Is Iran working with al Qaeda? And is there a Qatari connection?

The Treasury Department today named six alleged al Qaeda operatives that it said were members of a network that worked to facilitate the moving of "money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia" in cooperation with the government of Iran.

The department's press release said that Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a Syrian living in Iran, was collecting money from Gulf donors and using it to send cash to al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as dispatching "extremist recruits for al Qaeda from the Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran." (If so, he's not doing such a great job, as al Qaeda's branch in Iraq has recently complained of going broke, and U.S. counterterrorism officials claim the group is on the verge of defeat in Pakistan.)

Washington has long accused Iran of meddling in Afghanistan, and more recently has blamed the Islamic Republic for a stepped-up campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq. (A few months back, I met with a UAE military official who made the same accusation about Iran supplying weapons and money to anti-coalition fighters in Afghanistan.) It's also been widely reported that senior al Qaeda figures are under some sort of house arrest in Iran, possibly as bargaining chips -- but that Iran may have recently allowed a few of those operatives to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I was particularly interested in this latest announcement by the Treasury, because it names two individuals in Qatar, where I am temporarily based.

One of those named, Salim Hasan Khalifa Rashid al-Kuwari, was also mentioned in an Amnesty International action alert in March as one of three individuals subject to arbitrary detention whom Sultan al-Khalaifi -- someone the NGO described as a blogger and human rights activist -- was trying to get released. Khalaifi was mysteriously arrested on March 1 by "a number of state security agents,” according to Amnesty, along with three other unnamed Qataris, and seems to have disappeared into a black hole.

At the time, I remember thinking the case was odd, because Khalaifi had only written four blog posts -- and none of them recently. Was he really arrested for his blogging activities? One theory was that Khalaifi was somehow involved in Facebook calls for a revolution to oust Emir Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, as his blog and the "Qatar Revolution" Facebook page contained some similar themes -- that the emir was corrupt and in league with the evil Americans and Israel, that his wife was too prominent, and so on. Khalaifi listed Sayyif Qutb's Milestones, a seminal Islamist tract, as his favorite book, so it seemed clear where his political leanings lay. [UPDATE: According to this Qatari blog, Khalaifi was released in April.]

In any event, I have no idea whether there's a link between today's Treasury announcement and the Khalaifi case, but the mention of Kuwari is certainly intriguing. Is he actually already in custody? If so, did he provide information on Khalil's (alleged) activities in Iran? And what explains Washington's motives for making this announcement today?

Leah Farrell, a leading al Qaeda expert based in Australia, tweeted that she was skeptical of the Treasury designation, and suggested it might be motivated by a U.S. desire to put pressure on Iran.

"Past reports have been poorly sourced and containing serious inaccuracies," she said. "I know about some of these people. They're not new and the reality is far more complex."

"This seems like a means of overcoming a lack of leverage against Iran releasing people."

More later.


South Korean floods carry a new threat

A deep freight train rumble struck South Korea's capital as a series of landslides engulfed entire villages. Screams resounded from buildings as they were dragged down mud rivers. Drivers scrambled to their car roofs as entire portions of the highway were swept away.

Relentless rains have crippled the region, with some reports placing the death toll at 67. Thousands of police officers, firefighters and soldiers are scrambling to aid victims and search for potential survivors. But in some areas, rescue missions have been stalled due to another potential disaster: landmines. Between 1999 and 2006, the South Korean military dug up mines from the Korean War on Wumyeon Mountain in southern Seoul, but ten could not be located. Residents have been warned that these land mines could have been knocked loose by floods and debris. Authorities hope that a concrete wall resting near the mountain will hold back the missing mines.

While an army official told reporters that the lost ammunition posed no real danger, as the grenades are stored in wooden boxes and the mines are detached from their fuses, similar instances have resulted in deaths in the region. In 2010, floods carried a North Korean landmine into a river close to the border. Two South Korean men, who were fishing in the area, came across the mine. One instantly died, the other was wounded. Officials reported more than 30 mines had been swept into South Korea.  The Demilitarized Zone -- the two and a half miles dividing North and South Korea --  is littered with mines. Many unsuspecting villagers have come across the deadly weapons, losing arms, legs and, sometimes, their lives.

Both North and South Korea experience an annual rainy season, but this year's rains have proven to be the worst in a century. North Korea's widespread deforestation makes it even more vulnerable, with few trees to stop the powerful landslides. Aid and supplies have been distributed quickly around Seoul, but rescuers expressed concern over potential electrocution in flooded parking lots and construction sites. Over 4,500 people have been driven from their homes.

The water bombs, as some are calling the pounding rain storms, have stopped for now, but here's hoping the real explosives won't bear their ugly heads. 

YANG HOE-SEONG/AFP/Getty Images; PARK JI-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images; JANG SEUNG-YOON/AFP/Getty Images; Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images; JANG SEUNG-YOON/AFP/Getty Images