Iran Watch: The mythical marriage of Iran and al-Qaeda

"How about some proper evidence this time?"

Writing in the Independent yesterday, columnist and comedian Mark Steel observed:

Governments and commentators keen on promoting a war against Iran should be stridently opposed, not so much because of the threat to world peace, but because their reasons display a shocking lack of imagination. The most common one is that Iran has "Weapons of Mass Destruction". How pathetic to pick the same excuse twice in a row.

In fact, not only have they picked on WMDs "twice in a row" but they've also gone for the fear-mongering classic: yes, a link to - wait for it - al-Qaeda! Yes, al-Qaeda!! Woo-hoo! Gotcha!

Neocon Clifford May, writing on the National Review's website yesterday, in a piece headlined "Al-Qaeda's Big Fat Iranian Wedding", claimed the Obama administration is

reluctant to articulate what has become indisputable: Iran and al-Qaeda are affiliated.

Hmm, where I have I heard something similar to that before? Oh, yeah, here, here and here. And whatever happened to all those claims of a link between secular Iraq and Islamist al-Qaeda? Oh, wait, this, this, and this.

May nods towards the recent headline-grabbing Sky News report which claimed that

Iran and al Qaeda's core leadership under Ayman al Zawahiri have established an "operational relationship" amid fears the terror group is planning a spectacular attack against the West.

Then there's the recent Telegraph piece which claimed

recent intelligence suggested Iran and al-Qaeda could attempt to find a common project in Europe, possibly targeting the London Olympics, which opens in July.

"Possibly" the Olympics? Well, I suppose anything's possible.

Yet, unlike in the run-up to Iraq, this time round some intelligence officials seem to be pushing back. Yesterday, Reuter's Mark Hosenball reported:

U.S. and European officials are downplaying allegations that Iran and al Qaeda have recently stepped up cooperation in preparation for possible attacks on U.S. and other Western targets.

The officials, who are familiar with security issues, and private experts, discounted recent news reports about a possible new deal between Iran and what remains of al Qaeda's core leadership, now headed by Ayman al Zawahiri, long-time deputy to the late Osama bin Laden.

"This should not be overblown," said one U.S. official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive subject.

"This has been a very strange relationship for a decade or more," the official added. "We're not seeing any change in that relationship at the moment."

The Reuters report quoted another anonymous US official saying:

The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran is best described as complicated. The Iranians keep watch on what al Qaeda facilitators are up to. Sometimes the Iranians crack down on their activities; other times they don't. Al Qaeda moving fighters or money is one thing, while planning major terrorist attacks against the West from Iranian soil is probably something they won't allow. Al Qaeda is not necessarily friendly to Iran. . . Al Qaeda is sort of like a nasty parasite to Iran. It feeds off its ability to operate in Iran, with or without the Iranians' approval.

According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA Middle East expert who has advised Presidents Obama and Bush, the history of Iran's dealings with al-Qaeda is "murky". Riedel has expressed doubts about the recent anonymous intelligence claims of a collaborative or operational relationship, noting how Iran has held al-Qaeda leaders under detention and house arrest over the past decade.

Another former CIA Middle East expert, Paul Pillar, notes:

It has been known for some time that al-Qaeda members have been inside Iran. It has been less clear just what the terms of their residence there have been. Most indications suggest that it has been something between imprisonment and house arrest. At least some of the al-Qaeda people in Iran have been able to conduct business of the group from there, but it is unclear again how much of this business is condoned or even known by the Iranian regime.

In fact, as Iran expert Trita Parsi notes in his new book, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, senior Iranian officials had offered to hand over al-Qaeda figures to the United States and work, side by side, with the US government in its "war on terror" in the days and weeks after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. They were rebuffed by the Bush administration which decided to instead include Iran in its "Axis of Evil".

But the much bigger and more important point is this: it is difficult if not impossible to believe that Shia-fundamentalist Iran and Sunni-fundamentalist al-Qaeda would want to work together, even if it was on the crude, self-serving basis of my "enemy's enemy is my friend". The mutual loathing, hatred and distrust between the two is just too high; the theological and political differences almost insurmountable. Then again, I wouldn't expect officials in the US intelligence or security communities to understand this key point: shamefully, as an investigation in 2006 discovered, many of them can't tell the difference between a Sunni and a Shia or even identify whether al-Qaeda is a Sunni or a Shia terrorist group.

Ironically, the country that has done most to boost and strengthen al-Qaeda over the past 12 months is not Iran but the United States: intervening in Libya allowed al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups to take power while intervening in Syria to topple Bashar al-Assad will be a gift to Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Incidentally, if Iran and al-Qaeda are on the same side, then how can Iran and Syria be on the same side, given how Syria and al-Qaeda aren't on the same side? See how ridiculous this all becomes??).

Oh, and on a related note, here's the best piece of evidence to undermine all this new nonsense about an al-Qaeda-Iran "marriage": former al-Qaeda bigwig Anwar al Awlaki - who we were told by the Americans was the most dangerous and influential al-Qaeda terrorist in the world until his death last year - speaking about Iran in November 2010:

Al-Awlaki warned against Iran's military weaponry, saying that it aims at the Sunni Gulf states whose peoples will be the first Iranian targets. "O Sunni scholars, what is your plan to resist the spread of apostasy that is sweeping the region from Iran to Yemen? ... Are your guardians capable of resisting Iran? Iran spends its oil revenues to build its army, and your guardians spend money to protect and guard the American occupation from the blows of the mujahideen."

As the Atlantic's Max Fisher wrote, after reporting on the Awlaki comments:

Iran hawks and al-Qaeda-watchers have long suspected a possible connection for the understandable reason that the two groups share mutual enemies: the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Awlaki's open renunciation of Iran, which comes despite all the strategic incentives he might find for supporting Iran, underscores just how ideologically incompatible al-Qaeda is with official state sponsorship of nearly any kind. Al-Qaeda's ideology is so extreme, and its ideological obedience so rigid, that it would be difficult for the group to tolerate, much less ally with, any regime other than the Taliban.

Nonetheless, people who should know better continue to spin this line about Iran and al-Qaeda. And why not? It worked so well last time round.

So, for instance, despite the fact that the 9/11 Commission report concluded that there was no evidence linking Iran to the 9/11 attacks, ludicrous claims continue to be made. I mean, check out this billboard image which appeared in New York late last year.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald summed up the hawks' simplistic, propagandistic mindset in a single tweet:

Iran and Al Qaeda, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G

Yeah, but how about some proper evidence this time?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland