families detained in Iran," said Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins, director of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a co-author of an analysis of the confiscated documents published by the center on Thursday.
Some U.S. critics of Iran have suggested that Iran's relationship with al Qaeda was less hostile, or even cooperative at times.
Some American conservatives claimed that Iran was complicit in the September 11 attacks, and that, afterward Iran had provided a comfortable safe haven and base of operations for al Qaeda personnel fleeing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Iran's Shi'ite Muslim rulers deny cooperating with al Qaeda, which has its roots in the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam dominant in the Arabian Peninsula. In their public statements, Iranian officials call al Qaeda a terrorist group, and Iranian security forces periodically report the arrest of al Qaeda members.
According to the West Point study, al Qaeda considered Iran as an alternative base for its activities after the U.S. attacked its Afghanistan safe havens in late 2001.
The study noted that a senior deputy to bin Laden, Saif al-Adl, suggested in public writings that al Qaeda had established contact with supporters in Iran affiliated with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, though not with the Iranian government.
At the time that he wrote about this, Adl himself was believed to be under detention by Iranian authorities, as were the families of other al Qaeda militants who had fled Afghanistan.
Documents seized by the Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden a year ago provide more recent insights into Iran-al Qaeda dealings. In a letter to bin Laden dated June 2009, one of his lieutenants reported that the Iranians had released "a group of brothers in several batches last month," and were planning more releases, including possibly bin Laden family members, "within a week."
According to the analysis by West Point's experts, the Iranians likely were not doing this out of sympathy for al Qaeda. Rather, the analysis suggests, the letter to bin Laden indicates that Tehran freed some al Qaeda detainees in response to threats from al Qaeda and the November 2008 kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat stationed at Iran's consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan. The diplomat was released in March 2010.
However, the release of bin Laden relatives mentioned in the letter to the al Qaeda leader did not fully materialize on schedule. Instead, one of bin Laden's sons who had been held in Iran, Saad, reportedly was killed later in 2009.
This led his father, in a documents seized from his hideout, to advise an associate that he wanted a letter from Saad to be included in al Qaeda's archives "in view of the important information it reveals about the truth of the Iranian regime."
The West Point report notes that the Iranians continued to hold one of bin Laden's daughters and her husband even after the diplomat was set free.
"It is not fair to separate women from their husbands; it is therefore necessary that they release her and her husband" along with the husband's second wife, bin Laden wrote in a lengthy letter to an aide in May 2010 which was posted on the West Point website.
The West Point analysis of bin Laden's correspondence says that while it is clear that the al Qaeda-Iran relationship was antagonistic, the rationale behind Iran's detention of al Qaeda militants for years "without due process" is unclear.
The study says one reason the Iranians may have held al Qaeda personnel for so long was to deter the militant group from attacking Iran. Another reason, the report suggests, might be that Iran was holding al Qaeda detainees as bargaining chips for future dealings with Washington.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)