WASHINGTON -- The elite Iranian force believed to be protecting Osama bin Laden's son, Saad bin Laden, and two dozen Al Qaeda leaders is one of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' five branches and has been given the mission of "exporting the Islamic revolution" by training, arming, and collaborating with foreign terrorist groups -- even those who do not share Iran's fundamentalist Shi'ite brand of Islam.
The Jerusalem Force, also known as the Qods Force, is highly trained and well funded. It has provided instruction to more than three dozen Shi'ite and Sunni "foreign Islamic militant groups in paramilitary, guerrilla, and terrorism" tactics, according to a recent US intelligence analysis.
Groups including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have received arms and training at one of several sites in Iran, according to that document.
The Jerusalem Force's former commander, Ahmad Vahidi, allegedly helped plan the 1994 bombing of the Amia Jewish Center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 civilians were killed and 230 injured, according to Argentine intelligence officials and others.
The group has also maintained ties with Al Qaeda for more than a decade, according to US and European intelligence officials. Senior Al Qaeda leaders first met and formed a tactical alliance with the nascent Jerusalem Force in Sudan in the early 1990s, intelligence officials say. The group was creating training camps there at the same time that Osama bin Laden had begun to create his own financial and training infrastructure.
Bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, used his decade-old relationship with Vahidi, then commander of the Jerusalem Force, to negotiate safe harbor for some Al Qaeda leaders who were trapped in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001, according to a European intelligence official.
The group is "a state within a state, and that is why they are able to offer protection to Al Qaeda," one European intelligence analyst said. "The Force's senior leaders have longstanding ties to Al Qaeda, and since the fall of Afghanistan, have provided some Al Qaeda leaders with travel documents and safe haven."
The organization's autonomy from Iran's elected leaders underscores the deep split between the moderate government of President Mohammad Khatami and the unelected hard-line clerics who control much of the nation's security apparatus.
Khatami, who has repeatedly denied that senior Al Qaeda figures are in Iran, has no control over security organs such as the Revolutionary Guard that answer to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Although Iran is a Shi'ite nation, the Jerusalem Force's willingness to work with rival Sunni organizations has made it particularly dangerous as a liaison between Iran and other Islamic groups that share its goal of destroying secular Muslim states.
The Jerusalem Force has agents in "most countries with substantial Muslim populations," according to the US analysis. "Their mission is to form relationships with Islamic militant and radical groups and offer financial support either to the groups at large or to Islamic figures within them who are sympathetic to the principles and foreign policy goals of the Iranian government."