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Iran and al-Qaeda: Odd bedfellows
By Pepe Escobar

Investigators from a special anti-terrorist cell in the European Union have expressed doubts over a Washington Post report this week in which sources claimed that Saad bin Laden, 24, Osama's eldest son, is now a top al-Qaeda member and that he runs operations out of Iran.

The paper reported its sources as saying that Saad and a close circle of about two dozen of bin Laden's trusted lieutenants are "protected by an elite, radical Iranian security force loyal to the nation's clerics and beyond the control of the central government".

Asia Times Online (see Iran lines up its al-Qaeda aces of July 2) has already reported that Iran has admitted to holding a number of al-Qaeda members in its custody.

But, Asia Times Online's European intelligence sources caution, "The leaks [to the Post], when put together, convey the impression that Iran, a Shi'ite Islamic Republic, is now supporting al-Qaeda, an Islamist, Wahhabi, terrorist, transnational organization. That is simply not true."

The attempt to throw all big cats - "axis of evil" Iran, "foreign terrorists" in Iraq and al-Qaeda - into one big bag is seen by European intelligence agencies as a crude attempt on the part of the Bush administration to "refocus" the "war on terror" from former "axis of evil" member Iraq to current member Iran, and from Saddam Hussein to the ayatollahs in Tehran. This, they say, bears a strong resemblance to the non-stop campaign in early 2003 to link Saddam to al-Qaeda, even though the evidence did not support this.

Anti-terrorist European intelligence raises several points. First, there is no proven connection between al-Qaeda and the Islamic Republic's religious leadership. And Saad is not the new Osama. According to one special investigator, "Our main target now is not Osama's son, but Muhamad Ibrahim Makkawi [aka Saif al-Adil, a former colonel in the Egyptian army, born in 1960 or 1963]. He is an explosives expert and most probably the successor of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed." Khalid Shaikh, widely reputed to be the mastermind of September 11, was captured in Pakistan in March.

Saif al-Adil has extensive combat and covert operation experience: after fighting alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s, he founded the military branch of bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad, and is considered to be the top al-Qaeda military operative still at large. Saif al-Adil has for several years been in charge of terrestrial operations, security, military education, intelligence and liaison with al-Qaeda's special forces, the infamous Brigade 055. The only known photograph of Saif al-Adil is a passport photo dating from when bin Laden was still in Sudan, in the mid-1990s.

The Americans, though, are convinced that Saif al-Adil is in Iran, along with top al-Qaeda financial expert Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah and a few dozen others, all of them under the regime's custody, but still operative.

The Europeans are not so sure: they insist that al-Qaeda's imprint is mostly in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf regions, not in Iran. "Most al-Qaeda leaders took refuge in the Hadramut, between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where the bin Laden family comes from. The most influential ulemas from the Hadramut tribes are Wahhabis, as well as key officials of the Saudi security forces and the religious police." says a European intelligence operative. As for the Islamic Republic's authorities, they have always vehemently denied supporting al-Qaeda - although they have not disclosed the identities of their al-Qaeda detainees.

According to the leaks to the Post, Saad bin Laden is being protected by the elite unit among the five branches of Iran's Revolutionary Guards - the Jerusalem force (al-Quds) - which completely eludes "control from the central government".

Analysts question this possibility. Such a unit could well elude President Mohammad Khatami, but certainly not the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom all security services are subordinated. And for all practical purposes, "central government" means Khamenei, not Khatami.

US intelligence is persuaded that the Jerusalem force has trained more than three dozen "foreign Islamic militant groups in paramilitary, guerrilla and terrorism" tactics, Sunni and Shi'ite alike, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. That sounds like an Israeli Mossad mish-mash - once again throwing all cats into the same bag, as the agendas of Hezbollah and Palestinian liberation groups are totally different.

Although for some European intelligence sources the Jerusalem force is "a state within a state, able to offer protection to al-Qaeda", there's great skepticism towards its supposed, effective internationalist role. "Saddam Hussein also had a Jerusalem Liberation Army. It proved to be invisible, just a propaganda coup," adds another European counter-terrorist operative.

European intelligence agrees that Saif al-Adil and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah are indeed the current top deputies to bin Laden and al-Qaeda's number two, Ayman "the Surgeon" al-Zawahiri, who now contact their operatives only through human couriers. But the assumption that Ayman al-Zawahiri used his decade-old relationship with the Jerusalem force to negotiate a safe harbor for some of al-Qaeda's leaders bombed by the Americans in Tora Bora, in southeast Afghanistan, in December 2001, is also ludicrous: these al-Qaeda leaders escaped to Pakistan's tribal areas, where they remained ever since. There's evidence that only but a few crossed the border from Pakistan's to Iran's Balochistan desert.

According to the Post, Saudi Arabia has tried to convince Iran to extradite Saad bin Laden and his al-Qaeda brothers-in-arms because they are suspected of masterminding the May 12 Riyadh suicide bombing (35 dead). According to the Saudis and the Americans, they were in contact with an al-Qaeda cell in Riyadh. The Saudis have told the Americans that there may be up to 400 al-Qaeda members holed up in Iran. European intelligence also takes this information with a pinch of salt, considering the fact that the Saudis are trying to do everything at the moment to appease America's discomfort with their role vis-a-vis what is essentially a Saudi Arabian, hardcore Islamist, terrorist organization (al-Qaeda).

The authorities in Tehran have "challenged foreign intelligence services to come up with evidence" that they are supporting al-Qaeda, according to government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh: "We have announced time and again that we will not allow these activities to take place in Iran. This is a decision taken by the highest officials in the country. The report is an absolute lie."

The regime blames the leaks that led to the report on the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington: indeed, for neo-conservatives from Pentagon number two Paul Wolfowitz down, closely intertwined with the hardline Ariel Sharon government in Israel, Iran's ayatollahs are the next big target. According to a European counter-terrorist expert, for the neo-cons "an al-Qaeda free to operate in Iran is a dream ticket in their agenda. They have already started to prepare American opinion for an attack on Iran."

Ramezanzadeh, the Iranian government spokesman, acknowledges that Iran's porous borders with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are difficult to control, so "sometimes some elements suspected of cooperating with al-Qaeda may enter the country". Al-Qaeda is supposed to have its bases along the Afghan border: American satellite photos could easily provide some evidence. The official Iranian position was spelled out by Ramezanzadeh: "We are asking all the world's security services and anyone else who has any information about these suspects to come forward with the information. After substantiating the information, we will arrest them."

Saad bin Laden is one of at least 11 sons from Osama's first wife and also first cousin, Najwa Ghanem from Syria. Out of five marriages, Osama has fathered about 20 children. Saad arrived in Iran in 2002, from Afghanistan. He is fluent in English and information technology. European intelligence operatives somewhat agree that he may now be a key player in al-Qaeda's logistics. He may have been close to, and may have learned a lot from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But he is not the new Osama - at least not yet. And there's still no proof that he is the Tehran ayatollahs' new lethal weapon.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Oct 17, 2003

Al-Qaeda pawn in Iran's hands
(Jul 22, '03)

Iran lines up its al-Qaeda aces
(Jul 22, '03)


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