Geopolitical Insights

Al Qaeda and Iran

November 19, 2020

Last week it was revealed that Israeli operatives (at the request of the United States) killed Al Qaeda’s second in command (Abu Muhammad al-Masri) and his daughter on August 7th, 2020. This operation occurred on the anniversary of the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Al-Masri was said to have been the mastermind behind that attack which killed 224 people. While it seemed odd that such a high profile Al Qaeda leader would be residing in Iran (given the Sunni/Shia divide), General Kearney describes the dynamic between Iran and Al Qaeda below. Additionally, after the firing of Defense Secretary Esper, an announcement was made by newly appointed Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, that there would be an immediate (partial) withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. While not totally unexpected (given President Trump’s campaign platform) it does force us to evaluate how the threat of Al Qaeda (which is still active in the region) will evolve in the absence of a large U.S. military presence. Finally, with the UN atomic watchdog report revealing that Iran is now operating centrifuges at Natanz, we look at how a U.S. kinetic response, while unlikely, would be evaluated.

General Kearney, the former Deputy Director for Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counter-Terrorism Center, and an Academy Securities Geopolitical Intelligence Group member, provides his thoughts on the recent headlines concerning Iran and Al Qaeda and how these events may impact future policy.

Why it Matters:

“Iran has harbored Al Qaeda leaders over time and always argued that they were under local arrest but free to move. The “enemy of my enemy is my friend” applies to Al Qaeda leaders in Iran, but also gives them leverage against Al Qaeda activities that don’t align with Iranian interests. In the case of Al Masri, the plan was to keep him safe and allow him to operate without U.S. targeting. For Iran’s benefit, they would know what he and Al Qaeda were doing. 

Al Qaeda leaders often moved through Baluchistan, Pakistan into Iran and then into Iraq or Turkey to pass messages. The movements of couriers and leadership were tracked and, in some cases, the U.S. actually picked up Al Qaeda personnel in Turkey as a result.

It is not surprising that the Israelis would assist in such an operation. They have access and placement to do so. I suspect that they want it known that they did not kill a member of Lebanese Hizballah (as Iran claimed) and that it was the U.S. who requested the operation. It could be that Israeli intelligence feels that now there is a need for this to be public.

As for the Iranians, they are providing a cover story because they do not want more issues with the U.S. The U.S. killing of General Solemani earlier this year was a big statement. I also think that the Iranians are watching U.S. politics and even Democrats would take issue with Iran harboring Al Qaeda leaders, so they need the cover story of Israelis killing Hizballah operatives, which also suits their interests.

Al Qaeda is still active in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is waiting for the outcome of the Taliban/Afghanistan peace process. Certainly, a U.S. troop withdrawl will benefit them. Al Qaeda is resilient and will surface again and rebuild. Also of concern is the announced GCC support of Israeli recognition, which could be a trigger that ignites Al Qaeda’s efforts against the “Apostate” regimes (as they view them) in KSA, UAE, Jordan, and Egypt.

Regarding the Natanz enrichment facility, I believe that military officials may have briefed President Trump on the challenges of attacking Natanz from an Iranian Air Defense System (IADS) perspective. This is not an air attack raid. To defeat Natanz’s underground facilities, it would likely require multiple MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator) bombs estimated to be 25,000 pounds each. This would likely require at least a two-day disruption of the IADS to allow multiple strikes. If the centrifuges are functioning, there is a risk of the release of Uranium Hexafluoride gases into the air. Without question an unprovoked preemptive strike would draw world condemnation, especially if the toxic radiological gases produced casualties.” General Frank Kearney

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frank Kearney is an Academy Securities Advisory Board Member. General Kearney served 35 years in the United States Army as an Infantry and Special Operations officer. Most recently, LTG Kearney served as the Deputy Director for Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counter-Terrorism Center in Washington, DC. In this position, he was responsible for whole-of-government planning with over 29 Inter-Agency partners to achieve the strategic end states outlined in the Obama Administration’s National Counter-Terrorism Strategy. He has been appointed to the U.S. House of Representatives House Armed Services Committee National Defense Panel, the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s WMD Threat Reduction Advisory Committee, and the Iran Project.

Previously, LTG Kearney was the Deputy Commander of the United States Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida responsible for a $9.3 billion dollar budget execution, and for overseeing, training and equipping 62,000 Special Operations forces from all four Services from July 2007 to July 2010. He commanded all Theater Special Operations Forces in Central Command Area of Responsibility from 2005-2007, before which he served as commander of the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force-Former Regime Elements in Baghdad, Iraq. LTG Kearney has been recognized with the Distinguished Intelligence Service Medal and two awards of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal as well as multiple awards for combat and military service. Until 2019 he sat on the Department of Defense Threat Reduction Advisory Committee (TRAC). LTG Kearney also chairs the board of Team Red, White & Blue, a non-profit organization that seeks to reintegrate military veterans with traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Shock Disorder back into their local communities using sports and outreach. He is a 1976 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, has a Master’s in Education from the University of South Carolina and is a graduate of the United States Army War College.

Original Post 11/19/2020