Somewhere north of Tehran, living perhaps in villas near the town of Chalous on the Caspian Sea coast, are between 20 and 25 of al-Qaida’s former leaders, along with two of Osama bin Laden’s sons.
Men such as Saif al-Adel, the former military commander of al-Qaida, and Suleiman Abu Ghaith, the bespectacled bin Laden spokesman, are not in hiding but rather in the care — or custody — of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
“They are under virtual house arrest,” not able to do much of anything, said one senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
How they got there and what will happen to them is one of the more intriguing stories of the war on terror, one that is filled with secret movements, stolen communications and a failed attempt at a prisoner exchange involving Iranian dissidents.
“We believe that they're holding members of al-Qaida's management council,” Fran Townsend, President Bush’s counterterrorism czar, said of Iran.
In an interview with Tom Brokaw two weeks ago, she added: “And we have encouraged and suggested that they ought to try them, they ought to admit freely that they're there — which they have not done — that they're holding them. Or they ought to return them to their countries of origin, which they've also been unwilling to do.”
How’d they get there?
The road to Iran
NBC News has learned that in the chaotic last days before Kabul, Afghanistan, fell to U.S. troops in November 2001, bin Laden and his lieutenants made a strategic decision. Al-Qaida’s then military commander, Mohammed Atef, has just been blown up in a U.S. air attack in the city, one in which a CIA Predator had pinpointed the very house he was staying in. It was time to move out.
Al-Qaida’s leadership had been divided into consultative and management councils, both of which reported to bin Laden.
The consultative council, the “al shura,” was viewed as the more critical to the terror network's continued operations. Its members, including bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, would flee east to cities in Pakistan. There, over the next few years, many key players would be picked up and bundled off to interrogation centers with great regularity. Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaida’s recruitment and training leader — known as the “dean of students” — was arrested in Faisalabad. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, its operations commander, was grabbed in Rawalpindi; two of his deputies, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Abu Faraj al Libbi, were taken in Karachi and Multan, and other lesser figures were regularly rousted by Pakistani forces.
The management council went west, to northern Iran, where the United States had little sway and the Iranians had little interest in pushing for their arrests. The group included al-Adel and abu Ghaith; Shaik Said, al-Qaida's chief financial officer; Abu Hafs, al-Qaida’s personnel director; the two top aides to Zawahiri; and a mysterious Yemeni, Abu Dahak, who served as al-Qaida’s ambassador to the rebels in Chechnya. On a personal level, two of bin Laden’s teenage sons, Sa’ad and Hamza, also were taken to Iran.
Setting up base
That’s not to say the Iranians, with their Shiite leadership, held any love for the Wahhabis and Salafists. Iranian intelligence had tried to kill Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, at a palace built for him by bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
“They missed, but it wasn’t for lack of trying,” said a Pentagon counter terrorism official at the time of the 2000 attempt. “It was one big truck bomb. I know. I saw pictures of the crater.”
But Iran was either unable or uninterested in taking the al-Qaida members into custody. Al-Qaida operatives, it was soon determined, were in communications, both personally and electronically, with the management and consultative councils. Orders were being given, commands were being carried out.
In April 2002, only five months after leaving Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence officials believed they saw a link between al-Qaida in Iran and the first post-9/11 terrorist attack ordered by bin Laden. A propane truck, used a truck bomb, breached the gates of one of Africa’s oldest synagogues in Djerba, Tunisia, killing 14 tourists. Although the suicide bomber was Tunisian, Western intelligence believed that the attack has been organized by Sa’ad bin Laden.
There was also evidence that critical meetings regarding the future of al-Qaida were being held in the relative safety of Iran. But al-Qaida decided at a meeting in Iran in November 2002 that the pressure on it was so great that it could no longer exist as a hierarchy. Two top leaders had just been arrested in Pakistan and in the pre-Iraq war environment, Western governments were putting up a united front.
Instead, following the advice of a key Iran-based al-Qaida strategist, Mustapha Nasar Setmariam, the terror network decided to move its operatives out into the wider world, to the rest of the Middle East, Europe and North America.
As time wore on, the al-Qaida operatives became bolder. In May 2003, operatives in Saudi Arabia carried out the first attack in Riyadh, targeting Westerners’ compounds. Thirty-five people, including eight Americans, were killed.
But then things changed.
Let's make a deal
As a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official told NBC News: “The U.S. government believed that the Saudis made a deal with the Iranians in 1996 after the Khobar Towers bombing. The deal was structured this way: The Saudis would not cooperate with the U.S. on the investigation, knowing that if they did cooperate, the U.S. would have the justification for bombing Iran.”
