The history of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq has largely been written. He grew up as a petty criminal in Jordan, travelled to Afghanistan twice after the war with the Soviets was over and set up his own camp with the help of Al Qaeda, was imprisoned in Jordan, and eventually went to Iraq to fight the Americans. The one part of his life that has not been written about much was his two stints in Iran in 2001 and 2003 and his ties with the government there. Zarqawi originally began running his supply lines through Iran to his camp in Afghanistan, and later received direct support from Tehran when he was building up his terrorist network in Germany and Iraq.
When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was organizing his jihadist organization in Afghanistan called Jund al-Sham it included cells and routes through Iran. In 1999, Zarqawi travelled to Afghanistan for the second time after he was amnestied from prison in Jordan. When he arrived in the country he stayed in an area under the control of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Zarqawi then met with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar. The two did not get along as they had different views on jihad, but prominent Al Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel thought that the group should maintain contacts with Zarqawi That led Al Qaeda to provide Zarqawi with $200,000 to help him set up his own camp in Herat along the Afghanistan-Iranian border in 2000. There he went about creating his own network that stretched to Europe and Iran. The Iranian city of Mashhad for example, became an important way station for men and material to enter Zarqawi’s camp. His top operative in Iran was a man named Abu Ali who ran and coordinated a cell in Germany. Afghanistan had become a failed state controlled by various factions and warlords after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Zarqawi had missed out on the war against the communists in the country, but like many other jihadists felt it provided a perfect setting to start his own organization. This was probably where Tehran first became aware of his activities as it supported both Hekmatyar and Al Qaeda. It also did nothing about him establishing his supply lines through Iran.
Zarqawi would become more involved with Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In October 2001 the Americans began their campaign to overthrow the Taliban. Zarqawi and his men fought alongside Al Qaeda in Herat and Kandahar, during which time he was wounded by a U.S. airstrike. The war drove Zarqawi and 300 of his men to flee to Iran in December. He then went to Tehran for medical treatment on his injury. Zarqawi ended up staying in Iran until April 2002, and was initially hosted by a follower of Hekmatyar who he’d met from his time in Afghanistan. Zarqawi then set about rebuilding his organization, setting up camps and safe houses in Zahedan, Isfahan, and Tehran. He also established ties with Ansar al-Islam in Iraq’s Kurdistan, and travelled to Lebanon, Syria and the rest of Iraq to recruit. Germany’s Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) in an investigation that ended in the arrest of a Zarqawi cell found evidence that Iran was actively supporting him at this time. According to the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), the Iranian Revolutionary Guard provided Zarqawi with phone numbers he could use. Jordanian intelligence seconded the Germans, and claimed that Iran provided weapons, uniforms, and equipment to the terrorist. When Zarqawi was based in Afghanistan, the Iranian authorities turned a blind eye to his activities in their country. When he relocated there in 2001, they became more actively involved in his operations. As long as he was focused upon striking the west and Arab governments Tehran didn’t appear to have any problems with him being in the country.
During this time Zarqawi met back up with Al Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel in Iran, and the two decided that Iraq should be their next focus due to the impending U.S. invasion. Adel would later write that Iraq would be the perfect opportunity to create an Islamic State. The American intervention could be used as a rallying cry for the Islamic masses to be radicalized and turned towards jihad. Zarqawi then decided upon a two-part plan. First, most of his men would move to Kurdistan and work with Ansar al-Islam in preparation for the American arrival. Other would go to Germany where they were to carry out terrorist attacks upon Jewish targets. Zarqawi and Adel were right, Iraq did provide a turning point for jihadists, and turned the former into an international terrorist that would rival even bin Laden. His activities in Germany would also hasten his move into Iraq.
In April 2002 Zarqawi’s cell in Germany was arrested leading to the West to put pressure on Iran to crackdown on his group. The detention of Zarqawi’s men in Germany alerted the western authorities to his presence in Iran and how his network was working. Both Germany and the United States complained to Tehran about it harboring the terrorist. The Iranians responded by arresting Zarqawi and almost all of his operatives in the country. They were released after a few weeks. That led Zarqawi to leave the country for Syria, and then Iraqi Kurdistan. By May 2002 Zarqawi was in Baghdad organizing for the U.S. invasion. Zarqawi was still a rather minor jihadist leader at the time. While Tehran had supported him to keep tabs on the radical Islamist community, he was not important enough to be protected. Zarqawi could see that and he was already planning on moving to Iraq, so these events simply moved forward his timetable.
The Iraq war actually made Zarqawi turn to Iran one more time. Zarqawi and his allies in Ansar al-Islam had their camps wiped out in Kurdistan during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Both ended up going to Iran as a result as both had ties with Tehran. There, Zarqawi met up with Saif al-Adel once again who asked for help getting Al Qaeda operatives into Iraq. Zarqawi agreed to funnel them via his networks in Syria, and many of them joined his organization Tawhid wal Jihad, which would later become known as Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The major question that comes to mind when reading these reports of ties between Iran and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was why would they work together when Zarqawi was so vehemently anti-Shiite? There are many possible answers. First, many governments in the Middle East maintained ties to jihadist organizations even ones they didn’t agree with to surveil them. Second, Tehran saw that Zarqawi could further its foreign policy goals. This started in Afghanistan as Zarqawi was setting up his first camp. The Iranian government might have thought they could use him later on if he made anything out of himself. That happened when Zarqawi decided to move to Iraq as both he and Iran were interested in fighting the Americans and undermining their plans for a post-Saddam nation. For Zarqawi he apparently found Tehran a marriage of convenience. He could use Iran as a way station for his men that did not rely upon routes through Pakistan, which were dominated by the established jihadist groups in Afghanistan. After Zarqawi returned to Iraq for good after the U.S. invasion there was little on his ties with Tehran. What is clear is that he established relations with the Iranian government that lasted from 2000 to at least 2003. They both benefited as Zarqawi found a base and safe haven to work out of, while Iran ended up backing the deadliest insurgent faction against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Tawhid wal Jihad’s bombings in Baghdad in 2003 drove off many foreign countries, companies, and international organizations that might have helped the Americans, thus immediately undermining reconstruction. Today, Iran is fighting Zarqawi’s successor the Islamic State, but at one time the two worked together. Such is the Byzantine nature of Middle Eastern politics.
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