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The connection between Iran and al Qaeda remains one of interest and concern two decades after the attack on 9/11, with some questions still unanswered as families of victims from the attack continue to seek clarity.
“If you want to make the case that Iran was complicit, directly complicit in 9/11, you don’t have enough information,” Bill Roggio, Senior Fellow at the non-profit Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of Long War Journal, told Fox News Digital. “But if you want to say that Iran has sheltered and is essentially a state sponsor of terrorism because of its harboring and providing material support for al Qaeda pre- and post-9/11, you can easily make that case.”
The families of victims filed a lawsuit against Iran in an effort to hold them – at least partly – responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks, leading to a years-long analysis of the relationship between Tehran and the terrorist group. The lawsuit was filed in 2004 but did not proceed until 2016 when Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, ABC News reported.
An initial ruling in 2018 from Judge George B. Daniels in New York ordered Iran to pay billions of dollars in damages, saying plaintiffs had established that Iranian institutions had provided support for al Qaeda and therefore were “liable” for the deaths – saying that Iran still provides “material support and resources” by providing safe haven for leadership and members of the group.
However, a court in Luxembourg just one year later ruled against the families in another case, saying there were no grounds in international law to uphold previous U.S. court rulings and strip Iran of sovereign immunity. The Luxembourg ruling effectively ended efforts to seize Iranian assets as payment for damages, according to Reuters.
“The rule on which the U.S. court had relied to remove jurisdictional immunity is not in accordance with public international law and cannot be applied in the context of the Luxembourg case,” the court said in a statement.
Broad understanding of Iran’s role acknowledges that Tehran facilitated travel for al Qaeda operatives between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Tehran may have later allowed Usama bin Laden and his family to remain in Iran while they hid from U.S. authorities, but little more has been fully established by official bodies or reporting.
“Historically, while Iran’s regime and al Qaeda started out as sworn enemies dedicated to destroying one another, a couple of decades ago they grew closer after realizing they had more to gain by collaborating,” Lisa Daftari, editor-in-chief at The Foreign Desk, explained to Fox News Digital.
“With tactical and strategic interests aligned, the two began working together and working against the assumptions of the West, which has relied on the now-debunked theory that global terror groups compete against one another for funding, recruits and resources and for these reasons, would never grow close enough to unite,” she added.
Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, an Iranian writer and activist, told Fox News Digital that Tehran “is perfectly willing and able to cross ideological boundaries to go and work with Sunnis when in need.”
“You know, it has those kinds of dimensions … because it has boiled down to the fact that they are [ideological] supremacist,” Zand-Bonazzi explained. “They have said it, they will always say it: They will always remain supremacists, And nothing but nothing will move these people.”
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States – also known as the 9/11 Commission – made the question a central focus of its investigations: The commission determined that al Qaeda operatives traveled to Iran in the 1990s to receive training in explosives as well as insurance and security.
“[Usama] Bin Laden reportedly showed particular interest in learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983,” the commission wrote in a report. “The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to cooperation in terrorist operations.”
The commission concluded its chapter on Iran’s role by stressing that “this topic requires further investigation by the U.S. government”: A New York Times report from 2011 detailed claims from two defectors who had served in Iran’s intelligence service in which they allege that Iranian officials had “foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks.”
One defector even said that Iran was involved in the planning of the attacks, according to a lawsuit that sought damages for Tehran’s involvement, but little coverage followed these claims due to the difficulty in assessing the claims since they surfaced as part of a sealed filing in the lawsuit.
Joel Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under President Obama, told Fox News Digital that the ties between al Qaeda and Iran before 9/11 “really had nothing to do” with the attacks, but that does not change the fact that Iran “absolutely is a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” including such groups as Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps activities in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“We should continue to pressure every country that may have had ties to the 9/11 terrorists to stay away from them,” Rubin said. “We should also be – and are – pressing hard against Iranian terrorism.”
The Iranian Mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.