Al Qaeda may be operating in Iran: Washington
WASHINGTON: A handful of senior Al Qaeda operatives who fled to Iran after the Afghan war may have developed a working relationship with a secretive military unit linked to Iran’s religious hard-liners, American counterterrorism officials say.
The US government isn’t certain of the extent of the contacts with the Iranian unit, called the Qods Force, say the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The operatives include some of the most senior members of Al Qaeda who haven’t been captured or killed by the United States and its allies. Their presence in Iran, probably starting in late 2001 or early 2002, has confounded efforts to knock out the group’s remaining top operations chiefs.
But it is unclear whether Iran has them in custody or is letting them operate freely, according to US and allied intelligence services. The Bush administration has called for Iran to detain and hand them over. On Wednesday, President George W Bush said it would improve Iranian-US relations “If we end up reaching an agreement on the Al Qaeda that they hold.”
The men include Saif al-Adil, who is considered the No 3 man in Al Qaeda who is still at large. Another is one of Osama bin Laden’s eldest sons, Saad. Iranian officials have said they have some Al Qaeda operatives in custody and plan to turn them over to their home countries. Details are always slim.
US and Saudi officials suspect that the Al Qaeda operatives based in Iran coordinated the May bombings of housing complexes in Riyadh that killed 35, including nine bombers. Complicating matters is the divide between Iran’s religious and secular authorities. Officials from the secular government, represented by President Mohammad Khatami, say the government does not support Al Qaeda.
But the Qods Force _ Al Qaeda’s possible contact _ reports to religious authorities, not Khatami, US intelligence officials say. A Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also raised the possibility of rogue operations within the Iranian government, unknown to higher authorities.
All this adds up to US uncertainty. “Iran keeps sending out mixed signals” regarding Al Qaeda, said Stan Bedlington, a former terrorism analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. “It hasn’t really got its act together.” —APP