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Al-Qaida kidnapped Iranian envoy in bid to free bin Laden kin, colleagues

Newly released documents seized in the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's compound show bin Laden had ordered al-Qaida to assassinate President Barack Obama or Gen. David Petraeus. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

Al-Qaida and Iran had a “highly antagonistic” relationship in the years before Osama bin Laden’s death, with Iran jailing top al-Qaida officials and the terrorist organization responding by kidnapping an Iranian diplomat and threatening other violent measures to get them released, according to documents released Thursday by the U.S. government.

The feud between al-Qaida and Tehran was documented in several of the 17 letters retrieved from bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and released by the Army’s Countering Terrorism Center at the West Point military academy in New York. While much reporting  on the documents focused on squabbling and worse between bin Laden and al-Qaida affiliates, the friction between Iran and al-Qaida  is noteworthy because it flies in the face of the view held by some U.S. conservatives that the two have worked together against U.S. interests.

The discussion in the letters, written between September 2006 and April 2011, relates to al-Qaida’s decision to send some of its top leaders – and members of bin Laden’s family — to Iran following the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan late in 2001.

Operational personnel, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi bin al Shibh, both part of the planning for the September 11 attacks, were dispatched to Pakistani cities, where they were later grabbed in joint US-Pakistani operations.  But the terror group’s Management Council. which handled military, security and financial affairs, among other things, were sent to Iran, where it was hoped the Iranian government would “leave them alone,” the West Point analysis of the materials said.

 “Al-Qaida did not appear to have looked to Iran from the perspective that ‘the enemy of my (American) enemy is my friend,’” it said, “but the group might have hoped that ‘the enemy of my (American) enemy would leave me alone.’”

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has published the declassified documents that offer a fresh look inside the mind of Osama bin Laden. NBC's Bob Windrem and Roger Cressey discuss.

Instead, the Iranians immediately moved to detain them and in some cases deport them to their countries of origin, the report stated.  In fact, al-Qaida believed the decision to detain and deport was taken by the Islamic Republic under pressure from the United States.  At the time, the U.S. and Iran were engaged in a number of back channel discussions on al-Qaida, according to officials from both countries.

Many of the top al-Qaida leaders languished in Iranian custody for months and years. U.S. officials admit that prior to the Abbottabad raid, they had little understanding of the circumstances of their detention -- whether it was house arrest or imprisonment. Iranian officials had always insisted the al-Qaidaofficials and their families were “in jail,” as one high ranking Iranian official told NBC News several years ago, but many U.S. officials did not believe such assurances.

The materials released Thursday, however, indicate that the al-Qaida leaders were imprisoned and held in harsh conditions.  In a letter to bin Laden, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, essentially his chief of staff, recalled Sa’ad bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader’s son, telling him “the truths of what was happening, that they had repeatedly asked to leave Iran but they were beaten and suppressed.” The elder bin Laden, in one of his last letters to Atiyah, who is generally referred to by his first name, said that Sa’ad’s letter should be added to the group’s archives “in view of the important information it reveals about the truth of the Iranian regime.”

Negotiations for release of the prisoners ebbed and flowed, with some pleas sent directly from al-Qaida to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyad Ali Khamenei.  At one point, late in 2008, al-Qaida decided to take other measures. An Iranian diplomat, the commercial counselor at the Iranian consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, Hesmatollah Atharzadeh-Nyaki,  was kidnapped by al-Qaida operatives in November of that year. At the same time, al-Qaida apparently made other threats against Iranian interests.

Atiyah, who was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, boasted to bin Laden that the diplomat’s kidnapping had a chilling effect on the Iranians, whom he referred to as “criminals” and portrayed as being afraid of al-Qaida.  

“We believe that our efforts, which included escalating a politicaland media campaign, the threats we made, the kidnapping of their friend the commercial counselor in the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar, and other reasons that scared them based on what they saw (we are capable of), to be among the reasons that led them to expedite (the release of these prisoners),” Atiyah wrote.

Still, things did not move as fast as bin Laden had hoped. He pressed Atiyah repeatedly in the letters to get his family released.  

"In the second half of 2010,” the West Point analysis said, “bin Ladin asked Atiyah to correspond with the Iranians (not clear if directly or indirectly) to tell them that ‘they promised that upon releasing their captive, they would release my family, which includes my daughter Fatima, who (should naturally stay in the company of) her husband,’” who was a top al-Qaida fighter.  

Ultimately, Iran did release some of the bin Laden family and some fighters,  some in the weeks before Bin Laden was killed. But they retained others, perhaps as hostages.  Atharzadeh-Nyaki, the Iranian diplomat, was finally released unharmed in March 2010.

A call to the Iranian Mission to the United Nations by NBC News on Thursday for comment was not returned.

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Throughout the negotiation process, Atiyah  expressed anger and frustration at the Iranians, writing at one point,  “The criminals did not send us any letter, nor did they send us a message through any of the brothers (they released)! Such behavior is of course not unusual for them; indeed, it is typical of their mindset and method. They do not wish to appear to be negotiating with us or responding to our pressures, as if to suggest that their actions are purely one-sided and based on their own initiative.”

The West Point analysis notes that the Iranians’ rationale in keeping the al-Qaida officials  prisoner for so long remains unclear, but suggests two possibilities:  to keep al-Qaida from carrying attacks in Iran or against Iranian assets overseas or as bargaining chips in negotiations with the United States.

In fact, U.S. and Iranian officials have told NBC News that third parties approached the U.S. in the years after 9-11 to offer a deal in which al-Qaida personnel  would be traded for leaders of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran who were in U.S. custody in Iraq.  The U.S., both sides report, declined.

Robert Windrem is a senior investigative producer for NBC News.

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