OPEN TO ALL: Al Qaeda, Iran and the future of terrorism in the Middle East

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Whilst various states in the Middle East accuse each other of terrorism few would imagine a partnership between Iran and Al Qaeda.

As ISIS retreats Al Qaeda is ready to take the lead role again and its quiet rebuilding has been underestimated. After the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, the Obama administration and European governments sought to present Al Qaeda as a spent force, eclipsed by the rise of the Islamic State. Documents recovered from Abbottabad were cherry picked to support this narrative along with seductive stills showing an aging Osama, staring at a T.V. set: ‘The Lion in Winter.’ The White House ventured into Hollywood, getting behind Zero Dark 30 to project a narrative about justifiable vengeance and Al Qaeda’s defeat.

Yet while the world’s attention was focused elsewhere, Al Qaeda was rebuilding and rebranding. Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri was coaching Osama’s 28-year-old son Hamza bin Laden to take a new role as youthful figurehead, while the military council of veterans reformed, hunkering down in Syria, Yemen and Pakistan, driving its franchises to expand. Now there is even talk among jihad clerics and scholars in Jordan, Syria and Iraq of a possible ‘merger’ between elements of IS that is losing its geographic territory and resurgent Al Qaeda (and its fronts) that are holding on to more.

A new book, The Exile, The Flight of Osama bin Laden (Bloomsbury UK), a deep dive inside Al Qaeda, has reached out to leaders of the outfit’s religious council, strategist and fighters on the military council, as well as members of Osama bin Laden’s family and leaders of the jihad fronts in Pakistan that sheltered them. Writers Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy (The Siege, The Meadow and Deception) reveal how Al Qaeda’s survival was ensured by Iran that gave sanctuary to the outfit, organizing a diaspora of fighters, sheltering others, in the months following 9/11. The Revolutionary Guard provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden’s family and leadership, only rethinking its strategy in 2003 when the U.S. was offered all of the visitors in exchange for diplomatic ‘normalisation’, a deal rejected by Vice President Dick Cheney, who were targeting Iraq. Instead, Al Qaeda would remain in Tehran for more than a decade, plotting attacks from there, the last senior leader flown out to Syria in 2016.

Speakers' Biographies

Adrian Levy is an internationally renowned and award-winning investigative journalist who worked as a staff writer and foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times for seven years before joining the Guardian as senior correspondent. He is co-author, with Catherine Scott-Clark, of two highly acclaimed books, The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure, and The Stone of Heaven: Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade. He has reported from South Asia for more than a decade, and now lives in London and in France.


Catherine Scott-Clark has been a journalist, author and film-maker for more than twenty years, reporting from places as varied as Bosnia, Rwanda, Serbia, Russia, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran. She has written five books – The Stone of Heaven (2001), The Amber Room (2004), Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy (2007), The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 – Where The Terror Began (2012) and most recently The Siege (2014). In 2002, Stone of Heaven was chosen by the New York Times as a book of the year. In 2005, The Amber Room was a finalist in the Borders’ Original Voices US book awards, becoming a national best seller there. In 2007, Deception was a Washington Post ‘pick of the year’, and a finalist in the Royal United Services Institute, Duke of Westminster’s Medal for military literature. In 2004 Cathy won One World Media Award for Foreign Reporting and in 2005 and 2006 was nominated for the Amnesty International Press Awards. She was short-listed for the British Press Awards in 2008 and 2009, when she won the One World Media Journalist of the Year Award.


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