Pompeo Alleges Iran New 'Home Base' of al-Qaida
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged Tuesday that arch-enemy Iran has become a new "home base" for Al-Qaeda, surpassing Afghanistan or Pakistan, an assertion mocked by Tehran and questioned by experts.
Barely a week before President-elect Joe Biden takes over, Pompeo confirmed a New York Times report that al-Qaida's second-in-command was killed last year in Tehran, although he did not comment on the paper's reporting that Israel carried out the ambush.
"Al-Qaida has a new home base. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo said in a speech at the National Press Club.
"I would say Iran is indeed the new Afghanistan –- as the key geographic hub for al-Qaida -- but it's actually worse.
"Unlike in Afghanistan, when al-Qaida was hiding in the mountains, al-Qaida today is operating under the hard shell of the Iranian regime's protection."
Pompeo -- who has championed sweeping sanctions on Iran and an attack that last year killed its leading general -- urged more international pressure, calling the alleged alliance a "massive force for evil all over the world."
President Donald Trump's top diplomat stopped short of urging military action, saying: "If we did have that option, if we chose to do that, there's a much greater risk in executing it."
But he announced sanctions on several individuals and a $7 million reward for information on an al-Qaida member he said was believed to be in Iran identified both as Muhammad Abbatay or Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi.
- 'No one is fooled' -
Iran, a Shiite clerical state, is ideologically opposed both to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, extreme Sunni movements that are predominantly Arab, and has fought on fronts abroad against both.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Pompeo "is pathetically ending his disastrous career with more warmongering lies."
"No one is fooled," Zarif wrote, noting that hijackers from the September 11, 2001 attacks came from Pompeo's "favorite" countries rather than Iran. Fifteen of the 19 assailants were Saudis.
Pompeo acknowledged that late al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden himself considered members inside Iran to be "hostages" and that there was no evidence Iran backed the September 11 attacks.
But Pompeo, a former CIA chief, said Iran in recent years has let al-Qaida centralize leadership in Tehran by issuing travel documents and allowing unimpeded fund-raising and communications.
Many experts believe that Tehran has allowed al-Qaida operatives to stay on its soil -- comparatively safe from the U.S. military -- as leverage to prevent attacks on Iran.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said that most Middle Eastern nations had reached tactical arrangements with militants and there was little to suggest an Iranian alliance with al-Qaida.
"You can take a small bit that is not in itself incorrect and turn it into a completely different conclusion than what the facts lend themselves to," he said.
"If this were true, why is he revealing it nine days before he's about to leave?" Parsi said, adding that Pompeo could have then used the al-Qaida case to justify Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran.
"To reveal it now gives me the impression that a more plausible explanation is that he's doing this because he is desperate to try to prevent a Biden administration from undoing the damage," he said.
Pompeo did not address the Islamic State extremist group, which has surpassed al-Qaida in much of the world as a major threat and carried out two attacks in Tehran in 2017.
- Last-minute push -
Biden is expected to seek a return to diplomacy and has tapped Bill Burns, a respected retired diplomat who has led secret negotiations with Iran, as CIA director.
Pompeo in his final days has pushed through a slew of hawkish policies as Trump faces impeachment for inciting a mob to attack the US Capitol.
He has branded Yemen's Iran-linked Huthi rebels as terrorists, defying warnings from aid workers of grave humanitarian consequences.
On Monday, a Politico reporter spotted Pompeo dining with the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency at Cafe Milano, a swank Georgetown restaurant described as "Washington's ultimate place to see and be seen" in an article highlighted on its website.
The New York Times last year said that Israeli operatives were believed to be behind the killing in Tehran of Al-Qaeda's number two, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who was wanted by Washington over the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.