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Is Iran working with al Qaeda? And is there a Qatari connection?

Is Iran working with al Qaeda? And is there a Qatari connection?

The Treasury Department today named six alleged al Qaeda operatives that it said were members of a network that worked to facilitate the moving of "money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia" in cooperation with the government of Iran.

The department’s press release said that Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a Syrian living in Iran, was collecting money from Gulf donors and using it to send cash to al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as dispatching "extremist recruits for al Qaeda from the Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran." (If so, he’s not doing such a great job, as al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq has recently complained of going broke, and U.S. counterterrorism officials claim the group is on the verge of defeat in Pakistan.)

Washington has long accused Iran of meddling in Afghanistan, and more recently has blamed the Islamic Republic for a stepped-up campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq. (A few months back, I met with a UAE military official who made the same accusation about Iran supplying weapons and money to anti-coalition fighters in Afghanistan.) It’s also been widely reported that senior al Qaeda figures are under some sort of house arrest in Iran, possibly as bargaining chips — but that Iran may have recently allowed a few of those operatives to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I was particularly interested in this latest announcement by the Treasury, because it names two individuals in Qatar, where I am temporarily based.

One of those named, Salim Hasan Khalifa Rashid al-Kuwari, was also mentioned in an Amnesty International action alert in March as one of three individuals subject to arbitrary detention whom Sultan al-Khalaifi — someone the NGO described as a blogger and human rights activist — was trying to get released. Khalaifi was mysteriously arrested on March 1 by "a number of state security agents,” according to Amnesty, along with three other unnamed Qataris, and seems to have disappeared into a black hole.

At the time, I remember thinking the case was odd, because Khalaifi had only written four blog posts — and none of them recently. Was he really arrested for his blogging activities? One theory was that Khalaifi was somehow involved in Facebook calls for a revolution to oust Emir Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, as his blog and the "Qatar Revolution" Facebook page contained some similar themes — that the emir was corrupt and in league with the evil Americans and Israel, that his wife was too prominent, and so on. Khalaifi listed Sayyif Qutb’s Milestones, a seminal Islamist tract, as his favorite book, so it seemed clear where his political leanings lay. [UPDATE: According to this Qatari blog, Khalaifi was released in April.]

In any event, I have no idea whether there’s a link between today’s Treasury announcement and the Khalaifi case, but the mention of Kuwari is certainly intriguing. Is he actually already in custody? If so, did he provide information on Khalil’s (alleged) activities in Iran? And what explains Washington’s motives for making this announcement today?

Leah Farrell, a leading al Qaeda expert based in Australia, tweeted that she was skeptical of the Treasury designation, and suggested it might be motivated by a U.S. desire to put pressure on Iran.

"Past reports have been poorly sourced and containing serious inaccuracies," she said. "I know about some of these people. They’re not new and the reality is far more complex."

"This seems like a means of overcoming a lack of leverage against Iran releasing people."

More later.