By CNN's Tim Lister
The United States has accused Iran of providing sanctuary to an al Qaeda network that provides help to jihadists moving between the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury Thursday announced the designation of six members of the network, including its alleged leader Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, and described Iran as a “critical transit point for funding to support al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“This network serves as the core pipeline through which al-Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia,” the U.S. Treasury said in a statement.
“We are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David S. Cohen. “Today’s action also seeks to disrupt this key network and deny al-Qaeda’s senior leadership much-needed support.”
The effect of designation is to prohibit U.S. persons from engaging in commercial or financial transactions with those named; any assets they may hold under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen.
Khalil is described as an al-Qaeda facilitator currently living and operating in Iran. According to U.S. authorities, he moves money and recruits from across the Middle East into Iran, then on to Pakistan for the benefit of senior al-Qaeda leaders. Khalil requires each operative to deliver $10,000 to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the Treasury says.
The U.S. Treasury says Khalil has collected funding from donors and fundraisers throughout the Gulf and is also responsible for moving significant amounts of money via Iran for onward passage to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last year, Treasury officials told CNN that progress had been made in cutting off al Qaeda sources of funding through co-operation with banking authorities in several Gulf countries.
But U.S, diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks in December 2010 said terrorist funding emanating from Saudi Arabia remained a serious concern.
The cable written earlier in 2010 by U.S. Ambassador James B Smith said Saudi Arabia was "cooperating more actively than at any previous point to respond to terrorist financing concerns raised by the United States, and to investigate and detain financial facilitators of concern."
But it says donors in Saudi Arabia "continue to constitute a source of funding to Sunni extremist groups worldwide, especially during the Hajj and Ramadan." And it adds the kingdom remains "almost completely dependent on the CIA to provide analytic support and direction for its counterterrorism operations."
The U.S. Treasury has led efforts to block sources of terrorist funding, establishing the "Illicit Finance Task Force" and sending specialists to Kabul, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to help follow the money.
But Treasury sources told CNN last year that other Gulf states had been less co-operative than the Saudis. And the latest designations include an alleged al Qaeda financier – Salim Hasan Khalifa Rashid al-Kuwari – said to be based in Qatar.
The Treasury says “Kuwari has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial support to al Qaeda and has provided funding for al Qaeda operations, as well as to secure the release of al Qaeda detainees in Iran and elsewhere.”
According to interrogation records of several suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Iran was a regular transit route for members of al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. One assessment written in 2008 of a Yemeni member of al Qaeda said: “Detainee traveled to Afghanistan to participate in jihadist combat and stayed at extremist facilities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.”
Another interrogation report – about Yemeni detainee Salem Hussein Mohammed – described him as “an al Qaeda facilitator located in Iran providing travel and false travel documents to Arab extremists attempting to enter Afghanistan.”
And a third – about an Afghan who had been a senior member of the Taliban – is said to have told his interrogators that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, an “Iranian delegation offered to open the borders to Arabs who wanted to cross into Afghanistan to fight against US and Coalition forces.”