Iran holds Al Qaeda's top leaders
Tehran's custody of bin Laden's son and others is a blow to the terrorist organization.
WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
That is no doubt hampering Al Qaeda's ability to launch more attacks, they say. Saif al-Adel, for example, is the fourth chief of military operations to be captured or killed since 9/11. Mohammed Atef, the No. 3 at the time of the strikes, was killed during the US bombing of Afghanistan in December 2001. Abu Zubaydah then filled that role, but was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. Then the next military chief, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was also captured in Pakistan earlier this year.
Still, Al Qaeda has demonstrated an ability to reconstitute in the past and continue to wage attacks. The latest were in May in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, where 79 total were killed, including eight Americans.
"Because Al Qaeda is an insurgent organization, there's always someone to take another's place," says a senior US government official. "He may not be as good as the person who was lost. But the organization is never going to come to a standstill because there is always someone ready to fill vacated posts."
Some 100,000 foot soldiers are now known to have trained at Al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan before they were destroyed by the US bombing in 2001. Many, up to 20,000, have probably been killed in battles in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, or Kashmir. But that leaves 80,000 who probably returned to their homes in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, analysts say.
In addition, there have been other terrorist training camps in places like Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, and Lebanon, where Hizbullah - what US officials call the A Team of terrorist groups - have run training camps in the Bekaa Valley since the 1980s.
Still, the Al Qaeda leaders supposedly being held in Iran include some of the most prominent and well-educated among the group. Zawahiri has been Mr. bin Laden's No. 2 for several years, his personal physician, and closest intellectual sparring partner. He has written several books on fundamental Islam as well as communications for Al Qaeda.
Zawahiri was raised and educated in Cairo, where he became a doctor and a member, and eventually a leader, of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). He left Egypt in the early 1980s, after serving a three-year sentence for a part in the assassination of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. He then made his way to Afghanistan, where he dedicated his medical services to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the former Soviet Union. He later united his wing of EIJ with Al Qaeda.
"Zawahiri is a very important thinker and writer," the intelligence official says. "His pen is going to be missed."
Mr. Adel, also known as Mohammed Makkawi, is also a former member of EIJ, and he served as a colonel in the Egyptian Army's special forces. Adel is believed to have trained and fought the tribal fighters who ambushed and killed the 18 US Army Rangers in Mogadishu in 1993. He helped plan the 1998 attacks on the US Embassies in Africa, and he was a key planner of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Moreover, he is believed to be part of a tactical alliance between Al Qaeda and Hizbullah.
Saad bin Laden is one of Osama bin Laden's oldest sons, believed to be in his early 30s and a rising star in Al Qaeda. Officials say he has provided financial and logistical support for several operations, including the April 11, 2002, bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia that killed 19 people.
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is a Kuwaiti, who was a teacher of Islamic studies, an imam, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Kuwait eventually suspended him from religious activities for criticizing the government. He spent two months in Bosnia in 1994, where he fought with Muslim forces. He then returned to Kuwait. After the start of US strikes on Afghanistan in 2001, Abu Ghaith appeared on Al Jazeera as an Al Qaeda spokesman.
• Michael Theodoulou contributed to this report.