Per the piece I wrote for WPR a while back, leveraging some work by Michael Smith of Kronos, this AP story in USA Today (HT to Mike) lays out a very similar analysis:
Since 2001, Iran has appeared a somewhat reluctant host for senior al-Qaeda operatives who fled there after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, keeping them under tight restrictions. Now, though Iran remains on the edge of al-Qaeda's orbit, it seems to be a more comfortable haven for those operatives.
The turning point was the negotiations for the release last year of a senior Iranian diplomat held by the Taliban. As I noted in the WPR piece, top AQ strategist Saif al-Adel, allegedly held under arrest in Iran, has started to travel with Iran's blessing to Pakistan. As the USA Today article further notes:
Despite his travel to Pakistan, al-Adel has so far chosen to remain based in Iran with his wife and family, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
This suggests that al-Adel and perhaps lower-level al-Qaeda figures now consider Iran a viable outpost, with fewer restrictions and the added security that a U.S. commando raid or drone strike on Iranian soil is unlikely. Al-Adel, an Egyptian who allegedly helped mastermind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, is among the FBI's most-wanted terrorists and the U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for his capture.
"There are a number of reasons an al-Qaeda leader would feel comfortable these days in Iran," said Theodore Karasik, a regional affairs expert at the Dubai-based Institute forNear East and Gulf Military Analysis. "Chief among them is a mutual enemy: America."
The life of the al-Qaeda-linked exiles in Iran is still very much a blind spot to Western intelligence agencies. Very few firm details have emerged, such as how much Iran limits their movements and contacts.
Iran has made no public comments on bin Laden's family members believed to be on its soil, nor about al-Adel and others in the al-Qaeda braintrust believed to have spent time in the country and may still be there. They include Atiyah Abdul-Rahman, a Libyan high in the al-Qaeda hierarchy; Abu Mohammed al-Masri, a top figure in the al-Qaeda's "Military Committee," which al-Adel is believed to head; and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, a senior spiritual adviser in the terror network.
"The story of al-Qaeda and Iran is one that often is hard to figure out," said Karasik. "But there is a sense that Iran is not just a bystander. Links to top figures like al-Adel gives Iran channels to al-Qaeda's inner workings if they want to go on that path."
With al-Zawahri leading the al-Qaeda, al-Adel is likely to remain a behind-the-scenes organizer and planner of possible new attacks.
Something to keep an eye on.