Iran holds Al Qaeda's top leaders
Tehran's custody of bin Laden's son and others is a blow to the terrorist organization.
While much of the world is focused on US soldiers closing in on Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a much less-noticed but possibly even more important roundup is taking place in Iraq's neighbor to the east, Iran.Skip to next paragraph
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The Tehran government is holding several top-level Al Qaeda operatives that, experts say, could lead to the biggest breakthrough in curtailing the organization since the fall of Afghanistan.
Though the Iranians haven't mentioned any names, intelligence officials and press reports indicate they've captured Saad bin Laden, Osama bin Laden's son, who has assumed a leadership role; Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the Al Qaeda spokesman; and Saif al-Adel, the latest No. 3 who is believed to be in charge of military operations.
Even more significant, according to one Western intelligence official, Tehran is also holding Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is known as an Islamic fundamentalist intellectual and eloquent speaker for the organization. While some US intelligence sources have expressed doubt that Iran really has Dr. Zawahiri, the European official says Tehran "absolutely" has him.
If so, his capture, along with that of the other top members, would deal a major blow to the terrorist network. "Zawahiri would be an incredible blow," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst in the CIA's counterterrorism center. "All four of them would be a tremendous blow.... Al Qaeda will continue to rebuild, but it will take a lot of time to get new leadership with those sorts of skills and experience."
Whether Iran will hand them over is another question. The senior Western intelligence official says a European country is involved in negotiating some kind of turnover now. It would be difficult for Iran to directly turn them over to the US for the obvious political considerations: It is an Islamic country named as both a sponsor of terrorism and a member of the "axis of evil" by the US.
Moreover, the US accuses Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and is pressuring it to stop. Conversely, Iran would like the US to stop supporting Mujahideen e-Khalq, a group that opposes the Iranian regime and operates freely in the US.
"I suspect that some Iranians would argue that keeping some of these high-ranking Al Qaeda members incarcerated is a good bargaining chip," says Ali Ansari, a Middle East historian at Durham University in England.
Publicly, both sides are being predictably circumspect at the moment. Iran has only said it is holding a "large number of small- and big-time" Al Qaeda members.
In response, the US has sounded unimpressed, perhaps as means of applying additional pressure. "We have said all along we believe that there were senior members of Al Qaeda that were operating from Iran," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last week. He noted that the US has made clear that the Iranians - if they are in fact holding the captives rather than harboring them - should deport them to where "they're wanted for crimes, or to their home countries."
If the US were to gain control of these purported bin Laden lieutenants, it would add significantly to the roster of Al Qaeda members that have been killed or captured in the past two years. Since 9/11, the US and its allies have detained 3,000 Al Qaeda members, and US government officials now say that more than half of Al Qaeda's leadership has been taken out.