New York Times: A son of Osama bin Laden who spent years under Iranian house arrest has left Iran and is now probably operating inside Pakistan, a senior American intelligence official said Friday.
The New York Times
By MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT
Published: January 16, 2009
WASHINGTON — A son of Osama bin Laden who spent years under Iranian house arrest has left Iran and is now probably operating inside Pakistan, a senior American intelligence official said Friday.
The son, Saad bin Laden, is one of a number of senior operatives of Al Qaeda detained inside Iran in recent years. American officials have long puzzled over the exact circumstances of their captivity, but they believe that Iran was holding the militants in part as a deterrent against a Qaeda attack on Iranian soil.
Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told reporters on Friday that Saad bin Laden was probably in Pakistan. He gave no details about whether Mr. bin Laden had escaped from custody, whether his departure reflected a deal between Iran and Al Qaeda or whether he was simply let go by Iranian officials.
Mr. McConnell’s announcement came as the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Friday on Saad bin Laden and three other people believed to be Qaeda operatives and thought to be in Iran.
Mr. bin Laden’s move into Pakistan had been reported on militant Web sites and in some news reports last year, but Mr. McConnell was the first American official to publicly confirm that he was no longer in Iran.
Saad bin Laden is one of Osama bin Laden’s older sons and is believed by officials to have been captured in Iran while escaping Afghanistan after American troops invaded the country in 2001. In addition to Mr. bin Laden, the Iranians have also been holding Saif al-Adel, a Qaeda operations chief, under house arrest.
American counterterrorism officials said Friday that other members of the group besides Mr. bin Laden had left Iran, but gave no details. They said it was not clear whether Iran was providing assistance to Al Qaeda, which has used the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan as its most important base. Al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran has been rocky at best over the years. Its second-ranking official, Ayman al-Zawahri, accused Iran last September of collaborating with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The relationship is very complex — to describe them as being on the same team is a simplistic representation,” said an American counterterrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Some officials said that Iran had viewed the Qaeda operatives in their custody as bargaining chips. The Bush administration at various times tried to persuade the Iranian government to turn over the Qaeda operatives in its custody, but the overtures were rebuffed.
The sanctions announced Friday by the Treasury Department imposed a freeze on any financial assets the men held under United States jurisdiction. Stuart Levey, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement that the designations were aimed at “deterring would-be donors from providing financial support to terrorism and leaving Al Qaeda leadership struggling to identify much needed funding resources.”
But a former senior Treasury official, Matthew Levitt, said in a telephone interview that the designations were also meant “to demonstrate and expose Iran’s illicit cooperation” with Al Qaeda, by harboring Qaeda operatives under very loose house arrest arrangements.
The Treasury Department statement said Saad bin Laden, a Saudi citizen born in 1982, “has been involved in Al Qaeda activities” like helping Osama bin Laden’s family members to travel from Afghanistan to Iran. The statement said the younger Mr. bin Laden “was involved in managing the terrorist organization from Iran.”