| Osama bin Laden
Washington, Oct. 14: Saad bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden’s oldest sons, has emerged in recent months as part of the upper echelon of the al Qaida network, a small group of leaders that is managing the terrorist organisation from Iran, according to US, European and Arab officials.
Saad bin Laden and other senior al Qaida operatives were in contact with an al Qaida cell in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in the days immediately prior to the May12 suicide bombing there that left 35 people dead, including eight Americans, European and US intelligence sources say. The sources would not divulge the nature or contents of the communications, but the contacts have led them to conclude that the Riyadh attacks were planned in Iran and ordered from there.
Although Saad bin Laden is not the top leader of the terrorist group, his presence in the decision-making process demonstrates his father’s trust in him and an apparent desire to pass the mantle of leadership to a family member, according to terrorism analysts inside and outside of government.
Like other al Qaida leaders in Iran, the younger bin Laden, who is believed to be 24-years-old, is protected by an elite, radical Iranian security force loyal to the nation’s clerics and beyond the control of the central government, according to US and European intelligence officials.
The secretive unit, known as the Jerusalem Force, has restricted al Qaida’s movements to its bases, mostly along the border with Afghanistan.
Also under the Jerusalem Force’s protection is Saif al-Adel, al Qaida’s chief of military operations; Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, the organisation’s chief financial officer, and perhaps two dozen other top al Qaida leaders, the officials said. Al-Adel and Abdullah are considered the top operational deputies to Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, who communicate with underlings exclusively through couriers.
The presence of Saad bin Laden and other al Qaida leaders in Iran has become part of a debate within the governments of the US and Saudi Arabia over the best way to reduce Iranian support for terrorism.
US officials have sent stern warnings to the government of President Mohammad Khatami that Iran’s harbouring of senior al Qaida operatives would have repercussions for a nation the Bush administration has labelled part of the “axis of evil”. Intelligence officials believe that although the state department is eager to renew talks with Iran on a variety of issues, primarily its nuclear programme, it is not clear whether that nation’s civilian government could deliver its end of any bargain, especially if it entailed turning over al Qaida leaders.
“Iran will continue to pursue an asymmetric strategy in which they court Western acceptance, while maintaining their surrogate leadership roles within the Islamic extremist community,” a US intelligence analysis says.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia, which in recent years has tried to thaw relations with its larger and more powerful neighbour across the Persian Gulf, is trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade Iran to extradite Saad bin Laden and others suspected in the Riyadh bombing. Saudi officials estimate there are up to 400 al Qaida members there.
“Those people are in Iran and somebody must be helping them. The question is who'” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador, told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. “This is the problem with Iran. The people who we can deal with can’t deliver, they can’t lead eight ducks across the street. And the guys who can deliver, they’re not interested.”
As a child, Saad bin Laden was at his father’s side in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s when Osama bin Laden formed the al Qaida network. He is fluent in English and is computer-literate, two qualities rare among al Qaida leaders and assets that have enhanced his importance beyond his family name.