Washington: Al Qaeda operatives who have been detained for years in Iran have been making their way quietly in and out of the country, raising the prospect that Iran is loosening its grip on the terror group so it can replenish its ranks, former and current US intelligence officials say.
This movement could indicate that Iran is re-examining its murky relationship with al Qaeda at a time when the US is stepping up drone attacks in Pakistan and weakening the group`s leadership. Any influx of manpower could hand al Qaeda a boost in morale and expertise and threaten to disrupt stability in the region.
US officials say intelligence points to a worrisome increase in movement lately.
Details about al Qaeda`s movements and US efforts to monitor them were outlined to The Associated Press in more than a dozen interviews with current and former intelligence and counterterrorism officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter.
The relationship between Iran and al Qaeda has been shrouded in mystery since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, when many al Qaeda leaders fled into Iran and were arrested. The Shi’ite regime there is generally hostile to the Sunni terrorist group, but they have an occasional relationship of convenience based on their shared enemy, the US.
US intelligence officials have tried wiretapping and satellite imagery to watch the men. The CIA even established a highly classified program - code-named RIGOR - to study whether it could track and kill terrorists such as al Qaeda in Iran. Results have been mixed.
Monitoring and understanding al Qaeda in Iran remains one of the most difficult jobs in US intelligence.
"This has been a dark, a black zone for us," former CIA officer Bruce Riedel said. "What exactly is the level of al Qaeda activity in Iran has always been a mystery."
That activity has waxed and waned, officials said. Sometimes the men could travel or communicate with other operatives. Other times, they were under tight constraints and the US considered them to be out of commission. There was no obvious pattern to the movement.