The revelation of an alleged plot to attack the Canada-U.S. train system by a small cell somehow connected to al-Qaeda’s presence in Iran has sparked interest in the relationship between the Sunni Muslim terror group and the Shia Muslim Iranian government. There is no doubt that al-Qaeda has a presence in Iran – but how it relates to the Tehran regime has been murky for years.
The relationship between al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic of Iran has been shrouded in mystery and secrecy for years. Al-Qaeda operatives have transited through Iran regularly before and after Sept. 11, 2001, and some found sanctuary in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001, although the circumstances of their status in Iran was always unclear. But the hints of occasional operational co-operation between al-Qaeda and Tehran are mostly outweighed by the very considerable and public evidence of the deep animosity between Sunni-extremist al-Qaeda and Shia-extremist Iran.
Antipathy for each other is at the root of their ideologies and narratives. It has been most visible in their competition for influence in Iraq, and now also in Syria.
The Sept. 11 plot is a good place to start if we wish to understand the mystery. The 9/11 Commission report concluded that there was evidence of contacts between Osama bin Laden and Iran (through its Lebanese Hezbollah ally) dating back to his years in Khartoum in the mid 1990s.
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