Mike Pompeo claims without evidence that Iran is al-Qaida’s new ‘home base’

Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/_d_hDsmL4WcNf3fp3iLO9w–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/bf63f8762a30a048fdfb275f5177075b” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/_d_hDsmL4WcNf3fp3iLO9w–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNQ–/https://media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/bf63f8762a30a048fdfb275f5177075b”>

Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has claimed, without providing evidence, that al-Qaida leaders have established a new “home base” in the Iran, in what appeared to be his latest effort to raise the political cost of the next administration reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

Speaking with just eight days left in office, Pompeo alleged that Iran was “the new Afghanistan”, telling a news conference in Washington: “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.”

In remarks to the National Press Club, after which he did not take questions, the outgoing secretary of state also confirmed press reports that a senior al-Qaida figure, Abu Mohammed al-Masri, was assassinated last August in Tehran, where he was said to be living under a false identity.

Masri, who was accused of helping to mastermind the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, was reported to have been shot in his car with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza. Pompeo’s remarks were the first on-the-record comments supporting the claim.

Most experts on the subject say that Iran does have a relationship with al-Qaida but it is a complicated one. It has harboured some senior members of the organisation, possibly as insurance against direct attack by the terrorist group, but fought against it elsewhere.

Iran’s foreign minister immediately dismissed the allegations as “warmongering lies”, pointing out to the Trump administrations close ties to Saudi Arabia, the home country of most the 9/11 terrorists.

“No one is fooled,” tweeted Mohammad Javad Zarif.

“All 9/11 terrorists came from @SecPompeo’s favorite (Middle East) destinations,” he added. “NONE from Iran.”

Related: Trump administration puts Cuba back on ‘sponsor of terrorism’ blacklist

Advisers to Joe Biden believe the Trump administration is trying to make it harder for the president-elect to re-engage with Iran and seek to rejoin an international deal on Iran’s nuclear program once he takes office on 20 January. Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and since then has sought to destroy it altogether by imposing new sanctions.

The other five major power signatories have so far refused to abandon the deal, although Iran has ramped up its nuclear activities in violation of the agreement, in response to US sanctions.

In trying to block the Biden administration rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal, the outgoing Trump team has an ally in the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a Politico reporter, the evening before his Iran speech, Pompeo was seen out for dinner in a Georgetown restaurant with the head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen.

“It would be a stretch, however, to say as Pompeo did that al-Qaida has found a ‘new home base’ in Iran, since it’s not really ‘new’, nor is it really a ‘home base’ which remains the Afghanistan/Pakistan border regions,” said Peter Bergen, an al-Qaida expert at the New America thinktank.

“After 9/11 a number of leaders of al-Qaida and quite a few members of Bin Laden’s family moved to Iran. There they spent a decade under various forms of house arrest,” Bergen said.

“After al-Qaida kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Pakistan in 2008, the Iranians and al-Qaida started quietly negotiating a prisoner swap that involved releasing members of the Bin Laden family and also some members of al-Qaida and in 2010 a number of these were released. Some stayed on though it’s unclear who, since some may have moved to Syria or elsewhere.

“So, before 2010 Iran housed Bin Laden’s family members and other al-Qaida leaders. After 2010 that number went down significantly,” Bergen said.

Daniel Byman, a professor and al-Qaida expert at Georgetown University said that it was impossible to say without access to intelligence reports the extent to which al-Qaida members in Iran have freedom to operate, but he described the Afghanistan comparison as “very misleading”.

“In Afghanistan in the 1990s, you had training camps that were training thousands of people to fight in civil wars, but also as terrorists. You had volunteers coming from around the world, including the United States and Europe,” Byman said. “In Iran you don’t have these massive training camps and that’s a huge difference.”