ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Up to $10 million, that's how much the U.S. government is willing to pay for information on the whereabouts of Yasin al-Suri. The State Department says that al-Suri, whose real name is Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, is a key fundraiser for al-Qaida. The government says he has operated out of Iran since 2005, providing the al-Qaida network with transportation for operatives and access to money.
So who is al-Suri? For more information on him, we're joined now by Juan Zarate. He's a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism during the George W. Bush administration. Welcome to the program once again.
JUAN ZARATE: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: And first, who is al-Suri? Where does he fit into al-Qaida?
ZARATE: Well, Yasin al-Suri is a character you may not have heard of before, but he's part of the core al-Qaida leadership and he certainly has emerged over the past few years as a key interlocutor between al-Qaida and Iran. And you've seen the U.S. government talk about him more over the past few months as being a seminal facilitator for financial operations from the Persian Gulf into Pakistan as well as the movement of operatives through Iran into Pakistan and Afghanistan.
SIEGEL: Just to put this in some context, the U.S. government is offering $25 million for information about Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, and then, al-Suri is right there in the second tier. He's one of three people for whom the $10 million reward is offered. This connection between al-Qaida and Iran, is it the case now that the Iranians have overcome all their misgivings about a Sunni militant group, al-Qaida, and that they are facilitating al-Qaida?
ZARATE: Well, there has always been a relationship between al-Qaida and Iran, a distrustful one, one where al-Qaida and Iran certainly don't like each other, but there has always been a question as to whether or not Iran has facilitated al-Qaida activities. The 9/11 Commission talked about this relationship and actually urged the U.S. government to do more inquiry as to the role that Iran may have played prior to 9/11 in facilitating al-Qaida's activities. But what you've seen over the past five months from the U.S. government is more of a willingness to talk about the relationship and, frankly, more of a concern that there has been a marriage of convenience, that Iran has been willing to release certain al-Qaida prisoners into the custody of Yasin al-Suri, been willing to allow facilitation of al-Qaida activities, and, frankly, a real important question as to what the relationship is on going and in the future between al-Qaida and Iran.
SIEGEL: It sounds, to me, from all that you're saying that this decision this week to put al-Suri up there in the rewards for justice list, $10 million, has as much to do with U.S. concerns about Iran as it has to do with U.S. concerns about al-Qaida.
ZARATE: I think that's absolutely right. I don't think anyone anticipates that we're going to see someone calling in to the State Department with information about Yasin al-Suri as a result of this. This is more about messaging. This is a message to both Iran and al-Qaida saying the U.S. government is watching. We are not liking what we see in terms of the relationship, and certainly, it raises the specter of an Iranian regime that is willing to do business with al-Qaida at a moment of growing tension between the United States and Iran.
SIEGEL: Is the U.S. in effect saying we already have cause for attack on Iran? Iran is harboring somebody of a group that we already have declared as an enemy of the United States.
ZARATE: I think, certainly, it raises the specter that you have an al-Qaida-Iranian relationship that would be cause for concern and perhaps even additional cause for potential military action. I think some critics of this move and of the designations by the Treasury Department in July of this year would say that this is banging the drums to the beat that we saw prior to the Iraq War, but I think the reality is that al-Qaida and Iran do have a relationship. It's one of growing importance given the number of operatives and the level and importance of the operatives who remain in Iran.
SIEGEL: You know, on a day when Syria, friend to Iran, accuses al-Qaida of being responsible for bombings in Damascus to think about Iran sheltering al-Qaida suggests that the enemy of my enemy of my enemy of my enemy may be somebody I can do business with. It's quite a plot we're weaving there.
ZARATE: Yeah. It's quite a plot. It's three-dimensional chess mixed with intrigue, and it's often hard to understand what's happening behind the veil. But the reality is marriages of convenience happen quite a bit and can happen between groups like Iran and al-Qaida. We've seen that in the past, and I think the U.S. government is signaling that they're concerned about that relationship with this announcement.
SIEGEL: Juan, thank you very much for talking with us again.
ZARATE: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's Juan Zarate, senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was a counterterrorism specialist in the administration of President George W. Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.