In return, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Iranians agreed not to support any terrorist attacks in the kingdom. (Ultimately, the United States charged Saudi Hezbollah members with the Khobar Towers attack and named as unindicted co-conspirators two officers of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence.)
“Then, in 2003, we are told, the Saudis — with U.S. and British help — discovered that al-Qaida's management council in Iran was communicating with the al-Qaida cell in Saudi that had carried out the attacks on Western compounds in Riyadh," the official said.
“The Saudis let the Iranians know and, citing the earlier agreement, demanded that the Iranians put a halt to the operations of the management council, leading to the Iranians putting the 20 to 25 al-Qaida officials in Iran under virtual house arrest,” the official said.
And that’s just what happened, say current U.S. officials. According to reports in the Arab media, they were rounded up and taken to two locations guarded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards: one in villas in the Namak Abrud region, near the town of Chalous on the Caspian coast, 60 miles north of Tehran, and the other in Lavizan, a region northwest of the capital that also houses a large military complex.
Publicly, all CIA Director Porter Goss will say is that Iran has “detained” al-Qaida elements.
“I don't have all of the information I would like to have,” he told Tom Brokaw. “But I think your understanding is that there is a group of leadership of al-Qaida under some type of detention — I don't know exactly what type, necessarily — in Iran is probably accurate. But I don't think I want to go too far into that — if you don't mind.”
Whether it was a quid pro quo with the Saudis is uncertain to this day, say U.S. officials, but it’s better that they are under some sort of control and not operating freely.
U.S. presses for information
The Iranians admit privately they have the al-Qaida officials and say they are “investigating” their activities. That does not impress Townsend.
“But the Iranians are not telling us who they have," she said. "They may be telling you and there may be things in their newspapers, but they're not telling us, and they were not talking about what, if anything, what progress, if any, has been made in terms of their investigation.”
Does the White House counterterrorism czar think there will be a trial of the al-Qaida officials anytime soon?
“No. I do not,” she said.
And does the United States have any kind of communication with Iran about the situation?
“I would refer you to the State Department,” Townsend said.
Isn’t that a matter that might go outside of channels?
“It could,” she said.
Talk of terrorist trade
In fact, says one former senior U.S. intelligence official, back-channel discussions have been a lot more concrete.
“The Iranians will not give you specific names, or at least they would never give us specific names. They would always duck the question,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In fact, he said, Iran first proposed the exchange of al-Qaida operatives for leaders of the group Mujahedeen E. Khalk who are under U.S. control in Iraq. The MEK has been on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations since 1998, when the Clinton administration was trying to open up lines of communications with Iran. The State Department blames the group for the killings of five Americans in the run-up to the Iranian revolution in 1979 and various murders and attacks on Iranian diplomats and civilians both inside and outside Iran.
In addition, Saddam Hussein had financed, trained and armed the MEK, even building the group a 5,000-man training facility in Fallujah (now being used by the U.S. Marines) and used them in the Iran-Iraq War and in cross-border attacks after the war.
“The exchange was never formally proposed, but several general offers were made through third parties, not all of them diplomatic,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“One reason nothing came of it was because we knew that there were parts of the U.S. government who didn't want to give them the MEK because they had other plans for them … like overthrowing the Iranian government.”
18 al-Qaida leaders reportedly in Iran
Even if there is no movement in U.S.-Iranian discussions, there have been indications over the past year of discussions between Arab states and Iran about the disposition of al-Qaida members in Iran.
There was a particularly intense and public flurry last summer, according to Sharq al-Awsat, the London-based Arab newspaper, which also reported that the total number of al-Qaida operatives in Iran was 348 and leaders 18.
In June, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi said his country had in the past given Saudi Arabia some useful information concerning members of bin Laden's network that it was detaining. He did not elaborate.
Sharq al Awsat also reported that Tehran handed over wanted Saudi militant Khaled bin Odeh bin Mohammed al-Harbi to Saudi authorities.
Syria weighs in
Riyadh believed the disabled militant, suspected of being an al-Qaida figure close to bin Laden, surrendered in mid-July under an amnesty after contacting the Saudi Embassy in Iran.
That reportedly followed a meeting at which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad convinced Tehran during a visit early this month of the "seriousness" of using al-Qaida elements in Iran as a card in its policy with the United States.
Most recently, there are reports in Iranian newspapers of the investigation proceeding and a comment by Saif a-Adel, the former military commander, in al-Quds, a radical London-based newspaper. Accompanying an article in which he praises Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was a note saying that al-Adel had “a lot of free time” to write.
That, say U.S. officials, is a good thing.
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