Photo shows Salafi prisoners praying in Rajaie Shahr prison.
Across the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iranians accused of being members of al Qaeda are being held in prisons – some even in specific high security wings. Yet their vary presence is barely reported in the media. FRANCE 24's Observers explore the country's complex relationship with the terrorist movement.
While Iran is a majority Shia state, al Qaeda is an organisation rooted in an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam. Shiism and Sunnism are the two dominant strands of Islam. The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis [estimates put the figure at around 85-90%]. Followers of Shiite Islam make up roughly 10%, and account for the majority in Iran.

“They formed a football team and called it ‘al Qaeda’”

FRANCE 24 has been speaking to former prisoners in Iran who say they were incarcerated alongside members of al Qaeda. One of them is Mohsen [not his real name], a Green Movement activist who was only recently released from prison and prefers to remain anonymous. He was locked up in 2009 in high security cells at Evin and Rajaie Shahr prisons.
It was strange for me to see these prisoners [Kurds, from Kurdistan in western Iran – a majority Sunni region] in Rajaie Shahr prison who stand accused of being members of al Qaeda, because Kurdistan is known as a secular area. [Figures show that roughly eight million Sunnis live in various areas of Iran, including Kurdistan, Baluchistan in the east, and the Northern Provinces.] They formed a football team for internal prison competitions and called it ‘al Qaeda’.
Prisoners play football in Rajaie Shahr prison.
Some are more radical than others. The radical prisoners would not even pray with other Salafi prisoners and used to pray separately. They’re treated differently to other prisoners in Iran. Because they do not consider meat prepared by Shia Muslims to be Halal, prison officers would bring them live sheep and let them kill the sheep in their own way and even cook it themselves. This kind of privilege would be unthinkable for other prisoners. They are kept in a ward with relatively more freedom than the others. On the other hand, prison guards constantly insult their ideology. During interrogations, they’re often tortured and interrogators insult the companions of the prophet to upset them. Sometimes they’re humiliated and forced to shave their beards.
Regarding the media’s silence, I think that it’s only through us – prisoners who have been held alongside them - that their existence in Iran’s prison network can be known to the outside world. But they never had any interest in talking to us. They all knew Persian but they still wouldn’t speak to anyone.
Many of them decided to carry out military operations in Iran [after events in Syria stirred up sectarian differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Many Kurds, being largely Sunni, sided against the Syrian government, which is supported by Iran] or in Iraq. Many of them even consider those who don’t follow al Qaeda’s extremist interpretation irreligious, but would cope with them.
Several prisoners accused of being members of al Qaeda told our Observers that they had fought in Afghanistan against American troops. That may sound surprising, given Iran and al Qaeda’s mutual hostility towards the West. Indeed, in the past Iran often turned a blind eye to Afghanistan-bound jihadists.

“Now, al Qaeda is a problem for Iran because it targets far more strongly the Shia community”

Dominique Thomas is a researcher at the School of Higher Studies into Social Sciences in Paris, where he specialises in studying Islamist movements. He told FRANCE 24 that al Qaeda’s role in Syria was the determining factor in Iran’s change of attitude towards the terrorist movement.
Iran has always considered that al Qaeda could never be a friend: al Qaeda itself says Iran is an enemy. But pragmatically, the Iranian state has looked to see if the interests of the terrorist group aligned with its own. Iran's policy towards al Qaeda after 2001 in the decade that followed was ‘laissez-faire’. Iranian territory was a zone of transit for al Qaeda fighters heading to Afghanistan. Iran generally let them go about their way, but they didn’t give them any logistical help. The authorities certainly had information about this passage of combatants. They often came from the Middle East and travelled to Afghanistan, usually to fight American troops. Iran and al Qaeda had interests in common, and as long as those interests didn’t hurt Iran, the state let the group’s fighters pass through.

"There is absolutely no proof that there is a concrete link between Iran and al Qaeda"

But with the Syrian conflict, all that completely changed. It brought the Sunni-Shiite dimension into play. Today, we can say that Iran is completely disposed to supporting the Iraqi and Syrian regimes. That has changed its relationship with al Qaeda. For Iran, it became unthinkable that men could use its territory as a transit point to go fight Shiites in Iraq, or Hezbollah in Lebanon [a Shia movement], or the Syrian regime [the regime is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam]. Now, al Qaeda is a problem for Iran because it targets far more strongly the Shia community.

There is absolutely no proof that there is a concrete link between Iran and al Qaeda. There are no doubt hundreds of prisoners belonging to al Qaeda in Iran’s prisons. But it’s difficult to know how many. What makes things more complex is that for Iran, the definition of al Qaeda is very vague. For example, there is an ongoing rebellion in the Sunni-majority east of the country. People here consider themselves Sunni, and say the regime is oppressing them. The Iranian government may consider people who carry out attacks there as members of al Qaeda, even if they're not.
Mehdi Mahmoudian spent several years in Rajaie Shahr prison. He says there are three types of prisoners held in the special al Qaeda wing there: those who worked with al Qaeda in Iraq; those who carried out attacks against Iran but had no ties to al Qaeda; and those who held Salafi beliefs, but were not members of al Qaeda and never carried out any attacks.
Article written by Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar) and Ershad Alijani (@ershadalijani)