The U.S. State Department's decision to offer a reward of up to $12 million for information leading to the location of the top two al-Qaida operatives in Iran is seen as a sign of how serious Washington is about curtailing the group's activities in Iran.
The move came the same day the U.S. Treasury Department called the terror network headed by both men a “crucial source” of al-Qaida funding and support.
A reward of $7 million is being offered for information on the whereabouts of Muhsin al-Fadhi,
a Kuwaiti national described by the State Department as “al-Qaida’s senior leader” in Iran.
He is wanted by the U.S. for providing “financial and material support” to the al-Zarqawi terror network and to al-Qaida in Iran.
Al-Fadhi is also reported to have been among the few trusted al-Qaida operatives who received advance notice of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
In its announcement
Thursday, the State Department said al-Fadhi uses his “extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors” to send money and fighters via Turkey to support al-Qaida affiliated elements in Syria.
Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi, an Iran-based senior al-Qaida facilitator, serves as the deputy to Muhsin al-Fadhli. A $5 million reward was also announced for al-Fadhi's deputy, Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi
The U.S. wants al-Harbi, a Saudi national, for facilitating the “travel of extremists” to Afghanistan or Iraq via Iran, the State Department says.
Jonathan Schanzen, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and a former U.S. Treasury analyst, says the rewards demonstrate “a seriousness of purpose."
“It also may be an attempt to draw in the Iranian people,” Schanzen said. “In other words, when you have a reward out there and you’ve got a suffering population inside Iran that been under the weight of sanctions, the idea that you would bring in $12 million by simply identifying somebody you probably don’t even want to be on your soil, that could be an appealing prospect.”
Al-Harbi also was hit with sanctions from the Treasury department. Last year, the agency placed similar sanctions against his boss, al-Fadhi.
Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said the sanctions against both men “further expose al-Qaida’s critically important Iran-based funding and facilitation network.”
Thursday’s coordinated moves by the State and Treasury departments put pressure on U.S. partners in the region - specifically Kuwait and Qatar - to help constrain al-Qaida in Iran, says Mathew Levitt, a former Treasury Department counterterrorism expert.
“There was a time when Saudi Arabia was our biggest terror finance concern in the region and there’s certainly more that the Saudis can do but they’ve done a lot,” Levitt told VOA Thursday. “I would say that today, and I know I’m not the only one that’s saying it, that Qatar and Kuwait are larger concerns in the Gulf.”
Levitt says the move also opens the way for similar sanctions by the international community.
"You can, and I would expect, that we will be going to the United Nations and seeking for United Nations designation," he says. "You can’t do that with all groups. The United Nations is only able to designate individuals or groups that are tied to al-Qaida or the Taliban, but this would be something that would clearly fit.”
Little intelligence has been publicly released connecting Iran to al-Qaida.
But the U.S. and intelligence analysts say Iran has agreed to allow al-Qaida operatives and their families to move through the country - essentially providing the group with a safe haven, according to a Brookings Institution report in July.
In exchange, said the Treasury statement Thursday, al-Qaida agrees not to conduct “any operations or within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities.”