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The Obama administration has killed scores of high-value al-Qaeda terrorists with drone strikes, so the live capture of Abu Anas al-Libi is a big deal. When terrorists are vaporized from the sky, all the intelligence in their brains is vaporized with them. Now, for only the second time since Barack Obama took office, we have captured a senior al Qaeda leader alive outside of Iraq or Afghanistan. We thus have a rare chance to interrogate a “core al Qaeda” leader.
So what can al-Libi tell us? Much of the commentary has focused on what he knows about al Qaeda’s operations in Libya and north Africa, which is certainly important. But al Libi is also a potential treasure trove of intelligence on one area of al Qaeda’s operations about which we know little: al Qaeda’s network in — and relationship with — Iran.
Al-Libi worked directly for Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri in Sudan in the early 1990s, where he helped plot the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania — an attack that was carried out in direct collaboration with Iran. In 2011, the US District Court for the District of Columbia found the government of Iran liable for those bombings, declaring that the attacks would not have been possible without “direct assistance” from Iran, which trained al Qaeda on how to blow up buildings. As Judge John D. Bates wrote in his 45-page decision:
The government of Iran aided, abetted and conspired with Hezbollah, Osama Bin Laden, and al Qaeda to launch large-scale bombing attacks against the United States by utilizing the sophisticated delivery mechanism of powerful suicide truck bombs….
Al Qaeda desired to replicate Hezbollah’s 1983 Beirut Marine barracks suicide bombing, and Bin Laden sought Iranian expertise to teach al Qaeda operatives about how to blow up buildings…. Prior to their meetings with Iranian officials and agents Bin Laden and al Qaeda did not possess the technical expertise required to carry out the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The Iranian defendants, through Hezbollah, provided explosives training to Bin Laden and al Qaeda and rendered direct assistance to al Qaeda operatives . . . [I]n a short time, al Qaeda acquired the capabilities to carry out the 1998 Embassy bombings, which killed hundreds and injured thousands by detonation of very large and sophisticated bombs.
So al-Libi was intimately involved in an al Qaeda plot that was carried out with the direct assistance of Iran.
After the embassy bombings, al-Libi moved with al Qaeda to Afghanistan. Following the US invasion, he fled with a group of al Qaeda leaders to Tehran, where he spent some seven years. This would give him unique insight into an al Qaeda network operating in Iran with the help and protection of the Iranian regime.
In July 2011, the Obama Treasury Department revealed that al Qaeda was operating a network in Iran under a “secret deal” with the Iranian regime. The Treasury Department declared that this Tehran cell was “operating under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government” by means of which Iran permitted al Qaeda “to funnel funds and operatives through its territory.” The Treasury Department further declared that “Iran is a critical transit point for funding to support al Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and that al Qaeda’s Iran network “serves as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators, and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia.”
Since 9/11, we have been able to strike al Qaeda with drones and special operations forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and East Africa. But the one al Qaeda network that has been virtually unmolested, and about which we know little, is al Qaeda’s network in Iran.
The chance to interrogate a top al Qaeda operative with direct knowledge of al Qaeda’s network in Iran is an invaluable intelligence opportunity. So the question is: Will the Obama administration exploit this unprecedented opportunity? Or will they sent al-Libi to New York to try him, instead of properly interrogating him?
We’ll soon find out.
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