Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo remarks on The Iran-al-Qaida Axis at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C..
SECRETARY POMPEO: Good morning, everyone.
Thank you, Wang Xiyue, for that very kind introduction and those remarkable words, words that were your own. We’re blessed to have you here today.
Look, as a lot – as you said, a lot of people worked really hard to get you home. America never gives up. We never give in. We never leave anybody behind.
We work, every day and every hour – we will continue to do so – to bring back every American held hostage in Iran, all over – and all over the world back to their families. You simply can’t put America first if you don’t put Americans first.
We have many distinguished guests in the room today. Thank you especially to the ambassadors from different countries, distinguished scholars, and members of the Iranian American community who have joined us.
And thank you to – for the gracious hosting here at the National Press Club.
I know many members of this club do dogged reporting to keep Americans informed on world affairs and that a free press is a staple of a healthy democracy. More speech is important. And I can’t say I always agree with everything that’s written, but what you write is read. And it matters, get it right, get the truth, and America will prosper.
I want to start with a quick story in these remarks today.
Many of you here may recognize the name Abu Muhammad al-Masri, also known as Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah.
He was al-Qaida’s worldwide number two, and on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for slaughtering members of our State Department family in the Kenya and Tanzania bombings of 1998. More than 200 people, including 12 Americans, lost their lives in those attacks.
The New York Times reported in November that al-Masri was shot to death on the streets of Tehran.
Today, I can confirm, for the first time, his death on August 7th (2020) of last year.
The Times wrote, quote, “That he had been living in Iran was surprising, given that Iran and al-Qaida are bitter enemies,” end of quote.
It could not be more wrong. It wasn’t “surprising” at all. And more importantly, they’re not enemies.
Al-Masri’s presence inside Iran points to the reason that we’re here today. It’s what I want to talk about in these remarks.
al-Qaida has a new home base: it is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As a result, bin Laden’s wicked creation is poised to gain strength and capabilities.
We ignore this Iran-al-Qaida nexus at our own peril.
We need to acknowledge it.
We must confront it.
Indeed, we must defeat it.
Now, I know this news will come as a surprise to many Americans.
We had al-Qaida on the ropes after 9/11, thanks to sustained efforts of our brave soldiers, intelligence officers, diplomats, NATO allies, many others who work tirelessly to defend freedom. There are far fewer al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan today than there have been in decades. That remains true.
This is an enormous tribute to American resolve, American ingenuity, American leadership, and frankly, raw American military strength.
That effort drove al-Qaida to search for a safer haven, and they found one.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was the perfect choice.
al-Qaida has, in fact, carried on a relationship with Tehran for nearly three decades, as the 9/11 Commission clearly established.
In the early ’90s, al-Qaida operatives traveled to Iran and the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon – the heartland of Hizballah – for explosives training.
In the period before 9/11, the Iranian regime told border inspectors not to stamp al-Qaida members’ passports when they entered or left Iran on their way to or from Afghanistan. This was to help them avoid suspicion when they returned to their home countries.
And while there’s no evidence Iran helped plan or had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, at least eight of the 9/11 hijackers traveled through Iran between October of 2000 and February of 2001.
Indeed, in 2011, a federal judge in New York ruled that Iran had provided support for the 9/11 attacks, based on the role it played in furthering al-Qaida operatives’ plans.
And of course, after 9/11, hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists and their families fleeing America’s righteous vengeance took refuge there inside of Iran.
A letter from bin Laden, found by the Navy SEALS during the Abbottabad raid, sums up the relationship since 9/11 very well:
In his own words, quote, “Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication…There is no need to fight with Iran unless you are forced to,” end of quote. These are bin Laden’s own words about his and al-Qaida’s relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Of course, there’s more evidence as well. In 2013, the Canadian Government disrupted an al-Qaida plot against a passenger train that linked Toronto and New York. The Canadian Government stated that the plotters received, quote “direction and guidance,” end of quote, from al-Qaida members living inside of Iran. No, New York Times, not a surprise.
Iran arrests students, religious minorities, and environmentalists, but not Jihadist al-Qaida killers.
Yet in spite of all the assistance the Khamenei regime provided to al-Qaida, Tehran actually imposed tight restrictions on its operatives inside of Iran for some time.
The regime very closely monitored al-Qaida members, putting them under virtual house arrest. They were in control. Bin Laden himself considered al-Qaida members inside the Islamic Republic to be hostages. The Iranians controlled these al-Qaida leaders.
But the U.S. Government didn’t believe that Iran had authorized al-Qaida to launch a terrorist attack. But I have to say today that is not the situation.
Indeed, everything changed in 2015 – the same year that the Obama administration and the E3 – France, Germany, and Britain – were in the middle of finalizing the JCPOA.
A sea change was happening within the Iran-al-Qaida axis.
Let me give you some information that is brand new to the public today:
Iran decided to allow al-Qaida to establish a new operational headquarters, on the condition that al-Qaida operatives abide by the regime’s rules governing al-Qaida’s stay inside the country. Agency and control.
Since 2015, Iran has also given al-Qaida leaders greater freedom of movement inside of Iran under their supervision.
The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the IRGC have provided safe havens and logistical support – things like travel documents, ID cards, passports – that enable al-Qaida activity.
As a result of this assistance, al-Qaida has centralized its leadership inside of Tehran. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s deputies are there today. And, frankly, they’re living a normal al-Qaida life.
al-Qaida terrorists like Sayf al-Adl and the now-dead Abu Muhammad al-Masri have been able to place a new emphasis on global operations and plotting attacks all across the world.
