Tuesday, October 04, 2005

General Panic - Meet Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran's anti-American Qods Force.

Dan Darling, The Weekly Standard:
WITH RECENT U.S. and British allegations that shipments of explosives similar to those used by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are being shipped into Iraq from Iran for use by the insurgency, it is long past time for American policy-makers to examine the role of Iranian Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani and the Qods (Jerusalem) Force unit under his command in fomenting and facilitating anti-American terrorist activity since the September 11 attacks.

The very nature of General Suleimani's position within the IRGC warrants him being on America's radar. As the commander of Qods Force, Suleimani is charged with overseeing the IRGC's extra-territorial operations and, according to Time magazine, he serves as a special advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the issues of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Under Suleimani--and his predecessor Ahmad Vahidi--Qods Force has been linked to nearly every instance of Iranian-backed terrorism over the course of the last decade, including the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that killed 85 and injured 230. A U.S. intelligence analysis of Qods Force leaked to the Washington Post in September 2003 provided even further insight into its activities. READ MORE

According to the analysis, Qods Force has agents in most countries with large Muslim populations and its goal is to "form relationships with Islamic militant and radical groups and offer financial support either to the groups at large or to Islamic figures within them who are sympathetic to the principles and foreign policy goals of the Iranian government." Contrary to the conventional wisdom that rules out Shiite-Sunni cooperation, the analysis also stated that Qods Force had trained more than three dozen Shiite and Sunni foreign Islamic militant groups in paramilitary, guerrilla, and terror tactics, including assassination, kidnapping, torture, and explosives.

THESE ACTIVITIES are alarming enough but, as explained in a second Post story from September 2003, the organization's role in anti-U.S. activities extends even further. Citing a European intelligence official, the Post noted that after the fall of the Taliban al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri (whose relationship with Qods Force goes back at least a decade) negotiated safe harbor for much of the surviving al Qaeda leadership inside Iran, including bin Laden's son and heir apparent, Saad, and the terror network's de facto ministers of war, finance, propaganda, and ideology. Numerous media reports listed future-Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi as among these refugees.

While Zarqawi quickly left Iran for Iraq (possibly under duress from Iranian authorities because of both his anti-Shiite views and the government's desire to counter U.S. criticism that Iran was soft on al Qaeda), the rest of the al Qaeda leaders who took refuge in Iran continue to operate. Despite Iranian claims that any al Qaeda members within its borders are "in custody," these senior leaders appear to continue to operate within what a French counter-terrorism official described to AFP in July 2004 as "controlled freedom of movement"--a controlled freedom due in no small part to the influence of Qods Force.

THE ANTI-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES of Qods Force aren't simply limited to protecting the al Qaeda leadership. According to a report in Time, as early as September 2002 Ali Khamenei placed General Suleimani in charge of organizing various Iraqi groups as part of an Iranian plan to dominate the country following Saddam's removal. Among these targeted groups were the Badr Brigades military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI is now a key member of the Iraqi ruling coalition), the Mujahideen for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (MIRI), Thar-Allah, and Iran's favorite proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah. Yet it was not until April 2004 and the beginning of Muqtada al-Sadr's failed uprising that Qods Force would truly make its presence in Iraq felt.

As reported by the London Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Sadr visited Iran in late 2003 and met with General Suleimani. At the onset of al-Sadr's uprising, the paper reported that Qods Force had set up training camps at Qasr Shireen, Ilam, and Hamid in southern Iran along the Iraqi border to train the radical cleric's Mahdi Army and financed his campaign to the tune of $80,000,000. A March 2005 report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) treated most charges of Iranian meddling in Iraq with skepticism, but quoted one E.U. diplomat as saying that "[Qassem] Suleimani seemingly had an agenda to support Muqtada al-Sadr in the Najaf crisis. . . . But as the war went on, he withdrew his support." The report cited another diplomat as saying that Iran had provided al-Sadr with "funding and arms."

IN MAY 2004, al-Sharq al-Awsat published a story claiming that members of Qods Force had attempted to provide both explosives and upwards of $900,000 to Abu Musab Zarqawi, with the intention of him carrying out attacks on U.S. and European embassies and commercial centers in five Gulf states. According to the newspaper, the plot was thwarted by Iranian intelligence at the behest of the-then President Khatami, who likely recognized that such action could easily result in a US reprisal against Iran. At Khatami's direction, Iranian intelligence arrested a number of al Qaeda operatives as well as a Qods Force official, yet no actions were taken against General Suleimani and he remains in command of

the elite military unit to this day.

In August 2004, al-Sharq al-Awsat cited an official who had attended an Iranian military seminar in which General Suleimani stated that Zarqawi and 20 senior members of the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam are allowed to enter Iran whenever they want through border points between Halabja and Ilam in Iraq. When asked why Iran would support Zarqawi given his anti-Shiite activities, Suleimani stated that Zarqawi's actions in Iraq "serve the supreme interests of Iran" by preventing the creation of a pro-U.S. government. These remarks seem to square with the views of the ICG report on Iranian meddling in Iraq which, while largely skeptical, concluded that Kurdish assertions about Iran's Revolutionary Guards backing Ansar al-Islam (described by the U.S. State Department as "closely allied with al-Qa'ida and Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's group" as well as "one of the leading groups engaged in anti-Coalition attacks in Iraq") "most likely have merit."

Thus far, discussions over the proper course of US policy towards Iran have primarily focused on the regime's nuclear program. Perhaps the activities of General Suleimani and Qods Force should be included in that discussion, too.

Dan Darling is a counter-terrorism consultant for the Manhattan Institute's Center for Policing Terrorism.

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