Saad bin Laden, a son of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, may have been killed in a U.S. airstrike, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The son was likely killed in Pakistan in the last several months, approximately in late spring, said a counterterrorism official, one of three Obama administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Though many in the intelligence community believe he is dead, they can't be 100 percent certain because no body or DNA evidence was recovered to prove it, one official said.
The U.S. has carried out more than 45 missile attacks with drones in Pakistan's border region since last August, most targeting foreign al-Qaida militants and those accused of violence in neighboring Afghanistan. Saad was not considered a heavy hitter in his father's organization and was not the target of the strike, but rather was killed during a strike intended for someone else, National Public Radio said, quoting unidentified officials.
Saad was born in 1982 and is one of 19 children Osama bin Laden is thought to have, officials have said.
Freeze on assets
The younger bin Laden was believed to have fled Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 that routed his father from safe haven there and overthrew the Taliban regime.
Officials have said he went to Iran and was held under a form of house arrest from 2003 to 2008, before turning up in Pakistan, where his father has reportedly been in hiding somewhere in the ungoverned border region near Afghanistan.
In January, the Treasury slapped financial sanctions on the younger bin Laden and three other al-Qaida figures. In announcing a freeze on their assets held under U.S. jurisdiction, Treasury also said that people from the United States would be barred from engaging in financial transactions with them.
Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence at the time, told a news conference that the move to Pakistan made Saad more vulnerable to being captured or killed by the U.S. or its allies.
"It is better in my world if they are in places that we have access," McConnell said. Pakistan is a U.S. ally in the struggle against Islamic extremists, while the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran.
U.S. officials note that there has been a split between those sons of bin Laden who have followed their father into al-Qaida and those who have chosen other paths.
At least one son, Omar, has traveled both roads, training with al-Qaida in Afghanistan until 2000, then leaving his father to become a contractor in Egypt. He has since tried to gain residency in the West. The bin Laden family has long been engaged in the building trades and Bin Laden Construction, founded by Osama's father, is one of the largest in the Middle East.
Two bin Laden sons have long been identified as al-Qaida fighters: Saad and Mohamed, the third- and sixth-oldest sons, according to U.S. officials. A third son, Hamza, is also believed to travel with his father and is trained as a fighter. Hamza is around 16. The oldest son, Abdullah, has nothing to do with his father, say the officials.
Saad worked with Khalid Shaik Mohamed and officials once said they believed he participated in the planning of the bombing of the Djerba synagogue in Tunisia in March 2002, killing 17 people, mostly German tourists, NBC News reported. He had been in Iranian custody, say U.S. officials, until last year, when he left and traveled to Pakistan.
The Iranians had claimed he and a number of other al-Qaida officials were grabbed by Iranian forces as they exited Afghanistan at the end of 2001. "They are in jail", one high-ranking Iranian diplomat told NBC News in 2006. The U.S. is uncertain of the conditions under which he and the others had been detained.