Tehran has allowed al-Qaida to fundraise, to freely communicate with al-Qaida members around the world, and to perform many other functions that were previously directed from Afghanistan or Pakistan.
al-Qaida now has time. Because they’re inside of Iran, they have access to money. They have a range of Iranian support. They now have new tools for terror.
You now have the world’s state – largest state sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the home base for al-Qaida.
They are partners in terrorism, partners in hate.
This axis poses a grave threat to the security of nations and to the American homeland itself.
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 underneath the hard shell of the Iranian regime’s protection.
America has far less visibility on al-Qaida’s capabilities and their activities than we did on their activities when they were in Tora Bora or even in the mountainous regions of Pakistan.
After 9/11, America was able to unleash our firepower against al-Qaida in Afghanistan to the point that we no longer need a large military presence in that country.
Today, we must use our military force surgically against al-Qaida operatives in Yemen when necessary.
We don’t have the same options today because these al-Qaida thugs are burrowed deep inside of Iran. And if we did have that option, we choose to do that, there’s a much greater risk in executing it.
The Iran-al-Qaida axis threatens the progress of the Abraham Accords as well.
If al-Qaida can use terror attacks in the region to blackmail nations from joining the warm peace with Israel, then we risk grinding generational momentum for peace in the Middle East to a halt.
We risk limiting the growing number of Mideast nations who will all recognize the threat from Iran.
But most importantly, every country must recognize that this unholy collusion is dramatically increasing the risk of terror attacks against their people.
As Iran permits al-Qaida to communicate freely with exponents of hatred abroad, countries like France become even more vulnerable to al-Qaida attacks, like the despicable Charlie Hebdo massacre.
As Iran provides al-Qaida with travel documents like passports, countries like Germany are ripe to be the site of the re-creation of something like the Hamburg cell, so instrumental in the 9/11 attacks.
As Iran permits al-Qaida leaders to travel freely to Syria, one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises will continue to rage on. Impoverished Syrians will keep being lured into becoming jihadists.
If Iran permits al-Qaida leaders to send and receive money from al-Shabaab, Western nations risk a terror attack like pre-9/11 Afghanistan, a base, from sprouting up in Somalia. We risk losing control of strategic waterways.
And imagine, too – imagine, too, the destruction that al-Qaida could carry out if the Iranian regime decided to devote sizeable state funds in service of al-Qaida’s goals.
Imagine the vulnerability we’d have if Iran gave al-Qaida access to its satellite networks. This is a terror organization, buried deeply inside a nation-state with advanced capabilities.
Look, there’s ample precedent for all of this if you consider the regime’s support of Hizballah, the Houthis, Shia militias in Iraq, and Sunni terror groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Imagine the threat to America. Imagine the threat to Israel, to Saudi Arabia.
Imagine too the potential to completely upend fragile places with an established al-Qaida presence like Libya, Yemen, and the Maghreb, or increase turmoil in places like Bangladesh, where al-Qaida cells have carried out attacks.
Imagine that al-Qaida starts carrying out attacks at Iran’s behest, even if the control is not perfect. Who is to say that this isn’t the next form of blackmail to pressure countries back into a nuclear deal?
You don’t have to be a former CIA director to see the Iran-al-Qaida axis is a massive force for evil all across the world.
But the time is now for America and all free nations to crush the Iran-al-Qaida axis. The Trump administration has actually made progress.
Let’s not tolerate Iran giving al-Qaida a second wind.
Let’s not downplay the danger of Sunni-Shia cooperation in terror.
Let’s not lie to the American people about Iranian moderation and pretend appeasement will work.
Thirty years of cooperation shows that Iran and al-Qaida’s divergent theology is no match for its convergent hatred. That’s the reality.
Here’s reality, too.
Nations have an obligation to sanction entities designated as associated with al-Qaida under the UN Security Council Resolution 1267.
We’ve exercised American leadership by sanctioning the MOIS and the IRGC. We urge the United Nations and all countries to do the same.
Today I’ll announce the following actions:
Today we’ll announce sanctions on Iran-based al-Qaida leaders Sultan Yusuf Hasan al-Arif and Muhammad Abbatay. He is also known as Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi.
I’m also announcing designations of three leaders of al-Qaida Kurdish Battalions, an al-Qaida-linked group that operates on the border between Iran and Iraq.
And in a related action, I’m announcing a reward for up to $7 million under the State Department’s Reward for Justice program for information that leads to the location or identification of al-Maghrebi. We want to bring him home to America for justice.
In closing, I want to go back to 1983. It was the fall of my sophomore year at the United States Military Academy.
I remember picking up the newspaper to read that a truck packed with explosives had slammed into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American warriors.
My life wouldn’t be the same after that. As a young soldier, that attack got me thinking about the big questions of national security, about America’s role in the Middle East and the world.
For those of you who don’t remember, the terrorists who killed our fellow Americans were part of an early incarnation of Hizballah that had the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I’ve not forgotten it.
And after four years leading the CIA and now the State Department, I’m more clear-eyed than ever about the threat from the al-Qaida-Iran axis.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has given a new operational headquarters to the terrorist network with more American blood on its hands than any other – people who are plotting fresh atrocities from Tehran even as we speak.
We can’t ignore this truth, and just as we have done with other horrible regimes, like the one in China, the Trump administration will look to this as it is, not as we wish it to be.
We see the true nature of the Iranian regime, and we refuse to indulge it.
We speak the truth about the nature of the Iran-al-Qaida relationship, and we’ve taken significant actions to crush it.
We urge every country to do the same for the good of their own people and the good of the security, stability, and prosperity of the world.
The free world’s battle against terrorism will go on. May America always lead in that fight.
May God bless all of you.
And may God bless the United States of America. Thank you. (Applause.)