by Ryan Mauro
In early April, I wrote that the senior U.S. officials who told Mark Perry of Foreign Policy that Azerbaijan agreed to let Israeli aircraft land in its territory could have blood on their hands, since regardless of whether the leaked story was true or not, Iran would send a warning shot towards Azerbaijan.
Only days after the story was published, Azerbaijan arrested 17 Al-Qaeda operatives with links to Iran as they were about to carry out terrorist attacks. One Azeri officer was killed and three were wounded during the sweep.
Mark Perry’s article was published on March 28. On April 6, Azerbaijan announced the arrests and said that the Al-Qaeda terrorists were planning to attack police, mosques and shrines. Some had undergone two months of training in Iran and were armed there. Others were indoctrinated in Syria and still others had been trained in Pakistan and had fought NATO troops in Afghanistan. Already in February, European officials warned that Iran and Al-Qaeda were tightening their relationship in order to carry out attacks on common enemies.
Although it can’t be proven that Iran had a direct role in the Al-Qaeda plot, the timing points to it. We know that in January, Iran paid at least two terrorists $150,000 to attack the Israeli ambassador, a rabbi and a teacher at a Jewish school in Azerbaijan. The cell leader met with Iranian intelligence. In March, Azerbaijan rounded up 22 terrorists that were trained near Tehran by the Revolutionary Guards to carry out a wave of terror attacks that were to include the U.S. and Israeli embassies, among other targets. Iranian hackers struck Azeri websites after the arrests.
There’s no proof that Iran had a direct role in this Al-Qaeda plot, but the timing is curious, and it fits into this pattern. Iran cannot convincingly deny that it knows about Al-Qaeda’s training and organizing in its country. If the regime is able to stop tens of millions of Iranians from organizing protests, it’s hard to believe that the Iranian regime is unable to detect a network of foreigners belonging to the most high-profile terrorist group in the world.
The problem with state-sponsored terrorism is that, in many cases, we won’t know for sure if/how a government is involved. When Iran and Hezbollah decided to blow up the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan in 2008, they reached out to local militants for cover. In December, District Judge George Daniels ruled that Iran and Hezbollah contributed materially to the 9/11 attacks behind-the-scenes.
If Iran was involved in this latest terror scheme, it could be argued that it was planned before the Foreign Policy story. It’s hard to know for sure, but officials leaking stories like this need to be fired and, when necessary, prosecuted. The Iranian regime isn’t going to just shrug its shoulders. It’s going to respond, and this latest Al-Qaeda plot could very well be a part of that response.
H/T to Thomas Joscelyn at the Weekly Standard for reporting on these latest arrests.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's National Security analyst and a fellow with the Clarion Fund. He is the founder of WorldThreats.com and a frequent security analyst for Fox News.