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Iran Seen Loosening Restrictions on Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda members long held within Iran began crossing the country's borders in late 2008, prompting fears among current and former U.S. intelligence insiders that Tehran might be allowing the terrorist network to regain its strength, the Associated Press reported yesterday (see GSN, March 18).

The situation developed alongside heightened U.S. pressure over Tehran's nuclear work and continues as the United States seeks to hurt the al-Qaeda command through means including drone strikes in Pakistan. Increased personnel could bolster the group's confidence and undermine security in the area, according to AP.

A significant number of al-Qaeda's top members entered Iran following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. They were taken into custody by authorities in the Shiite nation, who traditionally have been suspicious of the Sunni entity.

The U.S. intelligence community has used satellites and telephone monitoring instruments to monitor the operatives. The CIA established a secret program to follow the movements of known al-Qaeda operatives in Iran and determine whether they would be vulnerable to targeted killings. The secret surveillance effort, however, has had limited success in the Middle Eastern state.

"This has been a dark, a black zone for us," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official. "What exactly is the level of al-Qaeda activity in Iran has always been a mystery."

Following the departure of one of Osama bin Laden's sons from Iran with four other al-Qaeda members, the United States has identified departing operatives as money handlers and planners, a former CIA official said.

The released personnel were of relatively low stature, one high-level U.S. counterterrorism official said; U.S. government sources expressed fear, though, that Tehran might eventually free members of the organization's high-level "management council."

Officials were recently worried by Saif al-Adel, an original al-Qaeda member linked to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in 1998. It remains unclear whether he has been allowed outside of Iran.

Tehran is cognizant of Washington's concerns about the handling of senior al-Qaeda members in its custody, a high-level U.S. counterterrorism official said. Releasing such an individual would breach a U.N. resolution, according to AP (Goldman/Apuzzo, Associated Press/Google News, May 13).

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This article provides an overview of Iran's historical and current policies relating to nuclear, chemical, biological and missile proliferation.

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