WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday accused Iran of actively supporting Al Qaeda, saying the country now serves as a "home base" for the terror group and provides operatives with travel documents and logistical support.
Pompeo's allegations go well beyond previous statements by U.S. intelligence officials, other foreign governments and terrorism experts, who have described a complicated and sometimes tense relationship between the Shiite-ruled government in Tehran and the Sunni extremist group that launched the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Pompeo, who did not cite U.S. intelligence reporting for his assertions, said the relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda shifted in 2015 just as the regime in Tehran wrapped up an agreement with the United States and other world powers over its nuclear program.
"Everything changed in 2015 — the same year that the Obama Administration and the 'E-3' — France, Germany, and Britain — were finalizing the JCPOA," Pompeo said in a speech, referring to the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The secretary said it marked a "sea change" but did not explain what led Tehran to alter its approach to Al Qaeda at that moment, when the United States and other governments agreed to lift sanctions on Iran in return for limits on its nuclear work.
Pompeo, speaking at the National Press Club, said Iran decided at the time to allow Al Qaeda to set up "a new operational headquarters, on the condition that Al Qaeda operatives inside abide by the regime's rules governing Al Qaeda's stay inside the country."
Since 2015, Iran has given Al Qaeda leaders "greater freedom of movement" and the ministry of intelligence and Revolutionary Guard have "provided safe havens and logistical support — like travel documents, ID cards, and passports — that enable Al Qaeda activity," Pompeo said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif vehemently denied the accusations, pointing out the hijackers behind the 9/11 attacks largely came from Middle Eastern countries with closer ties to the Trump administration, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"Mr. 'we lie, cheat, steal' is pathetically ending his disastrous career with more warmongering lies," Zarif tweeted in response. "No one is fooled. All 9/11 terrorists came from @SecPompeo's favorite ME destinations; NONE from Iran.
In the intelligence community's publicly released assessment of worldwide threats in 2019, there was no mention of Iran lending support to Al Qaeda.
Pompeo's assertions that Iran had increased its cooperation with Al Qaeda and had permitted the group to plot attacks from Iranian soil went further than previous statements by U.S. intelligence officials over the past four years, said Nicholas Rasmussen, a former intelligence official and now the executive director of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.
"If those statements are true, that would have to be backed up by some pretty specific intel or a body of intel that emerged over a period of time. I just don't have a way to evaluate if that is an overstatement or an overreading of intelligence, or if that is what they think," said Rasmussen, who served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center under the Obama administration.
Rasmussen said that in his work in the intelligence world before Trump entered office, he did not remember analysis that saw a major shift in Iran's links with Al Qaeda around 2015.
"As I recall, there was not a view in the intelligence community through 2016 that Iran's approach to Qaeda went through a sea change in 2015," Rasmussen told NBC News.
U.S. intelligence did find that Iran was allowing Al Qaeda operatives to travel to Syria to fight in the war there, he said. "By 2013, we had come to appreciate the Iranians were more comfortable letting Al Qaeda have freedom of movement, to let them participate in what was happening in Syria," he said.
Because of Iran's links to Al Qaeda, Pompeo said the United States will impose sanctions on Al Qaeda leaders who he said are based in Iran, Muhammad Abbatay — also known as Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, and Sultan Yusuf Hasan al-Arif, as well as three leaders of an Al Qaeda-linked group operating on the border between Iran and Iraq.
The State Department is also offering a reward of $7 million for information leading to "the location or identification of al-Maghrebi," he said.
Pompeo has attempted to draw connections between Iran and Al Qaeda since becoming the top U.S. diplomat, raising the issue in both closed door congressional briefings and open hearings on Capitol Hill.
Pompeo's insistence on an Iran-Al Qaeda axis over the past two years made some lawmakers wary that he was trying to lay the legal justification for a possible war with Iran, under the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), adopted by Congress in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky pressed Pompeo in April 2019 on his intentions and Pompeo sidestepped the question, saying he preferred to "just leave that to the lawyers," but he remained firm. "There is no doubt there is a connection. Period. Full stop."
Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said just a few months later, “ We were absolutely presented with a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran … Secretary Pompeo said it with his own words.”
Speaking Tuesday, Pompeo called Iran "the new Afghanistan," where the United States fought almost two decades of war in the name of destroying Al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks. "It's actually worse," he added.
"Bin Laden's wicked creation is poised to gain strength, and capabilities. We ignore this Iran-Al Qaeda axis at our own peril," Pompeo said." We must acknowledge it. We must confront it. We must defeat it."
Pompeo did not however say that Al Qaeda's presence in Iran posed a direct threat to the "homeland," and he did not cite U.S. intelligence agencies as the source of his allegations.
"I didn't hear the word homeland at any point, and God knows if he could have said that, he would have said that. If he could amp it up to include a scary homeland piece, he would have been happy to do that," Rasmussen said.
Pompeo's "statement that the Islamic Republic of Iran is now the home of Al Qaeda is a vast exaggeration," said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"It is true there is a complex relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda," Riedel said.
Iran turned a blind eye to Al Qaeda operatives who fled to Iran from neighboring Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion, and viewed them as a possible bargaining chip in countering the United States and ensuring the terror group did not target Iran, he said.
"It's not a black and white case. There is a germ of truth to the notion that there is some relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda. But it misses the much bigger picture, that they are quite hostile entities," he said.
On Tuesday, Pompeo also acknowledged the death of Al Qaeda's second highest leader, Abu Muhammed al-Masri, on the streets of Tehran on Aug. 7 of last year, the first such public acknowledgment by a U.S. official.
Al-Masri was considered the mastermind behind the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that claimed the lives of twelve Americans. According to media reports, al-Masri was gunned down by Israeli operatives at the behest of the U.S. on the anniversary of the 1998 attacks. Pompeo did not provide any further details on the circumstances of his death.
A 2018 analysis of documents seized in Osama bin Laden's hideout after U.S. forces killed the al Qaeda leader in 2011 found no evidence that Iran and al Qaeda cooperated in carrying out terrorist attacks. The study was carried out by Nelly Lahoud, an academic and expert on al Qaeda, for the New America think tank.
NBC News has previously reported that the documents seized the night Navy SEALs killed bin Laden suggest that Al Qaeda and Iran occasionally cooperated but also had deep distrust marked by threats and kidnappings.