WASHINGTON — One of two known Al Qaeda leadership councils meets regularly in eastern Iran, where the American intelligence community believes dozens of senior Al Qaeda leaders have reconstituted a good part of the terror conglomerate's senior leadership structure.
That is a consensus judgment from a final working draft of a new National Intelligence Estimate, titled "The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland," on the organization that attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The estimate, which represents the opinion of America's intelligence agencies, is now finished, and unclassified conclusions will be shared today with the public.
The classified document includes four main sections, examining how Al Qaeda in recent years has increased its capacity to stage another attack on American soil; how the organization has replenished the ranks of its top leaders; nations where Al Qaeda operates, and the status of its training camps and physical infrastructure.
The judgment that Iran has hosted Al Qaeda's senior leadership council is likely to draw some criticism from those outside the government who doubt Iran plays a significant role in bolstering Sunni jihadist terrorism. Iran's Shiite Muslims are considered infidels by the Salafi sect of Sunnis that comprise Al Qaeda.
While there is little disagreement that a branch of Al Qaeda's leadership operates in Iran, the intelligence community diverges on the extent to which the hosting of the senior leaders represents a policy of the regime in Tehran or the rogue actions of Iran's Quds Force, the terrorist support units that report directly to Iran's supreme leader.
In the estimate's chapter on Al Qaeda's replenished senior leadership, three American intelligence sources said, there is a discussion of the eastern Iran-based Shura Majlis, a kind of consensus-building organization of top Al Qaeda figures that meets regularly to make policy and plan attacks. The New York Sun first reported in October that one of the Shura Majlis for Al Qaeda meets in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan, one of the areas the Pakistani army this week re-engaged after a yearlong cease-fire. Both Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, participate in those meetings.
The other Shura Majlis is believed to meet in eastern Iran in the network established after Al Qaeda was driven from Afghanistan in 2001.
Following that battle, a military planner trained in the Egyptian special forces, Saif al-Adel, fled to Iran. Mr. Zawahri then arranged with the then commander of Iran's Quds Force, Ahmad Vahidi, for safe harbor for senior leaders.
The three main Al Qaeda leaders in Iran include Mr. Adel; the organization's minister of propaganda, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, and the man who some analysts believe is the heir apparent to Mr. bin Laden — one of his sons, Saad bin Laden. The locations of the senior leaders include a military base near Tehran called Lavizan; a northern suburb of Tehran, Chalous; an important holy city, Mashod, and a border town near Afghanistan, Zabul, the draft intelligence estimate says.
In 2003, Iran offered a swap of the senior leaders in exchange for members of an Iranian opposition group on America's list of foreign terrorist organizations, the People's Mujahadin.
That deal was scuttled after signal intercepts proved, according to American intelligence officials, that Mr. Adel was in contact with an Al Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia.
In the aftermath of the failed deal, Al Qaeda's Iran branch has worked closely in helping to establish the group in Iraq. The late founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had multiple meetings with Mr. Adel after 2001. In the past year, the multinational Iraq command force has intercepted at least 10 couriers with instructions from the Iran-based Shura Majlis. In addition, two senior leaders of Al Qaeda captured in 2006 have shared details of the Shura Majlis in Iran.
"We know that there were two Al Qaeda centers of gravity. After the Taliban fell, one went to Pakistan, the other fled to Iran," Roger Cressey, a former deputy to a counterterrorism tsar, Richard Clarke, said in an interview yesterday. "The question for several years has been: What type of operational capability did each of these centers have?"
A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Iran expert, Vali Nasr, said he did not know that the Shura Majlis had reconstituted in eastern Iran, but he did say his Iranian contacts had confirmed recent NATO intelligence that Iran had begun shipping arms to Al Qaeda's old Afghan hosts, the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Mr. Nasr, however, said Iran's recent entente with Al Qaeda could be simply a matter of statecraft. "Iran and Al Qaeda do not have to like one another," he said. "They can hate each other, they can kill each other, their ultimate goals may be against one another, but for the short term Iran can unleash Al Qaeda on the United States."
Mr. Cressey said the Iranian regime's relationship with Al Qaeda is one of tolerance as opposed to command and control.
"I think the Iranians are giving these guys enough latitude to operate to give them another chit in the game of U.S.-Iranian relations," he said.
An intelligence official sympathetic to the view that it is a matter of Iranian policy to cooperate with Al Qaeda disputed the CIA and State Department view that the Quds Force is operating as a rogue force. "It is just impossible to believe that what the Quds Force does with Al Qaeda does not represent a decision of the government," the official, who asked not to be identified, said. "It's a bit like saying the directorate of operations for the CIA is not really carrying out U.S. policy."
Some intelligence reporting suggests, the source said, that the current chief of the Quds Force, General Qassem Sulamani, has met with Saad bin Laden, Mr. Adel, and Mr. Abu Ghaith.
The link between Iran and Al Qaeda is not new, in some cases. The bipartisan September 11 commission report, for example, concluded: "There is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of Al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers."
According to the commission, a senior Al Qaeda coordinator, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, said eight of the September 11 hijackers went through Iran on their way to and from Afghanistan.
In 2005, both Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and the then ambassador at large for counterterrorism, Cofer Black, disclosed that America believes that senior Al Qaeda leaders reside in Iran.